San Juan Gaztelugatxe (from now on San Juan G) is situated just off the coast of the Bay of Biscay a short drive away from Bermeo. I have seen photos of this little island but nothing had prepared us for the real thing. This is probably the most amazing thing I have seen in the Basque Country.
This tiny island has a man-made bridge that connects it to the mainland. It can be accessed by a narrow path that after crossing the stone bridge turns into a long, long stairway up to the top. The opinions vary but it seems like the number of stairs you have to climb to reach the top is between 229-237. Obviously I started to count them but then got distracted by the view and forgot to count a few steps so I gave up.
On the top of the island there is a 9th century chapel dedicated to St. John the Baptist and it is believed that he actually set foot on the island as well. The hermitage was built on a great spot as it’s a bit away from civilization and after making the strenuous climb you are rewarded with a coastal view that is amongst the best I’ve seen in Spain.
The little chapel is often closed so it’s better to check the times before your visit. It houses many offerings from sailors who survived the sinking of their ships. For me personally the place didn’t have the air of a chapel but rather a marine toy shop. It is full of oars, bits taken from a boat and little wooden ships. You can take photos for one euro.
There’s a little shop set up in the church selling cold drinks, photos, postcards and other gifts. I thought this would be a great place to buy my Basque souvenir and I got a now familiar white-blue chequered scarf with San Juan G’s name on it.
According to the legend, when you climb up to the top you have to ring the church bell three times and make a wish. I expected to hear the bell ring all day long but obviously this legend is not known to many people as (thankfully) this was not the case. I had a go at ringing the bell, just in case, although I was so taken with the atmosphere of the place that I forgot to make a wish! It kind of felt cheating trying to do it again.
The sea is often rough around here with huge waves that constantly carve away the cliffs of the coast. Due to this you can see the unadulterated, raw beauty of nature. Around the island there are lots of caves and according to the rumours those accused of witchcraft during the inquisition were locked away in them.
The history of the island is full of action. There are burial remains from the 9th century, the place was often burned by fire, there are legends of pirate attacks and real stories of Sir Frances Drake ransacking the place in 1593, an interesting read for everybody.
I thought the festivities cannot reach such a secluded spot but while we were walking away from the island we saw this group of guys singing and dancing on the road going towards the church. The last guy was dragging a decorated donkey behind him. It would’ve been interesting to see what they will do (sacrifice the donkey?!) but we didn’t have time.
We were there in August in the middle of high season around 11am and you can see from the photos that the place is (understandably) very popular with tourists. If you have the chance to come here very early and/or out of season you might get an idea of just how alone those monks living here might have felt, away from the troubles of the world.