San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, whose name means “castle rock” in Basque (“gaztelu” = castle + “aitz” = rock), is a definite “must” if you are visiting the Basque Country. It is an island located just off the shore along the Bay of Biscay. The island is cone-shaped and features a tiny church on its highest point that is dedicated to John the Baptist. Although not proven, it has been said that he even set foot on the island.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is connected to the mainland by a man-made stone bridge. The bridge transitions into a narrow path that contains 231 steps and zigzags its way back and forth to the top. Once there, you will find the church which has a bell situated along the front of its facade. According to legend, after you have completed the climb, you should ring the bell three times and make a wish.
The church on top of the island is by no means the original. Over the centuries the church has burned down and been rebuilt several times. It is believed that the first hermitage that existed here was erected in the 9th century. In the 12th century, it became a convent. However, two centuries later, the friars abandoned it taking with them everything of value.
Later on, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe had a strategic purpose as a defensive outpost for the lords of Biscay. It was used as a bastion against the King of Castile, Alfonso XI. The seven knights from Biscay fought against him at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. Alfonso XI was humiliated and was forced to retreat.
In 1596, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe was attacked again, this time by Sir Francis Drake and his corsairs. They looted everything they found and killed the hermit that was living there by throwing him off a cliff to the rocks and water below.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe also played a role, albeit small, during the Spanish Inquisition. Witches and their ritualistic meetings known as Akelarre in Basque, make up a part of the Basque mythology. For this reason, the Catholic Church focused much of its time during the inquisition hunting for witches in the region. Several accounts seem to indicate that many of the accused were locked up in the caves of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.
The church deteriorated over time and it was eventually demolished in 1886 and then rebuilt from scratch. Unfortunately, during the demolition process, all of the artifacts found in the ground, such as coins and cannon balls, were thrown to the sea.
It should be noted that sometimes it is not permitted to park directly next to the bridge due to the unstable ground in that area. If that is the case, you will have to park up the hill and expect to walk downhill around a kilometer. Don’t let that deter you though because it is really worth it. We recommend to take it easy and don't forget a snack and some water. You can always stop at one of the many benches located off the road and take in the views. In addition, at the top of the island, next to the church there is also a small area protected from the wind with tables and benches.
There is also a restaurant/café called Eneperi on the mainland hillside in front of the islet, where you can enjoy a good meal while contemplating the gorgeous views.
The best times of the year to visit San Juan de Gaztelugatxe are spring and autumn, since it can get quite crowded in the summer months.
The path to the island is always open. However, the opening times of the church situated at the top of the island are:
- Tuesday to Saturday: 11 am to 6 pm
- Sundays: 11 am to 3 pm
There are some festivities celebrated every year which include a visit to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. Here the most important ones:
June 24th, day of St John. This is a traditional pilgrimage particularly popular among people from Bermeo.
July 31st, day of St Ignatius of Loyola. It is celebrated by a traditional pilgrimage from the town of Arrieta.
August 29th, day of St John Degollado. It is celebrated by a traditional pilgrimage from the town of Bakio. On that same day, the people from the town hall of Bermeo also visit the island to renew their sovereignty over San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.
When the fishing season starts, Basque fishermen also visit San Juan de Gaztelugatxe asking the saint for good luck.
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San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is located between the towns of Bakio and Bermeo, right of the road BI-3101. The only way to get there is by car.