San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, an small adventure with impressive views
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, 35 km east from Bilbao. 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 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 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.