San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

The Chapel at the Sea

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is an unusual and beautiful place that has been the site of many pilgrimages and ancient struggles. It is located near the town of Bermeo on top of an hill that looks out onto stunning views of the sea.

Plan Your Visit to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

The visit to the hill and hermitage (chapel) of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe takes a full morning; it takes 2-3 hours to go down the route to the hill, cross the bridge to get to the hermitage and then return to the car park. Be mindful that there are differences in altitude so it is necessary to be physically healthy. Because San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is an isolated area with few restaurants, the best option is to return to nearby Bermeo where there is a wider variety of restaurants and taverns at more affordable prices, as well as some places to stay (see our pages on Where to Eat and Where to Sleep in Bermeo). For a fulfilling weekend getaway you can visit the nearby towns of Bermeo and Mundaka (where you can find the Urdaibai Nature Reserve Interpretation Centre) and Gernika.

Do you want to visit this place?

Unclear origin

The origins of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe are not clear. On the one hand, there is a theory that the area was founded by the Templars, a Catholic military order. However, there are numerous conflicting legends related to its creation and history. The first is that St. John himself set foot on the land of Gaztelugatxe and today you can find his footprint on the stone steps near the top. Historians agree that the building itself dates back to the 10th century, while funeral remains from the 9th and 12th centuries have been preserved around it.

In 1334 seven Biscayan fighters locked themselves in their hermitage in order to escape from the troops of King Alfonso XI of Castile. They were under siege for more than a month until the monarch’s troops decided to withdraw. In 1596 seven Protestant ships from the French town of La Rochelle raided Bermeo, looting its surroundings. The chapel was plundered as a result of its Catholic character and the hermit who lived there was thrown off from the top of the islet.

Its historical prestige has been reinforced by the numerous votive offerings from sailors that have managed to survive shipwrecks in nearby waters and are now stored inside the chapel.

Qué ver en San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
Vista del islote de San Juan de Gaztelugaxte en un grabado

Tratidions attached to the Hermitage

For years, visitors and sailors have preserved many superstitions, traditions and rituals of the hermitage. For example, once you reach the chapel, you must ring its bells three times, and as a reward a wish or prayer will be granted. It is also known to have curative powers for women with fertility problems. And when Bermeo’s fishing boats go out to sea, they make several turns back and forth in front of the island in order to earn the protection of St. John for the high seas.

The islet of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is an islet near Bermeo which, together with the neighbouring island of Aqueche, forms a protected biotope that extends from Bakio to Cape Machichaco. Several natural tunnels traverse it and allow water to pass through. For years the rock has been pierced by the fury of the sea, forming large arches on its surface.

It is connected to the mainland by a stone bridge that leads visitors on a narrow, challenging ascent to the top, where the Hermitage of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe sits. There are a total of two hundred and thirty-one steps on the path which is marked by crosses that signify the stations of the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross). When you reach the top you can enjoy a panoramic view of the landscape and ocean which is one of the most recommended and postcard worthy views.

Qué ver en San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
La ermita de San Juan de Gaztelugatxe en lo alto del islote

The Hermitage

The chapel itself is an idyllic building and is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. It has a rectangular shape with a gable roof, a portico on the South side and also a single nave and polygonal apse built with masonry and reinforcements for the buttresses. The exact date of construction is unknown but is speculated to be in the 10th century. In 1886 it was renovated.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is, without doubt, one of the great elements of the extensive Basque natural heritage. A visit not to be missed by anyone entering the lands of the Bay of Biscay. In conclusion, a place to visit and return.

Must see

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
Sunset from the Hermitage
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
Stairs to access

Practical data

Coordinates

43° 26′ 49.2″ N, 2° 47′ 6″

Distances

Bermeo 8 km, Bilbao 36 km, San Sebastián-Donostia 121 km, Madrid 431 km

Parking

At the entrance of the bridge

San Juan (June 24th, the inhabitants of Bermeo make a floral offering to the image of the Virgin immersed in the sea), Pilgrimage from Arrieta (July 31st), San Juan Degollado (August 29th, the residents of Bakio commemorate the martyrdom of the saint)

Pilgrimage of Saint John, from Bermeo (June 24th)


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