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

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

Comillas, Cantabria
Comillas was once the capital of Spain for a day. Photo: Nacho Castejón Martínez / Flickr

Madrid has been Spain’s capital since 1561 – and there was one day during the last 460 years when it wasn’t.

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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Following the Dalí trail around Spain’s Costa Brava

Catalonia-based travel writer Esme Fox embarks on a voyage into the mind of Salvador Dalí, visiting various locations and landmarks that the Spanish surrealist created or made his own around Spain's Costa Brava.

Following the Dalí trail around Spain's Costa Brava

Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí is perhaps one of Spain’s most famous and loved 20th-century artists. He is known for his quirky images of melting clocks, elephants with long spindly legs and the portraits of his wife, Gala.

Dalí was born in the town of Figueres in 1904, which is located in northern Catalonia, approximately 50km north of the city of Girona. This is the best place to begin your Dalí tour of the region.

Figueres Day 1  

Arriving in Figueres your first stop should be the Salvador Dalí Theatre-Museum, this is where some of the artist’s most important works are held. The museum was in fact created by Dalí himself when he was still alive and was inaugurated in 1974. It’s housed in an old theatre, hence the name. Everything in it was designed by Dalí to offer visitors a real experience and draw them into his world.

It’s eye-catching even from the outside – pink in colour and studded with yellow plaster croissants, and on the walls sit golden statues and his iconic large white eggs – a symbol which you’ll see repeated on your journey.

Salvador Dalí Theatre Museum in Figueres. Photo: Julia Casado / Pixabay

The museum is filled with 1,500 pieces including his sketches, paintings and sculptures. It also houses the remains of Dalí himself, down in the crypt, where you can pay your respects to the artist.

Next door to the museum is a permanent exhibition dedicated to the exquisite jewellery Dalí designed, which shouldn’t be missed. 

Afterward, you can go and see the house where Dalí was born at number 6 on Carrer Monturiol. It’s not currently an attraction, however there are renovation works underway to turn it into a new museum about the artist’s childhood. It was due to open in 2020, but there were significant delays because of the pandemic and it is still nowhere near finished.

Spend the night at the Hotel Duran, where Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala in fact lived while they were renovating the theatre. The hotel restaurant even has a special Dalí room, filled with images of Dalí and all his friends, as well as objects belonging to the artist.

Cadaqués Days 2 and 3

After a winding and hairpin turn journey west, you’ll find yourself at one of the eastern-most points in Spain – the town of Cadaqués. One of the most attractive towns on the Costa Brava, its white-washed buildings gleam against the cerulean blue bay and pink bougainvillea decorates its tiny interior cobbled streets.

In summer in particular, this place gets very busy, so make sure you’ve booked well in advance for your accommodation.

Dalí loved this area in summer too and built his summer house in the tiny neighbouring village of Portlligat. The house is now a museum, but as it’s quite small, booking tickets several weeks or even months ahead of time is essential.

Dalí’s house in Portlligat. Photo: Esme Fox

Dalí designed the house himself, which was created from several fisherman’s cottages joined together and is topped with his iconic white eggs.

Inside, you’ll see the artist’s studio, where many of his most famous works were created, including two unfinished pieces which still sit on the easels. You can also see Dalí and Gala’s bedroom where they kept canaries to wake them up in the morning and crickets to send them off to sleep at night. There’s also an angled mirror ready to catch the sun, ensuring that Dalí was one of the first people in the whole of Spain to see the sunrise each morning.

The highlight of the visit however is the vast garden, which even features a replica of the lion fountain in Granada’s Alhambra palace as well as his famous sofa in the shape of a pair of pink lips. The views from the top part of his garden above the olive grove are so stunning that it’s no wonder Dalí was inspired by the landscapes here.

There’s a replica of Alhambra’s lion fountain in Dalí’s garden. Photo: Esme Fox

On your second day in Cadaqués, head north to Paratge de Tudela located in the Cap de Creus Natural Park. You’ll need a car or taxi to get here. Here, you can hike among the very same landscape that Dalí painted in some of his most celebrated works. Look carefully or take a tour to see the same rock formations featured in his paintings.

For dinner, book a table at El Barroco, a traditional Lebanese restaurant and one of Dalí’s favourites when he lived there. He ate there at least twice a week in summer and it’s said that whenever he had famous guests he would meet them there instead of inviting them into his home. Dalí’s face adorns the door and inside it’s just as surreal with colourful plants, quirky statues and mirrors hanging in the courtyard. And inside it’s like a museum itself, filled with glass cases of bizarre objects and old musical instruments. There are even some photos of Dalí and Gala.

Book a table at El Barroco in Cadaqués. Photo: Esme Fox

Day 4

Make your way 60km south of Cadaques to the tiny charming villages of inland Costa Brava and specifically the village of Púbol. It’s here that Dalí bought an old castle in 1969 and renovated it from 1982 to 1984 for his wife Gala to live in.

Although the castle dates back to the 12th century, Dalí modernised it and added his creative and whimsical touches. It was a kind of love letter to his wife.

Dalí said of the castle: “Everything celebrates the cult of Gala, even the round room, with its perfect echo that crowns the building as a whole and which is like a dome of this Galactic cathedral… I needed to offer Gala a case more solemnly worthy of our love. That is why I gave her a mansion built on the remains of a 12th-century castle: the old castle of Púbol in La Bisbal, where she would reign like an absolute sovereign, right up to the point that I could visit her only by hand-written invitation from her. I limited myself to the pleasure of decorating her ceilings so that when she raised her eyes, she would always find me in her sky”.

Visit Gala’s castle in Púbol. Photo: Enric / WikiCommons

When Gala died in 1982, the castle became her mausoleum and she is still buried there today.

The castle is now a museum where you can tour each of the grand rooms, serene gardens, as well as spot Dalí’s whacky touches. Gala for example asked Dalí to cover up the radiators because she didn’t like to look at them, so as a joke, Dalí covered them with paintings of yet more radiators. 

Day four completes your Dalí trail around the Costa Brava. Go ahead and immerse yourself in the whimsical world of Dalí.