The small islet in the Bay of Biscay is the zealous guardian of a fascinating story.
Gaztelugatxe is a small island in the heart of the Bay of Biscay, connected to the mainland by a narrow passage formed by a two-arcade bridge and a magnificent staircase composed of 230 steps that lead up to a 9th-century hermitage.
The hermitage is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, after whom the island is named: “San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.”
In 1053, the island was donated to a monk by the name of Zianno, apparently the abbot of the monastery of San Juan de La Peña in Huesca, by a Navarrese couple, Doña Tota Ortiz and Lieutenant Eneko López. Some historians and chroniclers from the neighboring island of Aketze and the nearby towns of Bakio and Cape Matxitxako, all these locations bordering the islet, point out that at some point the hermitage, due to its position in the bay that allows controlling the entire coast, was a Templar enclave.
The strategic importance of the place was recorded in the annals of history when it became the focal point of resistance against the advance of the kingdom of Castile over that of Pamplona in the 14th century, during the reign of Alfonso XI. The hermitage of Gaztelugatxe was defended by only seven knights, led by the Lord of Bizkaia, Juan Núñez de Lara, for more than a month, against the whole army of the Castilian monarch, which ended up withdrawing from the place, humiliated and defeated.
It would take more than 300 years for Gaztelugatxe to be plundered: British pirate troops led by Sir Francis Drake took the place in 1593, and carried away everything valuable. Shortly thereafter, during the war between Spain and France, 14 Huguenot ships took the island and threw the hermit who took care of the place down the cliff.
Gaztelugatxe is now a place of pilgrimage for the devotees of Saint John the Baptist, but also for those who visit the neighboring towns of Bermeo and Bakio, especially during autumn and spring. In summer, the place is crowded and, in winter, the hermitage closes.