Some sights are so out of the ordinary, you have to see them to believe them. So when I first heard about San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (Gahz-telu-gah-che), an islet in the Bay of Biscay with a hermitage on top that’s only accessed by climbing up hundreds of stone steps, I was intrigued. San Juan de Gaztelugatxe makes for a great day trip from Bilbao, best accessed by renting a car and making the drive out to the coast; otherwise, you’re looking at a bus-ride +a long hike.
So what’s a hermitage exactly? Well, a hermitage is a type of monastery where people seek religious seclusion. This hermitage in particular, is dedicated to St. John the Baptist and has existed since the 9th Century. Though San Juan de Gaztelugatxe isn’t far from civilization (The towns of Bakio and Bermeo are just a few km down the road) it’s easy to see why this place was chosen as the site of a hermitage; after you make the laborious climb to the top of the islet, you’re rewarded with sweeping views of the sea and coastline. If you go in the off-season and manage to avoid other tourists making the trek up, you’ll get an idea of just how alone, but also how inspired, those monks cooped up there might have felt.
The landscape is awe-inspiring–here the raw beauty of nature is highlighted amongst the craggy coast, and the way the sun hits the rough water. The history of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is equally compelling–from the burial remains found on-site that date back to the 9th Century, to the legends of pirate attacks and fires, to the very real attack and ransack by Sir Francis Drake in 1593–this hermitage has a storied past.
When to go: Try going outside of the high season unless you don’t mind sharing this experience with hoards of other tourists.
How to get there: If you can’t take a rental car, in Bilbao, take either the A3515 or A3527 bus to Bermeo. Once in Bermeo, walk to the road named Matxitxako Hiribidea toward Gaztelugatxe.
Tips: The parking lot is far from the actual site. It took about 30-45 minutes to walk just one-way. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes that you don’t mind hiking in–the walk from the parking lot all the way to the top of the islet and back is a good workout!