San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is listed as one of the highlights of the Spanish Basque Coast so it made our list of must-sees when we visited the area in our campervan. It is true that it is a spectacular sight, made even more special by the fact we had the place pretty much to ourselves and could enjoy the sunrise with only the sound of the sea and seagulls in the background instead of a myriad of different tourist voices each angling for the best selfy. I know we are also tourists and we did take lots of photos, which do not really do it justice so I am probably a bit hypocritical here
A bit of history about San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a natural inlet with the sea forming an arch and cave over many centuries which is joined to the mainland by a manmade 241 step staircase. Gaztelugatxe in Basque language means castle on the rocks and the existence of a castle is documented as far back as 1053 when it was donated to the monastery of San Juan de la Pena.
In 1559 San Juan de Gaztelugatxe was attacked by Sir Frances Drake. He looted everything he could find and killed the hermit that was living there by throwing him off a cliff to the rocks below.
Over the years it has been used as a fortress in many battles and since the middle ages it has been a significant place for religious beliefs. It is still today the most popular place of pilgrimage along the Basque coast. The most important pilgrimage takes place on 24th June to celebrate the feast of Saint John. The church is full of devotional offerings such as model boats, paintings and photographs made by sailors and fishermen to the saint as a sign of thanks for protecting them from the dangers of the sea.
Unfortunately the church is not original. It gradually deteriorated over time and was eventually demolished in 1886 and then rebuilt. In more recent times it was destroyed in a fire in 1978 and rebuilt yet again in 1980.
There is a footprint at the top of the steps which is said to have been left by Saint John the Baptist and if you put your foot inside the footprint mythology says you will receive good luck. Legend also says that the Saint only needed 3 steps to reach the church from Bermeo a town 5 miles away.
Game of Thrones
San Juan Gaztelugatxe is a magical place that has been visited by tourists and of course a place of pilgrimage over many centuries but there is nothing like appearing as a filming location in Game of Thrones to boost visitor numbers. Scenes for the 7th season of Game of Thrones were shot were it represents Dragonstone, home of the Targaryen dynasty.
Getting to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
It is situated between the the towns of Bakio and Bermeo and the nearest large city is Bilbao. There are 3 car parks but due to increasing popularity these can become full at peak times.
It is possible to use public transport. The Bizkaibus line A3524 goes from Bermo to Bakio and stops at the Gaztelu bus stop right outside.
Tour operators also now run organised trips.
Visiting in a motorhome
If you are planning on visiting in a motorhome it is a real challenge as ALL 3 carparks do not allow motorhome parking. These are the options we could find to visit:
- There is a bus from Bakio where it is possible to stop overnight in a dedicated motorhome parking area (43.428111 -2.804248).
- You can walk from Bakio on the coast road which is a one way road and looked fairly quiet. This is a distance of about 2 miles from the motorhome stopover.
- The option that we took was to park on the side of the main BI-3191 road. It is possible to pull completely off the road but great care must be taken when exiting your motorhome. We drove past the night before and there were about 10 motorhomes parked on the road. In the early morning when we visited we were the only one.
Planning your visit
The Games of Thrones link has vastly increased the number of visitors (don’t be put off though, see our top tip below) so there can be queues in high season. To help alleviate this it is necessary to book tickets if you are planing on visiting between 10am and 7pm from June 15th to end of September, all weekends except in Jan, Feb and March plus public holidays. If you are not sure if a ticket is needed for when you plan to visit just go the website and try and book a ticket, if it is grayed out then you do not require one.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is always open, it is even possible to spend the night there.
The church is open Tues – Sat 11am – 6pm and Sunday’s 11am – 3pm. These time can vary in off peak season. If it is closed when you visit have a peek in through the round windows in the huge wooden doors.
The good news, at the time we visited September 2019 both parking and tickets were still free.
What to expect when you get there
Once you have reached the parking area you can get a good view from the viewpoint which is about a 10-minute walk if you are unable to do the full 20-minute walk. If you are going to walk all the way out to the church you need to be reasonably fit and wear sensible shoes, no flip flops! There is a steep path down from the car park and then the climb up the 241 steps up to the church. The path is in good condition with only one section of loose stones and there is a hand rail for most if.
I would allow a minimum of 30 minutes each way to give yourself time to take photos and enjoy the view with 20/30 minutes at the church so allow about an hour and a half for your visit. If this is going to be too much for you then just walk to the viewpoint, which will take about 10 minutes. When you reach the church at the top if you ring the bell 3 times it is said to bring you good luck.
As San Juan de Gaztelugatxe has grown in popularity there are now toilets situated partway down the road just before the steps and in the carpark. There are also a couple of bars and restaurants at the top for refreshments.
Our top tip
To beat the crowds it is best to visit before 10 am and after 7 pm. You can also get a great sunrise/sunset. We drove past in the evening and it still looked really busy so we went a few miles further on to Matxitxako lighthouse (43.455078 -2.752619) and got a great view of the sunset over San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.
We then stayed overnight in the lighthouse carpark and left early the next morning to see the sunrise at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. We pretty much had the place to ourselves, no crowds, no queuing and no need to get a ticket. We were able to really enjoy the magical atmosphere – on our own!
If you are planning on driving to northern Spain check out our blog post on the quickest route to south-west France on non toll roads or if you are new to campervan life have a look at our thoughts on what you need in your campervan kitchen.