What do you get when you mix a striking geographic beauty and lovely ancient monuments? You get something more or less exactly like San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.
This jutting piece of land outside Bermeo remains connected by a single file bridge, whose 237 steps end in a lonely hermitage that can’t help but provoke fits of imagination and fantasy, at least in your author. Who lived here? What did they do when those inevitable Basque storms that come out of the nowhere? How did the wind sound on lonely nights? Et cetera et cetera.
The temple that sits on the top of the zigzaggy stairway is rich with local legend and religious rites. Have a headache? Leave a bobby pin or beret as an homage to Saint John! Your kid pee the bed? Take him at a certain phase of the moon and watch the sheets remain dry forever! Sleepwalking? Pray and ring the bell and recite this ancient prayer (three times, though):
Doniene Gaztelugatxeko (Saint John of Gaztelugatxe)
geure Zerutar Zaindaria (our holy guardian)
zeugana nator, ni, jauna, (I come to you)
zeure laguntza eskaztera. (in search of your help).
Nire ames txarrak kendu (Take away my bad dreams)
ta nire gaba baketu. (and give me a peaceful night).
Stuttering, bunions, desire for a good catch, you name it…this island was viewed as a holy solution to it all.
Nowadays it is a spot unlike any other I have ever seen, a gorgeous stop along the Basque coast of Bizkaia.
If you make the visit on the 31st of July, there is a romería from the town of Arrieta where you can follow the Virgin Mary and the whole town up the steps, carrying out a promise they made many years ago to her if she would rid their village of a cholera outbreak.
And there is something magical about this place, something supremely beautiful and even spiritual. Looking out on the ocean that seems endless, knowing it was an embarkation point for ships that traveled around the world, that the horizon really was full of unknown promise…with your two feet planted on the rocks and pebbly cobblestone, it feels all now. A blending of past and present and supernatural.