The coastal town of Comillas can be found in the north on the map of Spain – at the Bay of Biscay, just 50 km west of Santander, the capital of Cantabria. It used to be a village that survived thanks to agriculture and a small port. Fishermen went whaling from here. Apart from the village square with the church and the town hall, there were only a few baroque houses.
So how is it possible that this village became a place where the Spanish royal family spent their long summer stays?
In the 19th century, there was a strong wave of emigration in Cantabria. Many went to America to seek their fortunes. And some actually found it! They returned home, were nicknamed “Indianos,” and demonstrated their success by building luxurious, striking houses. Some of them even hired important architects, and so the unique architecture of which the town is still proud was created here. Comillas is also known as the cradle of Catalan modernity.
Antonio López y López was born in Comillas in 1817. He was only 14 when he left to seek his fortune in Cuba. After his return, he married the daughter of a Catalan businessman, and with the money he had earned, the wealth from the marriage and his business talent, he started various lucrative activities. He founded a shipping company, a bank and also a tobacco company. He may have traded in slaves, but there is no document to prove this. He soon became one of the richest men in Spain at that time. His shipping company became an ally of the government in the war campaigns in Africa and Cuba, which resulted in a friendly relationship with King Alfonso XII. who awarded Antonio the title of “Marquis of Comillas” in 1878.
Although the first Marquis of Comillas spent his life in Barcelona, he did not forget his hometown. He invested a lot into the town and built not only his palace but also a university. He also popularized this place as a great destination to stay by the sea. First, he invited the king, who liked it so much that he spent the summer here with his family, and of course, it attracted other nobles and the rich bourgeoisie. Thus, the insignificant point on the map became a popular place for summer fun of the upper classes. Although the south of Spain and the islands started to be more preferred in the second half of the 20th century, interesting buildings and monuments still attract many domestic and foreign visitors to Comillas. So which ones are worth seeing?
1. Palace of Sobrellano
In order for Antonio López and the local elite of his closest friends to present their achievements in the best possible way, they invited the best Catalan architects and artists who also had the opportunity to try out a new architectural style.
Antonio López built his palace on the hill, from where he had a good view of the city. The sumptuous palace was designed by Joan Martorell. The neo-Gothic construction began in 1881.
The interiors are decorated with original furniture – do not forget to notice the dragon on one fireplace – a decoration created by Gaudí (we will hear more about this famous architect) as well as various details, again reminiscent of a successful business, such as a motif of a steering wheel on a wooden handle.
The foundation stone for the construction of the palace was laid by Alfonso XII. The royal visit in 1881 is also commemorated by a large mural in the main salon – the Naval Parade in Comillas. Other paintings depict volunteers boarding a Marquis’ ship heading for the war in Cuba, the consecration of a chapel adjacent to the palace and the founding of the university. The author of the paintings is Eduard Llorens i Masdeu.
A beautiful white marble staircase leads to the first floor with bedrooms. I recommend tilting your head and noticing the ceiling.
Antonio López had perfectly prepared for the king’s visit in 1881 – not only did he have parks and gardens remodelled, he built temporary buildings to welcome the king (the triumphal arch and an oriental-style pavilion – again Gaudí!) and also organized a test tour of various technical conveniences before the preparation of the World’s Fair in Barcelona (1888). Thanks to this, Comillas has become the first place in Spain with electric light! Sadly, Antonio López did not live to see the inauguration of the building in 1888. Neither did his friend, King Alfonso XII. (he was only 27 years old when he died). The palace was inherited by Antonio’s son Claudio López Bru, second Marquis of Comillas.
Practical information, ticket prices and opening hours can be found at Sobrellano
Tickets can also be purchased online. I visited the palace in the pandemic year 2021 and even then there was quite a long line at the box office.
2. Chapel – Pantheon
Right next to the palace, there is a building which, especially thanks to its slender tower, resembles a smaller cathedral. This chapel is also the work of Joan Martorell. It is actually the family mausoleum of Antonio López, the first Marquises of Comillas are buried here. You can admire the beautiful altar and stained glass windows. Some pieces of interior design – a chair, a bench and two kneeling benches were designed by Gaudí.
Tickets are bought at the palace.
3. El Capricho
I have to admit that at first, I didn’t know what to think about this building. After visiting the palace and chapel, it felt like another world. It is as if built by small children who chose their favorite color elements from the children’s kit and glued them together. However, the sky began to brighten and it seemed to me that the sun rejoiced in this cheerfully colored house, and the more I walked around it, the more I admired the inventiveness and creativity of its architect. That architect was the famous Antoni Gaudí, as well.
