Hiking to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (and a new favorite rock)

Before you pack for this hike, run over to this link to get the pronunciation. Repeat: Gaz-te-lu-ga-txe!

Recently, promotional posters of this magical strip of land have appeared in the Madrid metro. Funded by the Euskadi tourism board, these large images challenge commuters to “Vivirlo!” or “Live the experience!” Seeing the pictures reminded me of a significant part of our Basque Country trip I had yet to blog about–the trek to Gaztelugatxe.

I’d first heard of the this monastery, and the hike to get there, from my friends Ely and Matt. When I’d visited them in Bilbao last year, they mentioned daytrips from the city which made me wish I had had enough time to get into explorer mode. Ely later wrote about the hike on her blog, which gave me even more ganas to go. After Andres and I booked our flights to Bilbao, I emailed Ely and asked her for the exact bus which would drop us off near the start of the trail.

The bus ride proved to be an adventure in and of itself. We later learned that most who visit the mountain do so in their own handy-dandy private transportation, but renting a car was hardly ideal for our short stay. So, we waited at the bus stop–which was, by the way, simply in a large round-about with no well-marked signs–and hopped on the bus we thought was the right one. The driver, after I told him where we wanted to go, printed out a a long list of stops from the same machine which spits out the tickets. When I say, “long” I mean names upon names of stops. He circled one of the last stops, saying we should get out there. I thanked him, and folded the list four times to make it manageable to hold.

Bilbao was soon behind us, and signs of city life turned into factories, small pueblos, then lush greenery. As our bus wound higher we noticed how the town names became less and less familiar–less Spanish–to more and more Basque-sounding. Nearly 90 minutes after we’d boarded the bus, the driver gestured to us–this was our stop.

We scurried out of the bus to find the morning fog rolling away, leaving a gorgeous view of the coast to our left. We snapped a few first pictures, not realizing how much better the views would be after we actually started the hike.

Then came the hike. The trail was not arduous, but unsteady in some places, causing hikers to balance carefully to avoid ankle-buckling rocks. Speaking of rocks, there was this huge one in the distance as we started our downhill descent:

My memory card would later remind me of how I took approximately 100 photos of this rockin’ view

Here we paused at the base of the monastery to eat a picnic lunch.  The zig-zagging of the path led my eyes up-up-up, and, before I’d realized it, my eyes were resting on the tip-top of the hill again.

The steep stairs were the most difficult part of the hike–and the view from them was the most rewarding.

And then, we reached the top. A nice family from San Sebastián snapped our picture, and we did the same in return.

Then, it was time to do the hike in reverse.

The original view, waiting for the bus

Once we made it back to the bus stop and reflected on the day, we were already talking about how this would be one of the highlights  of the trip. Our varied vacation had been a success; from the Aste Nagusia festival to San Sebastián’s laid-back beaches to strolling the elegant streets of Bilbao, the vacation was enjoyable on many fronts.

Have you ever been to the Basque Country? What were your favorite aspects of the trip?