The small coastal town that was Spain's capital for a day

Esme Fox
Esme Fox - [email protected]
The small coastal town that was Spain's capital for a day
Comillas was once the capital of Spain for a day. Photo: Nacho Castejón Martínez / Flickr

A small upmarket town on the Cantabrian coastline was the Spanish capital for one day in 1881, changing its future forever.


Madrid hasn't always been Spain’s capital - there were in fact many times throughout history when it wasn't. But once it only transferred away from Madrid for one day. 

The title didn’t go to the likes of Barcelona, Valencia or Seville.

No, it was handed over to the small town of Comillas on the Cantabrian coast – a ''pueblo' that many in Spain might have not even heard of.

Comillas is situated just west of the capital of the Cantabrian region, Santander and is home to just over 2,100 inhabitants, hardly worthy of the title of capital, right?


Why did Comillas become Spain's capital?

In the summer of 1881, Comillas's 1st Marquess (a marqués is a member of Spanish nobility below a duke but above a count) Antonio López y López, who made his fortune trading slaves and tobacco in Latin America, invited King Alfonso XII of Spain to come and stay with him in his charming Casa Ocejo.

For months beforehand, López had ensured that the property was fit for royalty by calling in many artists and architects from Catalonia, who at the time were known for their incredible modernista constructions.

statue of Marqués de Comillas Antonio López

Statue of Marqués de Comillas Antonio López. Public Domain/ WikiCommons

One of these was Antoni Gaudí, considered by many to be Catalonia’s greatest architect, but at the time unknown. Some sources say the brains behind Barcelona's unfinished Sagrada Familia was brought in to design the chimney and the living room of López's palatial property, others claim it was to set up a smokers' kiosk in the garden.

READ ALSO: Five Gaudí gems you’ve probably never heard of

When King Alfonso and his royal family arrived in Comillas at night, 30 lanterns lit their path across the town to the 1st Marquess's abode.

But these were not ordinary gas-lit street lights; they were Edison's first electric light bulbs on Spanish soil, making Comillas the first town in Spain to have electric street lamps - the town's other claim to fame.


And so on August 6th 1881, King Alfonso presided over Spain's Council of Ministers at Lopez's palace, attended by the president of Spain's Council and important generals of the time Pavía and Martínez Campos.

This meeting of Spain's political rulers outside Madrid effectively made Comillas Spain's de facto capital for one day.

Yes, it's a stretch, but the accolade is a source of pride for the Town Hall of Comillas to this day, and it's not the first time it's happened in history either. The city of Allahabad (now Prayagraj) in Utter Pradesh became capital of India for a day when the administration of the country was handed over by the East India Company to the British Monarchy in the city.

King Alfonso XII of Spain

King Alfonso XII of Spain painted by Federico de Madrazo y Kuntz

How did this change the future of Comillas?

The King repeated his visit to the town the following year in July, and while Comillas may have only remained the capital for that one day in 1881, these royal visits cemented its popularity among Spain's elite, even to this day.

Many other wealthy nobles and aristocrats followed López's example and had their own grandiose mansions built in Comillas, most of which are still standing today. 

One of these was the magnificent Sobrellano Palace, also commissioned by López and which was used as his summer home. Another of these was El Duque, an English-style mansion constructed between 1899 and 1902.

But the most famous mansion to be built in Comillas was El Capricho, designed by none other than Antoni Gaudí again, as a summer home for the Marqués’ sister-in-law’s brother.

El Capricho de Gaudí

El Capricho de Gaudí in Comillas. Photo: Tirithel / WikiCommons

Made from red brick, it’s covered in small green and yellow ceramic blocks, which from afar, look not unlike pieces of lego stuck onto its surface. Up close they are of course rows of bright lemon-coloured sunflowers and green leaves.

Visiting Comillas today

Since this time, Comillas has been a favourite holiday destination of the Spanish royals and nobility, attracted because of its quiet nature, seaside location and grand mansions. 

For a relatively small town, Comillas has more than its fair share of incredible architectural feats, many of which can still be visited today.

Add this to its stunning coastal location and delicious seafood, and you'll soon see why it's worth a visit. 


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