Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A new side to Basque Country

The Basque Country in Spain is split into three I could you could say 'counties' just like we have Cowlitz, Clark, etc. I live and work in Guipúzcoa but last weekend Joseba and I headed to the neighboring county, which is called Vizcaya. With a similar coastline, this county boasts Bilbao as their main city. Since I don't have a car I haven't traveled out of the county much, but on this occasion, Joseba took me to a special place on the Vizcayan coast, next to a small town called Bermeo.

After about an hour of windy roads that whip you along the coast and guide you along the jagged cliffs of the Basque coast, we arrived at the parking area and started our walk down to the sea-level, excited to see a beautiful church named San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. Not just any church, this spot is famous throughout Basque Country for being a pilgrimage spot. With money donated by Don Íñigo López Señor de Vizcaya, this church was built in 1053. While the age of the church is impressive, what is even more stunning is the fact that is it built atop a huge rock that juts out into the Bay of Biscay and only connects to the mainland with a narrow walkway. To think of the construction in 1053 blows my mind.

Apparently the rock was daunting and was a tough job back then too because the name, Gaztelugatxe, in Basque translates like this: gaztelu = castle and gache = difficult. So I guess it means difficult castle? Others also think that it could me Castle Rock because aitz in Basque means rock. Regardless, the people who constructed this small chapel atop a craggy peninsula named it quite appropriately. And, for any people who live in Castle Rock, WA, now you know what your city is named in Basque!

Originally with a step for each day of the year, now there are only 231 steps to reach the top. It is said that Saint John (San Juan) the Baptist reached the top of the rock and that three of his footprints remain in the rocks. Since then, people have been making the hermitage to this special spot, one step at a time. Since there used to be 365 steps, I kind of wondered where all the extra steps went but after going up about 100 I stopped wishing for more. In its almost 1000 years atop the hill, Gatzelugatxe has seen attacks, storms, fires and wars. One such story that I found quite interesting was that in 1596 the troops of the 14 ship strong La Rochelle fleet climbed the rock and looted the jewels from the church. In the process, they threw the hermit who cared for the church over the cliffs.

In 1808 the state of the church was so bad that talks started of demolishing it. In true Spanish time, the talks lasted almost 80 years and in 1886, the church was torn down and reconstructed, with the original floor plan still intact. What stands now is a reconstruction except for the original facade that still greets those who make it up the steps.

Going along with tradition, we did as the the pilgrims who ascend the rock do and made a wish and then pulled the bell at the entrance of the chapel three times. I'll let you know if it comes true, and then maybe you will be convinced to come for a visit and make your own wish. Not only popular with tourists, many Basque fisherman in the neighboring villages visit the church before heading out to sea, and the chapel is full of offerings from them.

Atop the cliff we took in the stunning views that surround all sides of the church. Blessed with a bright blue sky that seemed to meet the never-ending Atlantic, the stark contrast of the rocky coast and the fresh grass and flowers made for a postcard-perfect view. With the wind at our face we relaxed for some time before the much easier walk down and the windy drive home.

Muxu (Basque for kiss)

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