In fact, Gaudí was not famous at that time. Martorell recognized the talent of his protégé, which was already evident in the design of the pavilion before the king’s visit. This is how the hopeful, then only a 29-year-old architect became so well known to the social elite in Comillas. So it is no wonder that he was recommended to another “Indiano” who had become rich in Cuba and decided to build his house in Comillas. His name was Máximo Díaz de Quijano and his two passions were nature and music. Although the future owner of this remarkable building never met Gaudí in person, the talented architect perfectly incorporated elements into the building, symbolizing both Quijan ‘s hobbies (violin keys on a metal railing, natural motifs on the windows, ceramic sunflowers and leaves, etc.)
I think that the building corresponds exactly to its nickname, derived from the term capriccio, used to describe a capricious composition with considerable virtuosic demands. El Capricho was built in 1883-85. It belongs to the architect’s orientalist period and is actually one of few Gaudí’s buildings outside Catalonia.
The interior is designed in accordance with the movement of the sun across the sky – the rooms in the eastern part were used for morning activities, while the evening activities were concentrated in the western part – that’s why I think the sunflower motif on the facade – a flower that turns to the sun – was not chosen by chance.
The winter garden, the center of the private sphere, played an important role in the house. Not only did it present the owner’s special fondness for exotic artifacts and tropical plants (as it was typical for wealthy Indianos), but it was also the brightest space in the building which captured the heat during the day to pass it on to the rest of the rooms at night.
The observation tower, reminiscent of a minaret, rests on thin iron bars, but is actually supported by stone pillars at the main entrance. The four pillars are oriented to the four corners of the world, they are decorated with palm twigs and birds.
They say you can see the sea from the tower. However, Quijano had not been able to enjoy the view. He died a year before the house was finished. It was inherited by Betina, Quijan’s sister, married to Claudio, the brother of Antonio López, first Marquis of Comillas. This couple is also depicted during the naval parade on the mural we saw previously in the palace of Sobrellano.
Betina’s descendants had owned the villa until 1977. The businessman who bought it set up a restaurant here – I cannot and I do not even want to imagine it! It was not until 2009 that the building was restored to its original condition and opened as a museum. There is also a small shop with souvenirs and beautiful ceramics, you can e.g. buy tiles with sunflowers or green leaves. Unfortunately, when I was there, all the sunflowers were hopelessly sold out…
Practical information for visiting: El Capricho
4. Pontifical University
When I stood on the terrace of the Sobrellano Palace, a magnificent view of the Comillas spread in front of me. On the opposite hill of La Cardosa, another building stands out, which had been built by the first Marquis Antonio López as well.
He had been working on the idea of building a seminary for the poor since 1881, but it was his son who completed it. The ceremony of laying the foundation stone of the future university in May 1883 can also be seen on one of the murals in the palace. The building in the modernist neo-Gothic-Mudejar style was designed again by Joan Martorell, the decoration is the work of Catalan architect Lluis Doménech i Montaner. Typical of Mudejár architecture is that it uses bricks as a decorative element.
In 1904, Pope Pius X granted the seminary the right to honor students with academic degrees and doctorates, turning the seminary into a Pontifical University. Although it later moved to Madrid, the Ciese-Comillas University Center remained in Comillas.
5. Old Town
Since we have already seen the largest and most famous buildings in Comillas, it is time to take a walk around the center of the town. At the main square Plaza de la Constitución, there is the Old Town Hall, built on the ruins of the hermitage of St. John. The Baroque façade is decorated with five shields, reminiscent of the five archbishops who were all born in Comillas. There is also a small bell on the roof of the building, but it remained silent; I don’t know on what occasions it rings.
The shields of aristocratic families that once lived here can be admired on other houses as well. At a relatively busy crossroad, there is the Casa Ocejo house (recognizable by its red façade on the front). It was bought by Marquis Antonio López for his mother. He also hosted the king here. What’s more, on May 5, 1881, Alfonzo XII. convened the Council of Ministers into the house, and so the locals boast that Comillas had become the capital of Spain at that time, albeit for only one day.
6. Church of San Cristóbal
Another monument that cannot be overlooked – especially thanks to its 30 m high tower – is the church of San Cristóbal with an interesting story. Originally, there was another church in the town where the Duke of El Infantado had a pew reserved for him. However, an old woman sat on his pew once. The duke made a big fuss, the believers from Comillas were offended, they said they were as noble as he was! They swore that they would never enter this church again and would rather build a new one. They raised money for it and saved one day a week for the construction work. The construction took a long time, but the church still stands today and no one is arguing over the pews.
