Comillas – the Cantabrian caprice of Gaudí

House in Comillas, Cantabria

Comillas is not one of those Spanish destinations that everyone dreams of visiting. Comillas is probably not even one of the places that you’ve somehow, accidentally, heard about. When we headed to this seaside town I did not expect much of it – a church in the centre, a few gorgeous views and some fresh breeze. It turned out that I have been completely mistaken. In a town, with a population of a bit over 2000, there were more architectural monuments than in some major cities. Our walk among the incredible villas covered in colourful flowers was a prelude to the sights from the Modernism period.

House in Comillas, Cantabria


Legends and history

In the past Comillas was a fishermen’s village. Its integral connection to the sea brought sustenance while also causing many to suffer. Storms have always been the biggest fear of all residents of seaside villages in the region of Cantabria. People often witnessed the immense waves devouring small fishermen’s boats just a few meters from the shore. Sadly, they could not do a thing. That is why many locals would pray to the saints and put their trust in the ring of the bells with the belief that their sound would calm the voracious sea. In the morning, when the storm had passed, stunning nymphs would come out of the crystal clear waters to dry fabrics they had woven from silver and gold. While waiting they would dance and with every step they made flowers would grow. Their blossoms would float in the air until they disappear like soap bubbles. If a man managed to catch one before it bursts, he would be happy all his life. And if, by any chance, he found a piece of the nymph’s clothes, the creatures would drag him to the bottom of the sea. There he could marry the most beautiful of them all. These legends of ravishing nymphs probably ceased all fear of storms so that fishermen could bravely venture into sea. They probably hoped to see one of these creatures. Captivated by the view from the lookout of Saint Lucia, we felt equally daring when heading around town.

The caprice of Gaudí

The caprice of Gaudí (El Capricho de Gaudí), Comillas, Cantabria

This is an unmatched house-palace built for the illustrious local lawyer Máximo Diaz de Quijano. That is one of the first buildings Gaudí has designed and one of the only three constructions he has outside Catalonia. He was only about 30 years old when he laid the basis of the Modernist architecture. His obsessive attention to detail that reaches its pinnacle in the well-known basilica “The Sagrada Familia”, can be noted even at this early stage. Gaudí carefully studies the character and lifestyle of Máximo so he could design a house that meets all needs of its owner. The house is like a sunflower that follows the path of the sun throughout the day. The day starts in the bedroom when the first rays of light would wake up the lawyer. Diaz de Quijano was known to be a womaniser and often went to bed with married women. That is why Gaudí designed blinds that would let in light without allowing curious peeking from outside.

The benches looking inwards. The caprice of Gaudí (El Capricho de Gaudí), Comillas, Cantabria

Máximo also loved to play the piano and there is a special premise devoted to this hobby of his. On the balcony of this hall there are benches. However, rather than facing towards the beautiful outside, they are looking inwards, where the pianist would be. For the music theme of this room Gaudí goes as far as designing unique windows that would give out a bell ring sound when you open and close them. The day ends with the colours of the sunrise at the dining and smoking room. The façade of the house is equally as impressive as the interior and it also has a number of symbols. There are five sunflower tile freezes that run around the whole building, acting as an allusion to a staff. The exterior is dominated by a peculiar tower from which the snug back garden can be enjoyed. Unfortunately, Máximo did not get a chance to fully enjoy his new home. He died shortly after it was finished. The palace is named “The caprice of Gaudí”  because the architect never came back to Comillas. He designed it on a whim and then abandoned it. 

The Sobrellano palace, Comillas, Cantabria

The Sobrellano palace is located near the caprice of Gaudí. It is a symmetric, Neo-Gothic building covered in stone lacing that reminds of Venetian style. The construction of the palace was commissioned by Antonio López, the first Marques of Comillas. This imposing  palace was constructed in the once poor neighbourhood where the Marques grew up. This building completes one of his childhood dreams. It is also a stately home where his good friend, kind Alfonso XII. It was the Spanish monarch who laid the first stone in 1881. The furniture inside is designed by Antoni Gaudí. The halls are bathed in light coming from the windows of colourfully stained glass or the exquisite chandeliers. Actually, the Sobrellano palace was the first building in Spain to ever use electric light.

The Pontificial University of Comillas

The Pontificial University of Comillas, Cantabria

From the gardens of the palace, situated on the top of a hill, you can marvel at the houses of Comillas nestled in the valley below. There is one more spectacular building on another nearby rise. Its red brick and ceramic façade beautifully contrasts the green grass carpet around it. There is an abundance of religious symbols and scenes as the university was founded to teach locals aspiring to be priests. Initially, with the blessing of Pope Pius X, there were courses of Theology, Philosophy and Canonic law. Nowadays, this is one of the best Spanish higher education institutions, offering a variety of degrees.

House in Comillas, Cantabria

House in Comillas, Cantabria

At the end of our monumental walk I could not help but wonder what drew some of the most distinguished Spanish artists, architects and sculptors to this small town. The answer has all to do with the first marques who made many efforts to develop Comillas. He was an initiative businessman, banker and philanthropist with an entrepreneurial mind. The generous Antonio López fully financed the university building. He also gave a loan to the Spanish government to back the war expenses in the Americas. Thanks to his merits he earned the Marques title and the highest distinction in the Spanish honours system. Sadly, he died before he could see completed his grandiose architectural projects. He surely would have been extremely proud with the flourishing Comillas. At the turn of the 19th century it that was one of the most loved resorts of the north of Spain. To this day the town has preserved some magic from the legends, some of the imagination of the great Gaudí and some of the love of Marques Antonio López. 


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