You won't often hear me say it, but thank goodness for tourist offices. On our first visit to Comillas twenty-five years ago, my wife and I missed most of the best things it has to offer, and we might have done so again this year if we hadn't idly dropped into the tourist office attached to the town hall.
Twenty-five years ago we could plead mitigating circumstances; we had two small boys in tow, or rather they had us in tow, and their main ambition was to play on the beach. Indeed, the only reason we decided to stay in Comillas on that occasion was because we happened upon the Hotel Josein, which has its own access to an eminently playable beach without the need to cross any road or promenade. The high point of the holiday, from the boys' viewpoint at least, was finding a dead octopus in one of the rock pools in the shadow of the hotel; anything away from the sea was of little interest to them. Apart from sometimes going out to eat in the evening we hardly saw the town at all.
This year, we had no such excuse for our ignorance, but returned to Comillas for much the same reason despite being boy-free, to give ourselves a few days of seaside relaxation before we set off to explore Spain further west: Asturias and Galicia. As a jumping-off point for such an exploration, Comillas is ideally situated, on the coast of the Bay of Biscay just fifty kilometres west of the port of Santander to which ferry had delivered us. Then we stopped by the tourist office and discovered that the town had much worth seeing in its own right.
* On the beach *
Since Comillas is a holiday resort, beside the sea is still the place to start. Historically, the town was primarily a fishing port, and the tiny, picturesque harbour still shows signs of use, but is no longer the focal point even of the seafront area. To the east of the harbour lies a bay in which the main beach stretches for perhaps 400 metres before giving way first to rocky outcrops and then to limestone cliffs that form a headland curving out to sea.
The beach itself is of fine sand, but there are semi-submerged rocks just offshore that can pose a hazard to swimmers at low tide. Any strong wind from the north will send the breakers crashing onto the rocks, and the currents can be unpredictable. My wife, being intrepid in such matters, swam, but I decided that laziness was the better part of valour and was content to guard her towel. In fact we saw few actual swimmers, though many splashers in the surf, sun-bathers, sand-castle-builders and others indulging in traditional beach activities, particularly walking up and down the shoreline just above the waves, which seems to be a local custom, perhaps the daytime equivalent of the evening perambulation in the town centre. We were there early in September, and the beach was busy, although not crammed, at the weekend, but almost empty on the following Monday, admittedly a cloudy, chilly day.
Behind the beach at the harbour end some cafés and bars surround a car park, while at the far end the Hotel Josein perches alone above the sand in splendid isolation like a big yellow pillbox. Most of the seaside buildings, though, sit high up on a hill separated from the beach by the coast road, and they are mostly modern apartment blocks, probably holiday apartments for rental or weekend use since many seemed deserted when we were there. The old town centre lies on the far side of the hill.
* Old town Comillas *
Instead of following the road that runs round from the harbour back into the old town, it pays to follow one or another of the footpaths over the hill.
One will take you inland via a park dominated by an imposing stone monument dedicated to Antonio López y López, the 19th century Marqués of Comillas who, from modest local origins, went off to make his fortune overseas before returning to be ennobled and to transform the town. More about him later. The other path leads you up between the apartment blocks, beyond which clues quickly emerge to show that there is more to Comillas than meets the seaward-oriented eye. An ancient white-washed chapel surmounts the crest, that of Santa Lucia, and behind it stand some stately late 19th-century villas, their style a cross between Belle Époque and Scottish Baronial. If you follow the path down past one of them you will find its garden has a decorative rear gateway, a small but characteristic example of the work of Antonio Gaudi, in its sinuous form reminiscent of his best-known buildings in Barcelona. The gateway has three entrances, one for vehicles, one for people and one for birds, though the birds would find it hard to enter now that their aperture is overgrown with Virginia Creeper, in contrast to the Jasmine and Morning Glory that cover the surrounding walls. If you are puzzled as to what Gaudi was doing in Comillas, so far from his regular Catalan stamping ground, you will find out below.
The route then leads you through a much older sequence of cobbled squares, lined with earlier buildings, mostly faced with the decorative glazed-in balconies, known as gallérias, typical of north-western Spain. Some of the most impressive, though, are flat-fronted: the Espolón, constructed as an infants' school around 1800, and the old Ayuntamiento (town hall), an edifice of pleasing symmetry with an arcaded ground floor accessed through three Romanesque arches. As town hall it has now been replaced by another former infants' school, itself a handsome building of some antiquity. Between the two are to be found the 17th century Church of San Cristóbal, impressively if less lavishly decorated than many in this catholic country, and the pedestrianized main square, lined with cafés and the odd chestnut tree, where the locals stroll in the evening and kids kick balls around.