7. Fountain of the Three Whistles
While walking through the town, I also noticed an interesting fountain Fuente de los Tres Caños (Fountain of the Three Whistles). It was built at the request of Marquis Antonio López in honor of his son-in-law Joaquin del Piélago, who financed the regulation of water in the city. It was designed by the already mentioned architect Lluis Doménech i Montaner in 1889.
Arriving in Comillas by car, I noticed a strange cemetery on the hill. Although I had already had a hard day of walking and exploring, I decided pay a visit to this place as well. Well, I have to say that it was not very close to the center (but not too far, either). At the beginning, the road was lined with houses, which after a while gave way to lush vegetation, in which the tall stalks of pampas grass (Cortaderia) stood out. Once, it didn’t use to grow here. When dictator Franco was in isolation, he asked other dictators for help. A seed of this grass probably wandered into one of the ships bringing aid from Argentina. It found its new home here and spread very quickly. I have seen this grass in many places in Cantabria, even along the highway.
A special atmosphere always prevails in cemeteries. You will feel it as soon as you cross the massive entrance portal with a metal gate. From the wall of the old church (the original one, where the confrontation because of an occupied pew happened), the devoted Guardian Angel looks at you with a sword in his right hand. The marble statue by Josep Llimon was originally intended for the private mausoleum, but Marquis Antonio López decided to give the angel to the people of his town to guard their souls.
The rich colors of the hydrangeas contrasted sharply with the gray sky and the gray tombstones, the breeze rustled among the old tombs, flowers withered on some graves, empty square holes yawned in the vertical stone wall… You have to walk here and think about the transience of being…
I recently returned to this cemetery with Antonio Banderas in the film Altamira.
9. Casa Duque
From the cemetery, there is a good view of the Casa Duque – House of the Duke of Almodóvar del Rio (not the one who was angry at the old woman occupying his pew in the church) in English style, which represents the architectural taste of the Great Bourgeoisie. However, this object is not accessible to the public.
10. Marquis’s monument
Not far from the cemetery, there is a modernist monument, built in 1890 according to the design of architect Montaner in honor of Antonio López, the first Marquis of Comillas. The pedestal in the shape of a ship’s prow refers to the maritime past of this famous native who has greatly contributed to the expansion of his birthplace.
I walked slowly to the sea. Evening was approaching, the last of the tourists were leaving the beach. I was standing on the shore and was a little sad that again, I didn’t have time to swim in the sea. The beach with fine golden sand is 1 km long, offers all kinds of services and a pleasant promenade. Both Alfonso XII and Alfonso XIII used to spend the summer months here and even today, the local coast is one of the most popular summer destinations. So maybe next time…
Where to stay: I spent the night at the ABBA Hotel. This hotel is comfortable with good service, but I would recommend it especially to golf lovers as it is located right next to the golf course. The view from the room was also on the greenery and even the sea, a flock of sheep was grazing in the distance.
However, it was a 15-20 minute walk to the town and plus 5 minutes more to the beach. Comillas is a hilly town and I must admit that at the end of my sightseeing tour, I could not imagine myself walking all the way back to the hotel on top of the hill. I was looking for a taxi in vain. Finally, I accidentally noticed one near the Old Town Hall, but the car was without a driver. I decided to wait, even if it took forever. A young driver appeared in about 15 minutes, spoke English, and when I told him that I had seen not only Comillas that day, but also the town of Santillana del Mar and Altamira Cave, he was no longer surprised that I wanted to take a taxi to the hotel. For 4 €, I saved my feet and time. Well, when at 9:00 p.m. I came to the hotel restaurant for dinner, I was still the first one… 🙂 I was rewarded with an excellent ABBA salad – named after the hotel – made of shrimp and crab meat.
Where to eat: I was invited to the Parrilla El Galeón De Rubarcena restaurant for lunch. There were a lot of locals, the workers at the table were enjoying paella. The ship in the logo inspired me to order some seafood. I chose calamari, which is typical for this region, and lemon mousse. It all tasted very good and the staff was very friendly. I can absolutely recommend this restaurant to you as well.
Altamira’s 2016 film with Antonio Banderas in the lead role is definitely worth watching. Not only because you will visit the cemetery in Comillas, but you will also learn about the discovery of the cave with beautiful Paleolithic paintings and stroll through the streets of Santillana del Mar.
You can read about these places in my articles as well: