San Juan de Gatzelugatxe is actually the name of the small hermitage located on the islet, a sanctuary dedicated to Saint John and dating back to the 10th century. The name of the islet, Gatzelugatxe, comes from the Basque language and translates roughly to mean ‘craggy fort,’ very appropriate.
The islet is joined to the mainland via a manmade walkway, which twists and turns up the rugged rock face to reach the monastery. There are two ways to reach the walkway – the first is a steep narrow trail, very rough underfoot, only wide enough for two people to pass. It starts at a restaurant perched high on the cliff, with excellent views over the small bay.
As we descended the kilometre or so to the walkway, the people coming uphill the other way looked completely wiped out, sweating and short of breath in the muggy weather. We found it easier going heading down, but our thighs still ached due to the steep and rocky nature of the path. It can be done in sandals (I did it), but I’d recommend runners and comfortable clothing.
As we descended we could hear the bell at the hermitage ringing. The tradition goes that if you ring the bell three times and make a wish, it will come true. Seeing the faces of the people coming uphill, I joked to hubby that perhaps they were wishing they didn’t have to make the climb back up again!
We reached the walkway quite quickly and paused, both to catch our breath and to take in the glorious views. The islet isn’t far along the coast from Zumaia and the spectacular rock formations of Itzurun Beach, so the landscape is quite similar.
With the mist looming low on the nearby hilltops, waves rushing, it wasn’t hard to feel transported to another time and place. The walkway and bridge have both been used in Game of Thrones as the entrance pathway to Dragonstone – it is on these stairs that Jon Snow ducks to the ground after seeing a dragon for the first time.
I saw no dragons, but it doesn’t mean the place is without magic. Aside from the beautiful scenery and wish-granting magic of the bell, there is also a statue of a saint sunk deep into the waters of the small bay. Tuna boats, before they head across the ocean to fish, all come here to circle the statue three times and ask for a blessing on their voyage and catch.
So, did I make a wish? Well, after the walk down, we decided that going all the way to the top wasn’t really for us. And, as we stood on the stairs, I wondered how on earth they’d got a film crew, equipment and actors in costume down the precipitous narrow path we’d just taken.
It made for an easier ascent, though it took a while. But much easier than we had thought. And I got to visit Dragonstone with my two favourite people. So perhaps my wish was granted, after all.
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