Gaztelugatxe

SAN JUAN DE GAZTELUGATXE

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

The island of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe looks like it’s straight from a movie set. So it shouldn’t be any surprise that it was selected as a filming location for the HBO series, Game of Thrones. But whether you are a fan of the series or not, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe will dazzle you with its raw beauty.

Many will recognize San Juan de Gaztelugatxe as the island fortress of “Dragonstone” from season 7 of Game of Thrones, however, its real name can be translated as “castle rock” from Basque (“gaztelu” = castle + “aitz” = rock).

Located just off the shore along the Bay of Biscay and 35 km (22 miles) east from Bilbao, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a definite “must” if you are visiting the Basque Country. The island is connected to the mainland by a man-made stone bridge. The bridge transitions into a narrow path that contains 241 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 dedicated to John the Baptist. Although not proven, it has been said that he even set foot on the island. The small church is however, not 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.

 
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
View from the top of the island

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.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe Tourism
View of the coastline & San Juan de Gaztelugatxe from Bakio

Hotels around San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

Hotels

Practical Information

Practical Information

Since San Juan de Gaztelugatxe appeared in Game of Thrones, its popularity has only increased and during high season there can be long queues to access. For that reason, it is now necessary to book tickets to access San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. It is still free, but a ticket is mandatory when visiting between 10am and 7pm on the following dates:

  • Easter, Christmas and official Spanish holidays
  • Daily from June 15h until the end of September
  • Weekends from the last week of March until the end of the year

Tickets can be booked in advance here.

If you are unsure whether a ticket is necessary on the date of your trip, we recommend you to try to book it online and take note as to whether that specific date is grayed out on the calendar. If it is, then a ticket is not needed.

Note that for the time being, it is still possible to get the ticket on arrival at the Visitors’ Center in San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. However, this might change in the future.

When visiting San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, 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.

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Festivities

Festivities

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.

Get There

Get There

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is located between the towns of Bakio and Bermeo in the Biscayan coast, and is 35 km east from Bilbao (about 45 minutes drive). It is possible to get there by car or bus.

By Car

To get there from Bilbao by car, you need to take the road BI-631. Once you arrive at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, there is a free parking area next to the Visitors’ Center. However, keep in mind that the parking might be full at peak times and it is recommended to park in either Bakio or Bermeo and take the bus (or a taxi) from there.

From San Sebastian, it takes about 1 hour 45 minutes (120 km) to get to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.

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By Bus

If you are planning to go to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe by bus from Bilbao, you have the following two options:

  • Bizkaibus line A3518 Bilbao-Mungia-Bakio
  • Bizkaibus line A3527 Bilbao-Mungia-Bermeo

Then, from either Bakio or Bermeo, you can take a taxi or continue by bus. The Bizkaibus line A3524 that goes from Bermeo to Bakio stops right in front of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. The name of the stop is “Gaztelu Begi.” However, this bus only works on weekdays (one bus every 2 hours).

Other Places of Interest in the Surroundings

In the Surroundings

Map of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

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