We had originally planned to do the seven or eight mile hike near Itxaspe to see the spectacular Flysch (wildly twisted rock) formations in the cliffs along with caves, deserted beaches, and possibly some interesting surf spots. Unfortunately, after mentioning this plan to some friends over lunch, we were informed that the cast and crew of Game of Thrones had taken over this stretch of coastline for the next week. They had also recruited hundreds of extras for the shoots - but you had to be big, tall, hairy and ugly. Clearly I didn't fit the bill.
Our next choice was San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a medieval Hermitage built in the ninth century by the Knights Templar on a tiny island just off the Basque coast. It is connected to the mainland by what our friend Elaine calls 'the great wall of China'.
We awoke to light rain, but trusting the weather forecast (a crazy thing to do in the Pays Basque), we picked up Elaine and her significant-other, Jean-Luc, and headed into Spain. Half an hour into our drive, the skies cleared. It was going to be a fine day.
To get to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, we took the A-8 towards Bilbao - about 90 minutes away, then headed north to the coast passing through the beach resort town of Bakio. We drove past the entrance to the parking area, thinking there might be another trail down from further up the road, and quickly discovered that the road was closed because the cliffs had fallen in. We had originally thought that after this hike, we might continue up the road to Bermeo, one of the largest Basque ports, but that wasn't going to be possible. Also, any alternative trails were long gone with the slides.
We parked in the mostly deserted parking lot and made our way to the trail noticing that in spite of the fine weather in late October, the nearby restaurants were closed. Fortunately, we'd brought a picnic lunch which we planned to eat once we reached the Hermitage.
We started down and discovered that the trail was wide but quite steep. No one was looking forward to the climb back up.
Instead, we began the climb up the 237 steps to the Hermitage.
It's a challenging climb up the steps and ramps, but there are handrails and numerous flat places to stop and take pictures (or to catch your breath).
Arriving at the top, you round the main building and you see the huge wooden doors to the Hermitage, along with a rope that leads up to the bell tower.
Legend has it that once you've made the trek, you should ring the bell three times and make a wish.
Although there aren't many people who live nearby on the mainland across from the island, I have to believe that the neighbors get pretty tired of the ringing bell, especially during the summer tourist season.
We toured the top of the island looking for a good place to picnic and finally settled on a sun-sheltered structure on the side of the church. Unfortunately, the church doors were locked, so we were forced to peek through the crack in the doors to see the interior.
Historians aren't clear exactly when the Hermitage was built. However, there are nearby graves dating from the 9th century and historical records showing its existence in the 10th century. It was apparently built by the Knights Templar and became a monastery during first part of the 11th century.
Interestingly, this small island and its Hermitage were the site of several strategic battles. Its access was challenging so the site was easily defensible and over the course of its history, several notable figures made successful 'last' stands here.
Seeing its strategic importance, Sir Francis Drake successfully attacked and conquered the site in 1593. Since then, the site has changed hands numerous times.
The history is interesting. The short though challenging walk down the cliffs, up to the Hermitage, then down from the Hermitage and back up the cliffs can be exhausting. Still, the views are worth the effort. If you're in the area, it's definitely worth the short detour from Bilbao to see San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.
By the way, apparently the cast and crew of Game of Thrones will also be using San Juan de Gaztelugatxe in episodes this next season. Watch for it!