Let us take a table outside one of the cafés and refresh ourselves with a drink while we study the leaflets from the tourist office and decide our next steps. The town map shows two recommended walks: one, the 'Ruta Monumental', connects several monuments and notable old buildings, the main ones of which we have already been noted here, so I shall not go into it in further detail; the second, the 'Ruta Modernista', maps out a whole new aspect to the town, only two elements of which - Gaudi's Puerta de Moro and the Marqués' monument, which was designed by Domenech, another leading light of the Modernista movement - have we described so far. By approaching from the beach, which is to the north-east of the town we have missed some fine examples of this fascinating style of architecture, which just happen to lie to the south and west.
* The Modernistas in Comillas *
The involvement of the Modernistas originates with the first Marqués of Comillas, the ennobled adventurer whose memorial overlooks the sea. On his return from enriching himself in Latin America, he settled first in Barcelona, where he became acquainted with the several notable exponents of the movement, including Gaudi, Domenech and Martorell. When at length he decided to go back to his hometown, he took with him not only their ideas but a readiness to commission them to help with some of the projects he had in mind, and to persuade others in Comillas to do likewise.
The main project he had in mind was to build himself a palace, the Palacio de Sobrellano, not enormous in scale by the standards of palaces, but nobly proportioned and sumptuously decorated, fit for him to entertain there his friend King Alfonso XII. Constructed in a stone that looks uniform grey from a distance but a motley pinky-browny-fawny colour close up, Martorell's design at first appears almost as much Neo-Gothic as Modernista, with elaborate use of columns and arches around the windows and balconies. Once inside, though, the characteristic style of the movement is much more in evidence, and there are some fine examples, particularly eight painted panels by Llorens in the great hall, as well as coeval furnishings, ornaments and curios. The main, ceremonial staircase is beautifully fashioned from carved and polished marble. Unfortunately, only guided tours (in Spanish) are allowed, but still, at just 3Euro the visit was a snip. Adjacent to the palace stands a chapel, more Gothic still in overall design but reportedly full of fine Modernista sculptures, bas-reliefs and other decoration, including furnishings by Gaudi, which I was unable to see during my visit since it was closed for renovation.
Barely fifty metres from the palace is a little gem: El Capricho, a 'caprice' or 'folly' designed by Gaudi for the Marqués' brother-in-law. It was one of the earliest of Gaudi's designs to be built, but contains many of the ideas and motifs that were to become his hallmark. Essentially a summer residence, its decorative theme is the sunflower, and the arrangement of its rooms such as to catch the sunlight to best advantage at all times of day. The main structure is of brick embellished with yellow-and-green tiles depicting sunflowers, but offset by the use of carved stone and art-nouveauish wrought ironwork. A tile-clad tower rises like a minaret above the entrance, capped with a kind of cupola - oh, I won't attempt to describe it, just have a look at the photograph above. Within, the building feels airy and uncluttered, but everywhere the eye alights on intricate detail in carved wood, ironwork, ceramic and stained glass. Outside, in a corner among the faux grottos of the garden a bronze statue of Gaudi sits and contemplates his work. An excellent experience for the 5Euro entrance fee.
Another 3Euro would gain you entrance for a guided tour of the Universidad Pontificial (Pontifical University - in effect, a seminary) that dominates another hill opposite the Palace. This is a vast building, also the work of Martorell, its facade an impressive array of ornamentally-arranged brick and stone with the twin steeples of its church rising above its red-tiled roof. Both from lack of time and lack of sympathy for the purpose of the place, we didn't take the tour, contenting ourselves with inspecting the exterior and admiring the ornamental gate. Probably, this omission was a mistake, since much of the interior design is by Domenech, whose Palace of Catalan Music in Barcelona is one of my favourite buildings anywhere. We did, though, see Domenech's sculptured fountain in the middle of town, and his transformation of the Cemetery at Comillas, centred on a converted church that stands on a windswept headland overlooking the harbour, a site atmospheric enough to send a shiver down any spine.
There are several other good examples of the Modernista style in Comillas, but those mentioned above are the most salient, and I hope enough to show that the town is a treasure trove for anyone interested in the movement.
* Other attractions *
Beach, attractive old town, exciting architecture - what more do you need? Hopefully not much, since Comillas hasn't much more to offer. For entertainment and shopping, it is very commonplace, although there is said to be a good market on Fridays, which unfortunately we missed.
