northern spain 2014

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

One Basque Country place that all of us wanted to visit was San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.

It’s a little chapel, dedicated to Saint John, that sits atop 231 steps, on a tiny island that’s connected to the mainland by a long stone bridge. Before going to Spain, I found images of the place to be so enchanting! I even posted a photo of it, the day I departed for Spain.

My family and I referred to it as “The Great Wall”—because it kind of looks like it!

…also, we weren’t sure how to pronounce “Gaztelugatxe.” (Once in Basque Country, we learned it sounds like “gatz-uh-leg-at-tay.”)

I really enjoyed the ride from Hotel Ellauri to Gaztelugatxe. The last part of the drive was along the coast—and you know how much I love being by the beach. Seeing the small coastal towns and smelling the salty air just made me happy.

I was surprised at how hopping the the parking area for Gaztelugatxe was. We’d barely seen people, over the previous few days, and I didn’t think this would be such a popular attraction.

But then, they wanted to see this, for themselves, just as I did.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

From the parking lot, we walked down a steep, paved ramp to a lookout point. It had the perfect view of Gaztelugatxe.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

The coast, near San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

After snapping a ton of pics, we headed down a narrow, winding, rocky, dirt path to get to the base of the bridge. I was surprised that there wasn’t an easier way down, given the amount of people (including kids and older folks!) who make the trip. But I suppose that kind of overprotectedness is what you get used to from living in the States. 😉

Finally, we reached the bridge.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

We chose the hottest point of the day to walk up the steps. It was high noon and not a cloud in the sky.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Walking up San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

The climb wasn’t bad, at all—just hot! We stopped a few times on the way up, to sip water and enjoy the views.

At one point, we passed a wedding party coming down the stairs. The bride looked as if she’d walked down stone steps in a gown and stilettos every day. But I really wanted to applaud one of the older women in the group. She’d taken off her heels and was walking down barefoot!

Soon, we reached the chapel at the top.

The chapel of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

After refueling with granola bars and water, we headed back down the stairs.

M & P at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Near the bottom, there was another staircase that lead down to a rocky beach.

The beach at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

The beach at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

By the time we made our way back up the rocky, dirt path, to the parking lot, we were sweaty and hungry—and very much in need of cervezas. Luckily, there was a bar/restaurant that served that, and pintxos. We chowed down on a few types of tortillas and toasted the day…before heading on to Bilbao.

Meme and E, post-hike

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Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain

Gorbea Natural Park was one big reason we stayed at Hotel Ellauri. In our desire to detox from city life, we wanted easy access to nature, and Ellauri sits near the edge of the park.

On our second day in Spain, we went hiking in Gorbea. Kepa and Randa, Ellauri’s innkeepers, were very knowledgable about the trails. They gave us several options, ranging in length from two to eight hours. We weren’t quite feeling an all-day hike, so we chose a nearby trail that would take an hour and a half to ascend, and an hour to descend.

After breakfast, we went to Zeanuri’s tiny store for fruit, bread and cheese. That afternoon, we drove through the tiny town of Areatza and up a narrow, winding road to the trailhead. We parked in the Pagomakurre area, then started the Arraba-Kargaleku trek.

Hiking in Gorbea Natural Park | nycexpeditionist.com

It was the perfect day for hiking—sunny, yet cool.

Hiking in Gorbea Natural Park | nycexpeditionist.com

The gravelly path made for pretty easy walking; the ascent wasn’t very steep.

Gorbea Natural Park | nycexpeditionist.com

Along the way, we passed a few other hikers, most who were on their way down. That was one nice thing about the trail—there was never a point when we were hiking alongside or behind anyone.

Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

About 20 minutes into the hike, we came across a herd of grazing goats. Each one had a bell tied to his neck. The collective sound was a mellifluous symphony.

Goats at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Shortly after, we came across some cows. They, too, had bells around their necks, though of a different size from the goats. They created their own melody.

Cow at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Cows grazing at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Farther along the way, horses grazed. Of course, they had their own bells.

Horse at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Horses at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

I’d never hiked a trail with so many animals—and such musical ones! The sounds of the different bells, plus the green landscape, were incredibly soothing and relaxing.

After about an hour and a half of hiking, we reached what appeared to be the summit of our trail.

Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

We stopped for a snack…

M & P at Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

…and just enjoyed the view.

Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

As we ate, we realized that hikers were coming over the ridge. It was possible to go from summit to summit. We asked how far to the next one; it would take about an hour and a half.

We debated whether to continue on. Peter was game, but Mal and I weren’t sure we were up for walking another 4+ hours. (There and back, plus returning to our car.)

