Specialist staff are employed by the city of Elche to maintain their Palm Grove to the highest standards all year round

A MAYO REVIEW: Memorable days in Costa Blanca and its many UNESCO delights

Thousands of Irish tourists, including hundreds from Mayo, visit the Costa Blanca region of Spain every year.

But relatively few would be aware of its remarkable status as the holder of a number of UNESCO site designations, all of which are key to attracting and maintaining high tourism numbers from throughout the world year in and year out.

The region is particularly proud of the creative coastal city of Dénia, which tantilises the senses with its culinary treasures from fresh seafood to a range of Spanish delicacies.

Then there’s Cova d’Or in Beniarrés, one of the most outstanding examples of Mediterranean rock art and declared a World Heritage Site in 1998.

And what can one say about picturesque Villajoyosa and its tapestry of colourful houses, not to mention its museum, Vilamuseu, that showcases the Roman first century wreck, Bou Ferrer, rich in history and folklore.

Since 2017 it has been part of the new UNESCO Register of Best Practices of Underwater Cultural Heritage, a sterling example of protection, research and dissemination.

The tourism industry has stepped up a significant notch in Spain in recent decades from the days of promoting its abundance of sun, sea and sand locations, although they do remain an important attraction.

My winter journey, courtesy of the Spanish Tourism Board in Dublin, started in the beautiful city of Elche, where its palm grove has held UNESCO World Heritage distinction since 2000 and visitors can enjoy this unique landscape along a 2,580-metre walk.

Located a short drive from Alicante Airport, Elche, with a population of 230,000, is the only place on the globe where artisan white palm production is kept vibrant.

The locals are very proud of this distinction and it’s hardly a surprise that fresh dates are central to many traditional dishes.

The Palm Grove Museum in the city centre stands as a testimony to over a century of dedication and welfare of the plant first brought to the region by the Romans.

The Huerto Del Cura Garden is the jewel in the crown of the city’s proud palm grove heritage, a place described as Elche’s ‘Central Park’ where visitors can stroll along the pathway and enjoy a wide selection of Mediterranean tropical plants.

UNESCO Heritage Site status is never bestowed without being richly merited and Elche certainly left no stone unturned to achieve it.

The city has also being awarded UNESCO culture recognition for its annual religious celebration of ‘The Mystery of Elche’.

On August 14 and 15 every year, it stages a sacred musical drama of the death, the Assumption and the coronation of the Virgin Mary in the Basilica of Santa Maria and on the streets of the city.

The tradition dates back to the discovery on December 29, 1370, of the image of the Virgin Mary inside a wooden arc in the nearby coastal town of Santa Pola.

The event survived many challenges over the centuries, including an attempted prohibition by a local bishop unimpressed by its popularity among the masses.

However, it received its crowning glory in 2001 when UNESCO described it as ‘a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.’

A video and commentary of the event is featured below.

Elche is also committed to preserving its Muslin past and Baroque traditions. A visit to the city’s historical quarter is a must for anybody passionate about Spain’s rich and fascinating heritage.

A few miles away, the stunning Behakuna Beach resort offers a welcome alternative option after a day exploring Elche’s many treasures.

However, an equally good option is a visit to Museo De Posol, a culture centre providing a revealing insight into Spanish life during the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

It includes displays of what homes, most notably the kitchen, bedroom and 'the parlour', looked like in former times when families were bigger and people were very skilful and making the best of what little they had in monetary terms.

The museum contains life-size displays of old school classrooms, a doctor’s dispensary, a farm yard with all its old tools and equipment, as well as an insight to the many past-times and hobbies which young and old enjoyed during the pre-TV and internet era.

I’m referring to comic books, homemade bows and arrows, catapults and knitting needles – all items with which people in Ireland who grew up during the decades in question will fondly remember.

The museum has also created, with impressive detail, a street from the past in which shops like a green grocers, barbers, chemist and shoemakers operated side by side in a busy town centre.

It reminded me of old times on Main Street, Ellison Street and Castle Street in Castlebar.

Like most provincial towns in Ireland, communities in Spain have also witnessed the demise of many small, family-run businesses due to the rise of multinational chains that can sell their products much cheaper, albeit not with the same personality, colour, character or charisma.

The death of the traditional corner store is not unique to Ireland, yet the importance of preserving their memory cannot be underestimated when it comes to educating the new generation.

Interestingly, a primary school is located within the museum’s walls and the pupils are encouraged to give talks about their local heritage to their peers from other towns.

This factor was also recognised by UNESCO when awarding World Heritage Site status to Elche, a point from which those involved in promoting Irish tourism could learn.

Next on my agenda was a visit to the salt mines and eye-catching pink lake in Torrevieja, a city where many Mayo people have houses and apartments. It is the only location in Europe where floating machines are used for salt extraction.

The salt mountains can rise up to 20 metres as 880,000 tones of salt are processed annually. It has a wide range of uses, including spreading on Irish roads ahead of a night of frost.

A little train runs through the site a number of times a day carrying tourists, who seem to enjoy the wide range of photograph opportunities the location presents.

This is another example of Spain’s new style of tourism, giving visitors a taste of what they would not normally experience - and it seems to be working very well.

The Costa Blanca region is also proud of its wide range of easy access beaches where holidaymakers like to spend a large proportion of the day.

A visit to a resort known as La Marina proved a lovely spot for a pleasant walk and swim while people back in Ireland were experiencing sub-zero temperatures.

Those who enjoy spending time viewing Spain’s wide range of Gothic churches would be well served by visiting the town of Orihuela, which boasts an imposing cathedral dating back to the 13th century and which has an amazing ornamental Boroque organ from the Renaissance period.

By walking a further 150 metres along the same narrow street is the Church of Saints Justa and Rufina with its magnificent, square-shaped tower.

There is a little shop on the same street that sells the best of Spanish wines and also pours a glass of their finest white or red for those wishing to savour and enjoy the hospitality of a bustling, beautiful region.

Spain, you simply cannot beat it.