One intriguing event we just happened upon (my wife and I have a knack of happening upon such events without consciously timing our trips to coincide) was a show/meet/competition organised for breeders of a species of cow - known as Tudanca - unique to the Cantabrian region in which Comillas lies. Without pretending to know anything about cattle-breeding, we did find this an enjoyable occasion, particularly when the prize herds were paraded around the town after the judging, led by their owners, only a few of whom wore traditional costume though many were shod in curious three-prong-soled clogs, presumably footwear suited to water-logged pastures and similarly soggy underfoot conditions endured by cattlemen. This was, we were told, an annual festival, but I have been unable to discover from the net if it is regularly scheduled for the first Sunday in September in Comillas, or if that just happened to be the venue this year.
* Eating and drinking *
Before describing the options for eating and drinking in Comillas, it is worth emphasising that although this is holiday Spain, it is not holiday Spain in a way that would be recognised by those accustomed to resorts on the Mediterranean side of the country. The vast majority of holiday-makers along this coast are Spaniards themselves, with a few French and Portuguese to make up the numbers. Very few Britons, Germans, Dutch or other Northern Europeans are encountered here. You will not find any fish and chips or other anglicised dishes on offer, and menus are mostly in Spanish only. Although this meant that I sometimes had no idea what I was ordering, personally I regarded it as a benefit.
There must be at least a dozen, probably twenty, restaurants in the town serving traditional Spanish offerings of raciones and platos combinados; seafood is very much a local speciality. Most places are very reasonably priced. We liked the Gurea, slightly more expensive than the average, but with excellent fish dishes; Los Castaños, less expensive for plentiful portions and with an excellent position overlooking all the animation in the main square; and Las Filipinas, which has no outside tables but a very authentic ambience, being full of locals and decidedly inexpensive. A note of warning if your stomach is set to a British timetable: Comillas runs to Spanish time and to sit down to dinner before nine in the evening, while not exactly impossible, is regarded as incomprehensibly eccentric.
As for other evening entertainment, we saw no theatres, cinemas or clubs recognisable as such. We did see a rather half-hearted open-air disco in progress on the quayside on the Saturday evening we were there, but nothing to keep us awake at night; the sound was drowned out by the pounding of the waves beneath our bedroom.
* Staying *
As befits a resort, Comillas offers a wide range of accommodation, from 4-star hotels, of which there are three, down to numerous pensions, posadas, and campsites. The 4-star Hotel Comillas, which is close to the Sobrellano Palace, seems to be the most prestigious and receives good reviews, but personally I have never looked further than the 2-star Hotel Josein, primarily because of its outstanding position by the sea. It overhangs the beach to such an alarming extent that one fears for its safety in a storm, but though there are signs of erosion beneath its seaward side the fact that we found it still in place after twenty-five years must say something for its resilience!
To be honest, position apart the Josein does not have all that much to recommend it. The rooms are clean, adequately furnished, spacious and functional, but their only extraordinary aspect is their commanding sea view. The restaurant also has a great view, but breakfast is distinctly below standard and, taking this as a clue to what the rest of the cuisine might be like, we didn't even think of dining in. But all things considered it is not expensive at 81Euro B&B for a double room per night, and we would stay there another time if visiting the area.
* Around and about *
The hinterland of Comillas has several further attractions. Just to the west is the 'Natural Park' and nature reserve of Oyambre, which incorporates two extensive beaches as well as marshy bits for bird-watching. And just beyond that it the fortified port of San Vicente de la Barquera, with castle and ancient church, well worth a few hours of anyone's time to amble around. More famously, inland to the east lies the showpiece village of Santillana del Mar, its mediaeval buildings still extraordinarily well-preserved, though it is a bit of a tourist trap.
Further inland, to the south-west, an hour's drive will take you into the dramatic scenery of the Picos de Europa, although the mountain roads make for slow driving and to have time to explore them properly you will need to move on and find another base at which to stay.
* Recommendation *
Returning to Comillas reinforced our previous positive impression of the place while introducing us belatedly to the wider scope of its attractions. It is far from being the biggest or liveliest of Spanish resorts, nor the sunniest for that matter, since the Atlantic coast is notoriously cooler and wetter than the Mediterranean. So if sun, size and liveliness are your priorities, you probably won't much want to visit this part of Spain in any case. Its appeal lies in its scenery, including seaside scenery, its history and its cultural interest. Comillas has all of these, as well as some outstanding architecture. To those who like such things, I would warmly recommend it.
© Also published under the name torr with photographs on Ciao UK 2011