The most famous church in Spain has to be the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, right? OK, so Sevilla and Cordoba cathedrals might argue the point, but Gaudí’s modernist masterpiece is top of everyone’s must-see list.
So what’s that got to do with Alicante?
Half an hour’s drive inland, just outside the town of Novelda, you’ll find a remarkable church which is almost a mini-Sagrada. Yes, it’s a fraction of the size of the real thing, but you can almost imagine Gaudí practising on this before trading up to the Sagrada Familia.
He didn’t of course. The Santuario de Maria Magdalena was built by a local Novelda man, José Sala Sala. He wasn’t even an architect – he was an engineer by trade – but he was certainly heavily influenced by Gaudí and the modernist movement.
And his project, unlike the Sagrada Familia, is actually finished. Though it did take nearly 30 years or so from start of work in 1918 to finish in 1946.
It’s an astonishing piece of work, sitting on a high crag just north of Novelda, dominating this part of the Vinalopó valley. The Muslims realised the importance of this lofty perch many centuries before José Sala and built a castle up there – the towers and surrounding ruins of Castillo La Mola lie next door to the Santuario.
The church is built from roughly hewn stone – there’s none of the smoothly polished façade that you see on most Spanish churches. It’s partly this texture that gives the Santuario its Gaudí-esque look.
Stone is what they do around here. Marble quarries are the main driver of Novelda’s economy and you can see huge square blocks of the stuff lying waiting to be cut and polished outside factories all around the town.
Pretty much everything in the Santuario is stone – from the 25 metre high twin towers to part of the church organ inside – though there are some modernist ceramics and small pebbles set into the stonework which all enhance the Gaudí look.
The floor plan is based on the shape of the pot which Saint Mary Magdalene – the patron saint of Novelda – used to anoint the feet of Christ.
Entrance is free and it’s easy to park nearby. The Santuario is just a short stroll up the hill.
Modernism fans should also drop by the Casa Museo Modernista in Novelda itself on Carrer Major. Built at the turn of the twentieth century, it has an impressive staircase and some beautiful modernist touches. Open 1000-1345.
And the other tourist attraction around here is castles. There are more than you can shake a stick at, most of them built to dominate the fertile valleys and the route from Madrid to the coast. The most impressive are in Villena, Sax, Biar and Castalla. Try this route along the Vinalopó which takes in some of the best.
© Guy Pelham 2018