Pilgrimage to Dragonstone

Bay of Biscay
There’s plenty of room for everyone to chill in the Bay of Biscay

The rocky coast of Northern Spain is always a treat for the mind, the body, the senses. Long sandy coasts locked by plateaus of expansive greenery and cliffs withered by the beating of the crashing Atlantic waves, these picturesque sceneries await any traveller who would find himself lost in this less known part of Europe. The pilgrimage to Gatzelugatxe, an island in the Bay of Biscay, is one of those enchanted walks to tread in this coast. Now it has the unfortunate nickname “Dragonstone” after last season’s Game of Thrones exposure as the home base of the mother of dragons. Honestly, I haven’t heard of Gatzelugatxe prior to its inclusion into the list of accessible (and hence tourist plagued) GoT location sites and I couldn’t understand why it has always been under the radar. It can easily make it in any tourist catalogue. Probably, it has really been a well-kept Basque secret… until now.

When I went there a couple of weeks ago, most of the tourists were still Spanish judging from the language and a major part of them was French due to the proximity which probably meant that somehow, its international marketing is still on a leash. Also, the lack of typical European tourism facilities further attests to this. I guess it should be kept that way too. It still has this rugged feel to it and since there aren’t a lot of touristic activities to stop the crowds aside from the breathtaking views of the sea and the islands, there isn’t much of a bottleneck even if the narrow pathways get too packed. The traffic still flows smoothly; people just come for a day trip and then leave immediately.

Bakio
The nearby village of Bakio is actually a local surfing destination.

To get there, I took a hike from the small village of Bakio. It is a 40-minute bus ride (A3518) from Plaza Moyua in Bilbao. I read from various fora online that you can take cheap taxi rides to get to Gatzelugatxe from Bakio but I opted to walk the 5-km paved path from the Bakio shore, which in itself is a destination for surfers. It was a good decision especially since most of the path is by the shore, on top of the plateau. It’s also not a challenging and perilous climb and could take more or less an hour. The slopes are also not too steep. I pass several old people who effortlessly took the same route. Moreover, the views along the way are stunning. The direct asphalted road occasionally branches out into pig trails cleared by occasional hikes ending into cliffside sites, all to yourselves. In hindsight, they could have been good picnic or camping sites to spend the rest of the day. Gatzelugatxe would also peek from time to time as you move closer.

Gaztelugatxe
On the way to the top of Gaztelugatxe, a name which literally and aptly means “Castle Rock”

The end of the road takes you to a viewpoint on the plateau where you can see Gatzelugatxe and the nearby desolate island of Akatxa. The viewpoint probably hosts the only restaurant in the area. From there, you must descend to the shore through a rough trail until you get to the bridge connecting the island to the mainland. It’s roughly just a kilometre so it’s not so bad. You then have to climb around 230 steps for a view of a lifetime. If that’s not enough to make you feel better after the dehydrating hike, you can try making a wish while ringing the chapel bell three times on the top of the island. You can check out this site for a bit of history: San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.

 

IMG_8901
Typical rock formations eroded to mystical dragon-scale-like forms.

 

The best part for me is the rock formation along the shoreline. The slate layers piling on top of one another broken into gigantic shards by probably millions of years of natural causes, which protrude like islets surrounding the coasts. They indeed look like they were once scales on backs of dragons (if they ever existed, that is).

It’s honestly the mild fandom that dragged me to travel to this place but it’s an amazing destination even for those who haven’t seen GoT. I highly recommend squeezing it to your itinerary when you find yourself in Basque Country whose cuisine is also a pleasure for the taste buds, adding another layer to your Hispanic travel experience. It will surely not disappoint.

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