So we took a few more photos…

M&P, Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

H&M, Gorbea Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | nycexpeditionist.com

…before hiking back down.

Hotel Ellauri: Zeanuri, Spain

We began our northern Spain trip in Basque Country. The autonomous region’s most well-known destinations include the coastal cities of Bilbao and San Sebastian, though we opted to start with neither.

As you might have gleaned from my previous entries, I was feeling a little burnt on city life—as was my family! We wanted to start our trip somewhere quaint and relaxing, away from tightly packed buildings and lots of people.

That’s how we ended up at Hotel Ellauri, in Zeanuri. The pretty little village is in the countryside, about 45 minutes outside Bilbao. It has all of 1,100 inhabitants.

Hotel Ellauri is up a narrow, winding road, on a hillside outside the town center.

Hotel Ellauri | nycexpeditionist.com

Mal, Peter and I arrived on a Thursday afternoon (a day before our parents) and were the only guests there! Not that we minded.

Ellauri is the kind of place I love patronizing. The owners, a lovely couple named Randa and Kepa, built the hotel five years ago. They’re Zeanuri natives, and I could feel the care that went into the place. Each element seemed to highlight the natural surroundings. My room was bright and airy; I especially loved the vaulted wood ceiling and lively green wall.

Hotel Ellauri room | nycexpeditionist.com

The fixtures and bedding were all high quality. And best of all, there were double doors that swung open…

Hotel Ellauri windows | nycexpeditionist.com

…to reveal this view!

Zeanuri, from Hotel Ellauri | nycexpeditionist.com

Just what I’d been waiting for.

Hotel Ellauri felt wonderfully away from it all.

And it was.

On our first night, we tried to have a quick dinner nearby. Randa had hinted that there were no real dining options in Zeanuri or Areatza, another medieval village, and that we’d be better off driving into Bilbao or Vitoria-Gasteiz, larger cities about 30-40 minutes from the hotel, in opposite directions.

But, we figured, how slim were the local pickings? A quiet dinner in the village sounded good to us!

We drove into Areatza to try one of its three bars. (An actual restaurant didn’t seem to be an option.) The hamlet was quiet, and the bars looked like empty townie sports bars. Not quite what we had in mind for our first meal in Spain.

So we headed into Bilbao with no specific restaurant in mind. In our sleep-deprived/jet-lagged/famished state, we spent an embarrassing amount of time circling Casco Viejo for parking. After an hour and a half, we finally realized we’d passed an underground garage multiple times. Once we’d parked, most restaurants were winding down service for the night. But we had a simple yet satisfying meal at La Deliciosa, on Calle Jardines. Though anything would have been deliciosa, at that point!

DSC_0757

The following evening, once my parents had arrived, we ate at Ellauri’s restaurant. Kepa and Randa prepared a fabulous meal of rice and cockles…

Rice and cockles

…and steak and peppers. It was one of the most delicious steaks I’ve ever eaten.

Peppers and steak

Ellauri proved to be in a prime spot. During our time there, we explored more of Bilbao and the Basque coast, as well as Gorbea Natural Park—whose mountains you could see from the hotel.

Hotel Ellauri | nycexpeditionist.com

…more on those places, in posts to come!

Fall Vacation, Booked: Northern Spain

Errezil view by Oskar Calero on Fivehundredpx

I couldn’t be happier. Over the past few weeks, my family and I have been discussing possible destinations for a fall trip. This weekend, we decided on a place and booked flights: We’re headed to northern Spain at the end of September!

None of us have been there before. (I’ve actually never visited Spain!) To be honest, I didn’t know much about the area until I started researching. But the more I read, the more excited I became. It seems that northeast Spain has pretty beaches, amazing mountains, picturesque vineyards and quaint towns.

We’re still figuring out how we’ll break down our 11 days there, but here’s the rough itinerary we’re considering: We’ll spend the first few days outside Bilbao, exploring the area and neighboring Asturias. From there, we’ll drive to La Rioja, and enjoy some time among the vineyards. Then, we’ll head north, into the French Pyrenees. We’ll finish up with a few days in and around San Sebastian. (Perhaps including Errezil, the place in the photo above.)

Though it’s going to be my first time in Spain, I’m okay with bypassing Madrid and Barcelona. I’d love to spend time exploring both places, but I really need a break from hectic city life. I’m very much looking forward to more low-key enjoyment—and lots of gorgeous scenery.

Have you been to northern Spain or southern France? If so, I’d love to hear your recommendations!

(Image by Oskar Calero via 500px on Pinterest)