Gaudi and Modernista Style: Northern Spain

Gaudi Palace of the Bishops in Astorga
Gaudi’s Palace of the Bishops in Astorga

Gaudi is best known for his amazing architecture in the Spanish city of Barcelona.

Barcelona is home to his world famous Casa Batllo, the Sagrada Familia cathedral and Casa Mila as well as the sensational, brightly decorated Parc Guell.

So it’s something of a surprise to find so much of the Catalan master’s work in northern Spain, far away from his home region.

As well as Gaudi, there are a surprising number of Modernista buildings from Gaudi’s contemporaries in towns across northern Spain.

Modernista Masterpieces

Lovers of Spanish art deco style should start their journey in Comillas which is a haven for Modernista houses and palaces.

Located in a striking coastal location with cliffs dropping to the azure sea below, this is one place that I can’t recommend too strongly.

This picturesque fishing village was invaded by marauding Modernistas in the late 19th Century and they stamped their artistic style on the town’s parks, buildings and monuments.

Quirkiness abounds – so much so that their style gives Comillas a distinctive look and feel.

The jewel in Comillas’ crown is the colourful El Capricho designed by Gaudi in 1883 as a summer house for Maximo Diaz de Quijano, a wealthy patron.

El Capricho Comales Gaudi
El Capricho’s minaret  – capricious and colourful

It was one of Gaudi’s earliest commissions so it’s essentially a blueprint for his later work in Barcelona.

This ‘modernismo’ building is highly original and strikingly colourful with its oriental and Mudejar influences.

If you walk up to the house through parkland, Gaudi’s exotic summer house leaps out with its brightly coloured tower and decorative features.

El Capricho has a style of its own and a definite ‘look at me’ attitude.

There’s a bold confidence reflected in its eclectic and extroverted look. You could almost imagine that you’re in Granada, Arabia or Morocco.

El Capricho Comales
Eclectic architecture

El Capricho’s striking features are designed in a variety of materials – stone, brick, glazed ceramics and wrought iron.

The wrought iron decoration is a Gaudi trademark and is seen on the house’s handrails. doors, stairs and balconies with tendrils and flower shapes adding to the natural, organic feel.

We sat out on the small balcony in glorious sunshine and enjoyed a brief taste of what life must have been like in this unusual home.

Sunflowers and Sunshine

Gaudi’s favourite flower motif – the sunflower – is everywhere. Just look at these gorgeous Gaudi tiles which adorn every wall and tower on the house’s facade.

Gaudi is one of the few architects who could get away with this bold symbolism without the house looking excessively decorated.

El Capricho Comales Gaudi
Stunning sunflowers

Inside the house it’s almost like walking into a mini cathedral designed to sooth the senses with stained glass windows which filter subtle, coloured light through the entrance area.

The living room at the centre of the house has high ceilings and wooden panels, with a distinctly rustic feel, whilst the outdoor terrace is a great place for entertaining guests on a glorious, sunny day.

We imagined ourselves supping Spanish cava and eating tapas in the early evening before sunset, the end of a perfect day.

Gaudi designed the house so that each room was in line with the sun’s path, a bit like a sunflower craning its head towards the sun.

El Capricho Comales
A thrush lands on a piano keyboard

Special motifs reflect the owner’s passion for music including stained glass panels with a thrush perched on the keys of a piano and a bee playing the guitar.

The attention to detail is brilliant – even Gaudi’s bathroom combines high quality, crafted materials like wood, glass and ceramics, with a distinctly Arabic feel.

El Capricho Comales
Gaudi’s bathroom – stylish decor

Gaudi’s Garden

Back in the garden there’s a statue of Gaudi who oversees his beautiful creation, happy in the knowledge that his work is complete.

El Capricho Comales
Gaudi and Tammy in the sunshine

The garden is also a work of art with its horse-shaped hospitality area, rocky borders and sinuous walkways which teeter on the edge, rather like Gaudi’s innovative design.

Living here must have been inspiring – I could imagine myself as its owner, no problem!

Capricho Comales
The horse shoe shaped garden

But the Modernista madness doesn’t stop at the exit to Gaudi’s El Capricho.

Comillas has many more mansions and palaces built by associates of Gaudi in the Modernista style.

Palaces and Playgrounds

Sobrellano Palace Comillas
Gothic Modernista – Palace of Sobrellano

The Palacio de Sobrellano is a short walk up the hill from the Gaudi house and provides a glimpse into the life of one of Comillas’ aristocratic inhabitants. It was built for the Marquis of Comillas as a summer palace in the 1880s.

This Gothic looking mansion is a bit like a Spanish version of the old mansion in The Hound of the Baskervilles but with sunshine replacing the fog.

As we waited outside for the guided tour a pair of jet-black choughs flew from gable to gable whilst terrifying gargogyles glared down from the roof tops.

Two choughs perch on the palace roof

It’s a creepy but intriguing house which was one of the most spectacular homes of its day.

Tony in Comillas
Tony with the Palacio’s chapel in the background

Designed by Gaudi’s friend, Joan Martorell, this quirky castle was the Marquis’ vanity project.

The impressive entrance and reception room tell you everything you need to know about the palace.

There’s room upon room full of high quality bling from tapesteries and old paintings to enormous murals, religious relics and ceiling-to-floor stained glass windows.

Gaudi’s influence can be seen here too – there’s a giant walnut fireplace and chairs featuring his dragon designs.

The nearby chapel was also furnished by the Catalan architect who designed the pews and some decorative pieces.

But behind the glitzy facade of the Palacio there are no bedrooms or proper living rooms, just social spaces for wining and dining the rich and famous of the day.

It’s one of the strangest palaces I can remember visiting!

Opposite the palace is another Modernista masterpiece, the Universidad Pontificia, which can be seen for miles around.

