‘It’s a real treasure’: Petra lookalike church draws crowds to Spanish town

<span>Photograph: Farutxo/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Farutxo/Shutterstock

Despite bearing more than a passing resemblance to the sandstone splendour of the treasury in the ancient Jordanian city of Petra, the church of St Mary, which lies in the small and fog-wreathed northern Spanish town of Gumiel de Izán, is a little short on camels, Nabataean relics and sweeping desert vistas.

What it does have, however, is the perfect proportions of a mini-cathedral, a spectacular polychromatic altarpiece, six centuries of history – and a newfound fame thanks to its more celebrated architectural lookalike.

In the two months since a National Geographic article noting the similarity between the two monuments went viral, Gumiel de Izán (population 600) has found itself flooded with around 10,000 visitors. Before the Petra comparisons put Gumiel on the map, Holy Week would draw around 400 visitors, and a busy July and August another 1,450. But last week’s three-day bank holiday alone brought more than 3,000 people to its old and narrow streets, much to the delight of residents and business owners.

For some tourists, the appeal lies in the unlikely twinning; for others, in the discovery of a medieval jewel hidden in plain sight just off the motorway an hour and a half’s drive north from Madrid.

Gumiel’s mayor, Jesús Briones – who was an altarboy at St Mary’s before becoming a professional footballer and then a local politician – is still processing the sudden change in his home town’s status.

“We knew we had a good, collegiate church with an amazing altarpiece, but we never imagined any of this – never,” he said as he took a break between tours of the church, which was built between the early 15th and 17th centuries.

“It’s all just exploded: the streets are full of people who are having a coffee or buying a loaf of bread or some little cakes.”

By midday on a cold December Thursday, a dozen people from as far afield as Barcelona, Valladolid, Navarra and Guadalajara were queueing up for the first tour of the day. Briones and nine other volunteers, including the parish priest, are taking turns as guides. If things continued like this, said the mayor, they would have to employ a permanent guide. The church has already started asking visitors for a voluntary donation of €2.

“The number of people coming since the article came out and was picked up by other media is just insane,” said Briones. “We’re just flabbergasted at all this talk of our own Petra.”

While he is thrilled at the church’s belated recognition – and happily acknowledges the Petra likeness – the mayor is keen that people look beyond St Mary’s baroque facade and explore its gothic interior.

As well as the high, vaulted ceiling, various chapels, an imposing, century-old organ that needs €100,000 (£86,000) of restoration, a choir and an articulated statue of the crucified Christ, the church holds a large and beautifully decorated 16th-century retablo, or altarpiece, whose panels tell the story of Jesus from birth to Passion.

According to local legend, the turbaned, bespectacled figure who appears in a temple scene is a self-portrait by the altarpiece’s still unknown creator.

Manuel Rivera, who had travelled up from Guadalajara, was delighted to find that St Mary’s lived up to the hype.

“I saw the whole Petra thing in the media but I had no idea what was inside,” he said. “It’s a real treasure and it’s all original.”

Felisa Hernández, who had come from Valladolid with her husband and two friends, had been planning a visit even before things went viral. They had been anxious to get to the church before things got too busy.

“We were going to come anyway, but it really is so beautiful,” she said. “It’s amazing the things you can find hidden away.”

Although Gumiel is still basking in its unexpected celebrity – and discussions are being held about the possibility of opening a restaurant to cater to visitors and showcase regional food and wine – Briones is taking nothing for granted. Like so much of rural Spain, this north-eastern corner of Castilla y León has fallen prey to depopulation as changing demographics and challenging economics cause entire towns and villages to wither and die. The creep of la España vaciada, or the hollowed-out Spain, is never too distant.

“Gumiel still has 600 people, but there are towns nearby that are disappearing because they only have 10 inhabitants,” said the mayor. “They have to come here to shop or to have a glass of wine.”

Even if much of the town’s survival is down to the enduring power of the regional wine industry – including the Norman Foster-designed bodega on the outskirts of Gumiel – and the presence of the big local factories, all the excited chatter about “the Spanish Petra” can only help matters.

“Depopulation is a really sad thing and we’d be delighted if this helped reverse it,” said Briones. “We hope this carries on and that it’s not just a fleeting boom.”

As the early afternoon sun burned away the last of the fog and tourists posed for selfies in front of the now-famous facade, one local woman paused in the church plaza to sum up the welcome madness of the past two months.

“That church has always been here and it’s always been a treasure,” she said. “We’ve always known that but it’s great that other people are coming to realise it, too.”