The Basque coast between San Sebastian and Bilbao offers some of the most stunning scenery I’ve seen so far. The road takes me along sheer cliff edges, through small fishing villages, beside rivers and estuaries and sometimes through rolling pasture or dense pine forest. Each bend rounded gives a new perspective on this region and tells tales of geology, history, religion and daily life of the local people.
One of the first fishing ports I pass is Geteria. It doesn’t look like much, but a tiny island joined to the mainland catches my eye. It is known locally as Raton de Geteria (The Mouse of Geteria), supposedly due to its unusual shape. However, from my cliff top viewpoint just past the town, I fail to see any resemblance. Geteria is also the birthplace of Juan Sebastian Elcano, who led the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe. A three year voyage which ended in Seville on 6th September 1522.
There are several interesting towns along this stretch of coast but the one which made my jaw drop was Mutriku, whose terraced houses clung to the steep slopes of the Arno Mountain and where the football pitch is surrounded by blocks of flats which probably have the best seats in the house. It is also the birthplace of Cosme Damián Churruca, a brave naval officer who died at the Battle of Trafalgar.
I decide to stay overnight at the fishing village of Lekeitio and I couldn’t have picked a better spot. This charming port has an interesting old town of narrow cobbled streets with overhanging balconies where sheets and clothes hang drying, giving off an aroma of fresh laundry. Down by the port is the austere Basilica de la Asuncion de Santa Maria, with a gothic-Flemish 16th century alter piece that gives me a headache to look at and probably RSI for the poor cleaners who are attempting to clean it with multi-coloured feather dusters. To clear my head I follow the stone pathway, marked by’ the way of the cross’, to the top of Mount Lumentza. I’m rewarded for my efforts with a stunning view of the village, the port, the beach and the small wooded island of St Nicolas which can only be reached at low tide.
The next day I have to head inland following the River Gernika to the town of the same name. Between the town and the sea estuary is a UNESCO biosphere Reserve, a haven for wildlife, birdlife and twitcher. There is even a Bird Centre at Urdaibai, for research into the birds and their habitats, and to better understand how they can be protected. Strangely, it’s the only place that I haven’t seen much birdlife.
Where the river meets the sea, I find the town of Bermeo, a former capital of the Basque region and still an important fishing port with many canning and freezing factories. I decide to get lost wandering around the old town and stumble upon a number of bronze statues, each with a tale to tell. On either side of the Arch of San Juan I find a woman with a basket of fish on her head, and overlooking the port, a small group looking out to sea accompanied by the phrase:
Often going through tense, anxious times.
And then they say fish is expensive.”
Below, at the port, is another bronze scene of a boy, a dog and a desperate looking man. It apparently tells the tale of a 1912 shipwreck survivor, found by the boy and his dog. Vicious storms are not uncommon in the region. In fact 255 seamen perished in a storm off Bermeo in 1870. The final bronze, outside the Cloister Chirch of San Francisco, is of a donkey, a woman and a girl carrying apples and churns of milk.
On the third day I continue to follow the coast, climbing through forests of pine and eucalyptus and descending to small port villages. Although the sky is grey I have a wonderful view of the Chapel of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, perched on a rocky island and reached by a flight of 231 stone steps. Inside are offerings made by sailors who have survived a shipwreck and it is said that if you ring the bell of the chapel 13 times your wish will come true. Unfortunately, I can’t test that theory as the chapel is closed while repair work is carried out on the steps.
Just before I reach the tiny coastal village of Armintza I come across a sight that is not mentioned in any guidebook or local tourist information. I find out later that it is the unfinished and abandoned nuclear power station of Lemoiz. The site was opposed by ETA who attacked it several times in the late 1970s and finally kidnapped and executed the chief engineer in January 1981. Huge power lines still stretch across the hills on either side, not providing power to anyone.
Finally I reach the beach resorts of Gorliz, Plentzia and Sopelana, all offering a metro station serving the city of Bilbao. I can see smoke rising on the horizon and huge tankers moored in the sheltered bay. Signs of a large industrial centre, but I hope to find the historical and cultural heart of the city.