Martorell designed this huge university building in 1883 but it’s now purely a decorative space where you can savour past glories and highly ornamented rooms.

It also has a fabulous gateway in brick, metallic and ceramic tiles topped off with a couple of grotesque figures.

Universidad Pontificio Comill
Universidad Pontificio Comillas

Monuments and Mansions

Back in Comillas, we marvelled at smaller mansions in the Modernista style which provide charming residences for rich Spaniards.

Perched on a hill overlooking the town there’s the strikingly bright pink mansion – La Coteruca – which was built in the 1880s.

Then it was time to head over to the old burial ground – El Cementerio – which dominates the town’s coast road.

It’s not often that I get excited by a cemetery but this one is surreal in the extreme with a dramatic-looking winged angel in white marble guarding the graves.

Comillas cemetery
Surreal and strange – the cemetery

It looks like something Salvador Dali might have designed if he’d had half a chance.

In reality,  the cemetery is built in a Gothic ruin with Domenech i Montaner’s resplendent statues and funerary embellishments.

Take a walk up to the gates and peer inside this creepy walled cemetery.

If you’re lucky it might even be open although we had no joy and there were no obvious opening times.

Further up the road there’s another dramatic structure – the Monument to the Marques de Comillas, also designed by Domenech, and decorated with strange motifs including flowers, crabs and owls.

It depicts a ship in a dry dock with its keel suspended in mid-air. Eccentric is the only word to describe it!

Gaudi and the Bishop’s Palace

Gaudi Palace of the Bishops in Astorga
Gaudi Palace of the Bishops in Astorga

Gaudi also spent time in Astorga and Leon in the early days of his career, where he designed two controversial buildings.

The most successful of these is the Palacio Episcopal (or Palacio Gaudi) which he designed for the Bishop of Astorga, the wonderfully-named Juan Bautista Grau Vallespinos.

Gaudi started work on this fairy tale palace in 1889 but when the bishop died four years later, public opinion turned against the architect due to escalating costs. A very modern story!

Gaudi was so infuriated that he left the project and the building had to be completed by a variety of architects and designers in the early 1900s.

Astorga- Gaudi's Bishops Palace
Inside the Bishop’s Palace

Despite this being a half-baked Gaudi it’s still a fantastic building, part castle, part manor house, part chapel.

Once inside, it’s hard to deny the beauty of the neo-Gothic vaults with strong Mudejar influences and decoration.

It reminded me of a Modernista reworking of the gorgeous Gothic church of La Sainte Chapelle in Paris with its soaring vaulted ceilings.

Astorga Palace
Gaudi’s Throne Room

Gaudi’s Throne Room is a splendid space with its great stone chimney and chair, lit through coloured stained glass windows with plant motifs.

I loved this palace for its originality and ambition.

Sadly, the palace’s eccentric appearance meant that later bishops never lived there and today it houses a museum with intriguing pilgrimage relics, Roman antiquities and historical paintings and artefacts.

Even the highly decorated chapel impresses with its stunning stained glass windows and decoration, even if Senor Gaudi had long departed from the project.

Leon’s Fairytale ‘Castle’

A rather less successful Gaudi building is the Los Botines (‘The Spats’) in Leon a few miles down the road from Astorga.

The fairy tale design is straight out of Disneyworld’s Sleeping Beauty Castle with its turrets. ironwork and statue of St George slaying the dragon.

Sadly this private residence has now been converted into a bank although it does mean that you can pop inside to view the vaulted interior.

Tony was less impressed by this stark looking Gaudi building which is very different in style to his well-known works.

Gaudi Palace Leon
Gaudi’s Los Botines in Leon

Strange Musical Notes

If Modernista architecture has grabbed your attention, you’ll also want to call in to see one of its stranger creations on the boardwalk in the town of Sada near A Coruna in Galicia.

This odd Art Deco building resembles a music stand and is covered in musical notes and clefs.

Designed by Lopez Hernandez, this curious pavilion of glass and coloured ironwork looks strangely out of place in the 21st Century.

Modernista madness

There’s no doubting its ambition and inventiveness but it seems to herald the final hurrah of the Modernista movement.

Sadly, today it is slightly unkempt and deteriorating, a monument to a lost age.

You can still pop in for dinner or cocktails to enjoy the faded glory and ambience of the belle epoque.

Tammy’s Top Tips – Northern Spain

Van in Comillas
The camper van in Comillas

Comillas is located in Cantabria on the coast of northern Spain about 30 minutes drive west of Santander. It’s a very pleasant town with cobbled streets, beautiful Modernista buildings, an attractive fishing harbour and coastal walks.

There’s surprisingly little good online information about Comillas’s attractions so pop into the tourism office to pick up a town guide and check for opening times.

El Capricho in Comillas is open daily but check for winter opening times. It’s situated off the main road by the tourist information centre.

The Palacio de Sobrellano – the tour is entirely in Spanish but it’s still worth the entry price. Make sure to check for the random opening and tour times – the palace closes for a long break over lunch. The ‘Gaudi decorated’ chapel adjoining the house also has nonsensical opening times and was locked up all day when we visited.

The Universidad Pontificia – it’s well worth a wander through its sumptous,  frescoed rooms and chapel. Sadly we missed this treat as it’s only open in the mornings. So check for opening times and tours!

Where to stay: Comillas is a good base with small hotels, holiday apartments and a pleasant motorhome site on the coast road as you drive into the town.

Gaudi’s Palace of the Bishops in Astorga is located in the heart of the old city centre close to the lovely cathedral. Buy a joint ticket for both attractions. The Palace is open most days but check before visiting in case of lunchtime closing.

Gaudi Palace of the Bishops in Astorga
Fairy tale palace in Astorga

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