Gastelugatxe: Holy Grails, More Wishes, the Sublime. (Oh, and once again friggin’ lost on a hike.)


There are mythical places you unexpectedly read about in a novel or see in a picture, and they become an obsession: a Holy Grail you cannot but pursue. For example, Pondicherry. The very first day Miss MC shared photos of this place on her Facebook page, I became fixated on going there someday. But it’s in India, which might delay my gratification a bit. Not, however, San Juan de Gastelugatxe right here in the Basque Country, which I visit relatively frequently. It is a giant rock, Gibraltar-like, on the Bay of Biscay, joined to the mainland by an impossibly high arched stone bridge, with a small chapel dedicated to St. John the Baptist at its summit. Its religious, military, and nautical history–featuring feudal lords, Templar monks, knights-errant, pirates, fishermen–goes back to the eleventh century. Its name can be interpreted in two ways: Gaztelu-aitz (Castle Rock) or Gaztelu-gache (Rugged Castle). And doesn’t it just roll off your tongue like an incantation?

So I decided to take advantage of Miss R’s unparalleled stick-shift driving abilities, and off we went on my first road trip of The Basque Summer of 2014, on our little rental Fiat Cinquecento, which she hated and I loved (apparently because I didn’t have to drive it). (Also, she was the one who was right about this, but more about that in a future post.)


Not that we got a particularly early start, because we’re us–and then our first GPS did not work, and we got lost for an hour in Bilbao trying to find the train station we had just left so they could give us a new one, until we had (well, I had) the brilliant idea of following signs to the airport Europcar office to get a new, friendlier GPS (which we named Paquita).

FINALLY we were off through somewhat challenging winding roads with crazy almost 360º curves (thank you Miss R for not getting us killed!!!) and finally made it there. We were SO ANXIOUS to start the climb that we just had to have lunch first at Eneperi, because such a spiritual experience has to be undertaken with a full store of energy. Eneperi includes a very formal restaurant (full that day because of a wedding) and a tapas bar, but we decided on the outdoor cervecera or beer garden, with very simple (but quite acceptable) grilled food and fantastic views of the rock.

Actually the above decision followed a bit of negotiation, because Spaniards in fact believe that no physical effort must be made immediately after lunch, at risk of death, and there is no convincing them that I survived my entire childhood jumping into the pool right after eating. Just as there is no convincing them that it takes bacteria/viruses to make you sick, and pneumonia is not directly caused by breezes hitting your throat or air conditioning. But that is an aside. At any rate, after I did a little violence to Miss R and everyone at the beer garden marveled that we intended to climb up to the chapel after lunch (!!!)–we took off. And I at least am happy this didn’t happen on an empty stomach.

Off we went…


and UP we went,


and UP, and UP…


past the locals below fishing for percebes and having a feast right there (underneath the bridge):


Although it is not clear to me that the guys fishing them (who seemed to be in danger) and the guys eating them (who looked delighted, dressed in white with the typical blue scarf on their necks) were in the same group. And the latter did not seem like the type to suffer, as per a comparison between our modes of transportation (Cinquecento, our own feet) and theirs:


Anyway: we made it! A gravel path, a dirt trail, a bridge, and 245 steep steps UP later, which can be all the same to you if you’re a thirtysomething half-marathon runner like Miss R or make you a bit rosy-cheeked if you’re… not.


At the summit is the quaint little church with a fishing boat-themed altar.


The best thing is that (because this is after all SPAIN) when you get to the chapel you can buy candles for offerings, water, postcards, and naturally, beer (a San Miguel). Not around the back, not in the hiker’s refuge, but right inside.


There we were, and I may or may not have had that beer, and then we followed the pilgrim’s routine: rang the church bell three times and made a wish. Have I mentioned I love to wish (upon a star, upon an olive tree, upon a hermitage bell)?


My friends can probably guess what I wished for. But it was the WRONG wish. I should have asked to make it back safely and without incident. The first part (safely) we did achieve, but the second… not so much. For starters, upon our triumphant entrance


we failed to notice what was a-brewin’. Which was the Storm of the Century:


This picture does not remotely capture its fierceness (we actually feared for the perceberos’ life). But I think it does capture a little bit of its beauty. It was everything I’d expected of Gastelugatxe. It was, in fact, a true experience of the sublime. As Burke described it, “the passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment; and Astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.”

Sublime is what we felt looking at Gastelugatxe before we began our ascent:


The harmony of serenity and monumentality, natural and manmade. The lure of the unmeasurable in every single view.


The insecurity and, yes, fear of finding ourselves in the middle of an enormous gale, despite knowing that we were in the twenty-first century, in a tourist attraction where someone would unfailingly rescue you (if anything did happen). But “no passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as terror; and whatever is terrible with regard to sight, is sublime.”

After the storm, DOWN we went,


and it seemed the number of steps had exponentially increased, because going down stairs is much harder on your knees than going up stairs, and after the descent there was still another stiff climb up. Which became about 3 kilometers longer because WE MISSED THE TURN into the dirt path that would have taken us directly back to the restaurant/parking lot, and ended up going up a much longer, circuitous road without any idea, until the very last minute, of whether it would actually take us where we needed to go. But it wouldn’t be a hiking (or “hiking”) trip with me if I didn’t get you lost, as Miss H could attest to (from when she and I came to Bilbao together in 2010 and I made her saunter past a herd of bulls because “the trail map wouldn’t have sent us this way if it weren’t safe”).

And of course it rained on us again.


Torrentially. But we were elated (at least I was). Because we made it to one of the most beautiful places on earth. And we had no idea what we were doing, yet we survived.

WHICH naturally made us hungry again. So we moved on to Donosti (San Sebastián), with a list of pintxos bars for all compass. That, however, needs its own post.

And I need to sleep a little bit now…

About WRF

New York-based Spanish Cultural Studies professor and academic author venturing (nervously) into new forms of writing: travel and food-logue, cultural commentary, pseudophilosophical speculation, opinion, reminiscence, prophecy, examination of conscience.
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3 Responses to Gastelugatxe: Holy Grails, More Wishes, the Sublime. (Oh, and once again friggin’ lost on a hike.)

  1. Pingback: Back on the Road with Messrs. L and M: Sleepy Towns, Pedestrian-Tipping, Another Sip from the Holy Grail | plomaipel

  2. Pingback: Bilbao > London > New York: Vegetable Sandwiches, English Champagne, Crappy Flights, Dead Plants, and THE END | plomaipel

  3. Pingback: Art, Architecture, Parks and Recreation: My Begrudging New York City Staycation | plomaipel

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