(This post is part of my series on the Basque Country. Click here for Bilbao, here for the Vizcaya bridge, and here for San Sebastián.)

I always find public transportation a bit nerve-racking—especially in a new city, not to mention a foreign country. Every time I hop on a bus, I feel like I’m taking a leap of faith. I imagine taking the wrong bus and getting stranded in the middle of nowhere, or taking the right bus and getting off on the wrong stop—and these fears aren’t totally unfounded, as I’ve done both of these things. Thus I was filled with apprehension as we searched for the bus to Bakio, the A3518.

Probably you have never heard of Bakio, because there isn’t much to be heard about it. Bakio is a small town, with a population of about 2,500, situated about 30 kilometers from Bilbao. There is admittedly a beach there, although the damp, chilly, overcast weather of the region didn’t exactly put me in the mood for surfing. Rather, we were going to Bakio because it was the closest we could to get by bus to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.

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The town of Bakio

The bus ride to Bakio was quite pleasant, taking us through the green countryside, filled with little huts and farmhouses tucked away into the rolling hills. After 40 minutes we arrived, ate some breakfast, and then set on our way. I had found a little report online (found here), written by somebody who had walked from Bakio to Gaztelugatxe. And attached in that report is a little map, with the walking route conveniently highlighted. But for whatever reason I forgot about this map as we started walking. Instead I chose to rely on my phone’s GPS to guide me there. Please, don’t make this mistake: just follow the walking route.

GF and I soon found ourselves walking along a busy road, with no sidewalks.

“Are you sure this is the right way?” she said.

“Yeah, I’m just following my phone.”

“Okay…”

We walked further, and after a while came to a sharp curve in the road. Because there wasn’t any sidewalk, and the road was hemmed in by a rockface on one side and some trees on another, we found ourselves in the predicament that, no matter which side we chose, we would risk making ourselves invisible to an incoming car. Thankfully, the cars only came periodically, with big gaps in-between; and we hoped we’d be able hear them a ways off. Still, it was nerve-racking as we rushed around the corner, trying to minimize our time on the curve.

“I hope there aren’t any more curves like that,” GF said as we got to the other side.

“Me too,” I said.

But five minutes later, we came to another curve. And then another, and another. The entire road, it seemed, wrapped around the hills like a snake, constantly turning left and right. Meanwhile, the amount of cars on the road seemed to be steadily increasing.

“I don’t like this,” GF said. “Is there any way off this road?”

“Umm,” I said, “maybe up ahead.” (I had no idea.)

During the stretches of straight roads, I did my best to enjoy the scenery. It was a nice place, with pine trees and farmhouses all around, and the occasional view of the countryside beyond. But the whoosh of a passing cars destroyed any peace to be had; and the sight of every sharp turn ahead increased my anxiety.

There was over an hour of this, the two of us walking on through the brush and bushes by the side of the road, our feet searching for stability amid the roots and rocks, changing sides whenever it seemed more safe, pressing ourselves against the trees whenever a car went past, rushing around curves with our adrenalin racing, GF nervously complaining while I tried to keep my own fears to myself. And then, finally, just as I was at my wit’s end, the hermitage came into view.

“Yes!” GF said, filled with relief.

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San Juan de Gatztelugatxe (recently made famous in Game of Thrones, as the location of Dragonstone) is an island off the coast of Biscay, connected to the maindland by a man-made bridge. Since at least the 10th century, a little religious building has been perched up at the top of it, though it has burnt down and been rebuilt many times, most recently in 1980.

To get there from the road we had to climb down towards the shore. The path was steep, twisting, and rocky. Even though you’re going down hill, it is exhausting because you need to be constantly on guard against falling. At last we got near the bottom, where there was a lookout point from which we could get a good view of the island.

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It must be one of the most astonishing sights in Spain. The island is a mound of jagged grey rock, covered in slight patches of green. Its splayed form stretches out into the sea, wherein it is battered day and night, on all sides, by the winds and the waves. In the middle of this island, criss-crossing its way up from the bottom to the top, is a staircase—usually filled with the miniscule forms of people going up and down. And crowning the island is the hermitage, a small shack with a dull red roof.

Perhaps this image is so appealing to me because I find in it a symbol of the relationship of humanity to nature. We have carved a staircase into the rock, and erected a place of worship on the summit of the island; and in this way we can be said to have dominated the place. And yet, how feeble our dominance of nature seems when viewed from a distance—just a pile of boards, liable to be blown away by the first strong gust. This is the age-old contest of craft, cleverness, and perseverance against capricious, indifferent power. And I cannot help thinking that, however successful we are now, there will come a day when the hermitage blows down, and there won’t be anyone to build it back up again.

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But these gloomy thoughts were soon gone as I huffed and puffed my way up the staircase to the top of the island. By now we had been walking over an hour next to that road, our hearts in our throats all the while; so we were understandably a bit worn out. It felt all the better, then, when we finally reached the top, and could look back towards the land.

In the distance, to our right, we could see the beach of Bakio; and to the left, nothing but steep, grey cliffs and green forests. Gigantic rocks stuck out of the ocean, the biggest one almost as big as the island itself. To one side, far off, I could see what looked like an oil drill. Apart from that, no boats, no freighters, no planes broke the endless blue of the sea beyond or the grey of the sky above. It felt like standing at the edge of the world.

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We couldn’t go inside the hermitage, nor even peek through a window. This didn’t bother me, however, since judging by the looks of the plain exterior, the interior would be similarly nondescript. What we could do was ring the bell. A string hung from the bell on the roof to the ground below, and all the visitors were taking turns having a pull (one kid got a bit too enthusiastic, and his parents had to keep him away). I gripped the chord and lightly tugged, and the satisfying clang of a church bell sounded overhead.

Since neither of us had any intention of repeating that dreadful walk by the road, this time I looked up the walking path on my phone. We found the path without any trouble, which made me feel like such an idiot for not using it the first time. It was such a relief! Instead of the twisting, turning road we had a straight path, free of cars, taking us through quiet countryside. We passed through a copse of trees, and then through some fields where cows were grazing, making our way over gently rolling hills, the seaside on our right, until we were finally back in Bakio. The bus soon arrived, and then we were on our way to Bilbao, where we still had one more thing to see.

3 thoughts on “Basking in the Basque Country: San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

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