“We have to check out this place San Juan de … when I come visit,” my mom eagerly told me butchering the name in her attempt to pronounce a word so foreign, . “I’ve been having fun pinning photos and making a Spain album on pinterest.” Oh No, I thought. My mom is becoming more social media savvy than me. (See below for her very own version of the story)
I had to admit, the pictures were stunning. Out of this world. If it was within Basque Country, we were going to find a way to grace the sight with our presence one way or another. I was glad my mom was researching all the places she wanted to visit and how to do it. I like to check out new places but I’m not one for hours of research. I’m a more spontaneous type of traveler and I was already seeing our personalities and travel styles collide, or rather seeing a balance between us. Plenty of blogs highlighted this amazing place but almost every traveler had arrived by car. Rental car be damned. I wasn’t about to try my manual driving skills in Europe, let alone rainy Basque Country. Before I could mutter the words to my mom, she replied. “Nope, I’m not driving in Spain.”
Well that was that. We were going to find a way to get their by public transport or be damned, which meant we were going to find a way to do it even if it meant threatening hitch hiking to my mother.
My mom’s first few days in the country, were spent eating and roaming the old quarter of Bilbao. Her first full day we spent an unexpected almost full day in and around the Guggenheim taking in the architecture, enjoying a delicious lunch from the museum café as we soaked up the sun while a violinist unknowingly serenaded us from below. This is the good life. As we made our way slowly back to our hotel, we happened upon a tourist info office and I impulsively walked in. My experience at tourism offices in other regions of Spain haven’t always been so helpful but I figured, at least I could walk away with a glossy brochure. Instead I was welcomed with eager Basques employees offering to hand out lots of brochures and magazines and when I inquired about our planned destination without a car they didn’t blink. Why yes, you’ll want to catch this bus from this stop in downtown Bilbao. Buses leave every hour to Bakio except Sundays, which is every 2 hours. There are taxi’s you can call once you arrive to take you to the parking area to begin your trek or you can walk…
We walked out of there re-planning our scheduled day. Tomorrow is Sunday. No sense in having a 2 hour wait around buses.
Monday morning the alarm sounded and I cursed the air wanting a few more minutes of shut eye. No sleep for the wicked or rather for the traveler whose enticed her mom to come visit and we’re going to see and do everything because we can! We slowly got ready and made our way out the door but not more than 10 steps had been taken and my mom was returning for another scarf. We made our way outside and the sunny weather had us questioning if we over dressed or under dressed and when the wind picked up, my mom nearly turned in for a second time for another layer of protection against the elements. We glanced at our watch knowing time wasn’t on our side for a relaxed Basque style breakfast. “Let’s check the bus stop so we know exactly where we need to go.” I chatted with the bus driver who politely told me, your bus is arriving in 25 minutes.
Perfect. We ran back to the nearest café and I ordered 2 café con leches y 2 tortilla de patatas, quickly but calmly inhaled our breakfast and ran back to the bus stop where our bus had just pulled in and passengers were boarding.
Nicely done, I said to my mom.
We were soon on our way to the beach town of Bakio as the rain splattered our windows and with the gloomy sky set to stay for a long while. We were the only passengers to hop of the bus at the end of the line to a sleepy town where more apartments were locked up for the winter than locals seem to live there year round.
We walked a bit. I had inadvertently left my phone at home thinking I didn’t need it, Who was I going to call? until I realized the lady at the tourism office suggested we call a taxi upon arrival. Oops.
It was clear the direction we needed to go and we set off on the path, ocean on one side, sheep on the other and not a soul in sight. So much for my idea of sticking my thumb out to get to the base of San Juan. We walked and talked, huffed and puffed enjoying the vistas of this side of the world. We saw a few other walkers and a sign alerted us we walking in the right direction. The rain had subsided.
We reached the base of San Juan about 45 minutes later and I chuckled that the restaurant we had heard of and figured we’d try for lunch was closed. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Why of course. Thank goodness we had already eaten.
We wandered down, admired caterpillars and I stopped every 10 steps to capture some hidden flowers until making it to the base of the steps.
A little history:
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe ( Gaz- teh-loo-got-che) is a hermitage dating to the 10th century in honors John the Baptist. The amount of stairs you have to trek up are debated but some quote 237 steps. The church has caught fire a few times and has been repaired. It’s occasionally open to the public but the tradition is when you reach the top, ring the bell three times and make a wish.
We were content to admire the view from above, taking numerous photos, taking refuge briefly in the covered area where hikers were enjoying a picnic and young folks were carrying coolers, sleeping bags and cases of beer. It appeared they would be calling this hermitage home for the evening. After snapping our hearts content in photos we blew kisses to the wind and made our trek down, forgetting to count the amount of stairs, lost in the beauty of this magical place. I focused on just where we were going to eat, knowing the clock was against us and we still had a bit of a hike back to the sleepy town of Bakio.
We were in luck and found a place willing to serve us, despite arriving closer to closing time. We enjoyed the comfort of shelter and delicious food to nourish our bodies as the rain began to fall. We are in Basque Country after all, where gray skies and rain are the norm.
How to get to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe from Bilbao by bus: Take bus A3518 from Plaza Moyua. This is a central stop for buses and the metro. Cost is 2.45 euros each way. Make sure when you arrive in Bakio to check bus departures for your return to Bilbao as they’re only every hour. Check Bizkaibus or here for more bus information.
READ my mom’s account of our trek on her blog: