Saturday, March 19, 2011

Excursions in Euskadi

We decided to rent a car for the weekend and head out on our first official excursion. Of course at the time we reserved the car we didn't plan on three out of four of us being quite ill during the week. Arming ourselves with cold meds and a sense of adventure, we crossed our fingers and headed out the door.

Our plan was a combination of sightseeing and seeing friends along the way. We began our journey around 10am, a car full of snacks, cameras in hand, and a GPS. We drove along the coast to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. The drive was quite nice although the highways were curving around through the mountains so not the best for those with a tendency towards motion sickness.

We were most of the way there when the views caught our eye and we had to stop for a photo shoot. We were in the small town of Bakio. It was a really nice area and seemed to be the perfect place for a vacation home by the ocean. While it isn't far from Bilbao, it didn't appear to be as easily connected to the big city as where we are living; a car or bus ride away. These first pictures are what we saw.

We continued our journey along the coast guided by our GPS. Most of the time that works well. However, this time it took us, as it turns out, past our destination and to where the highway ends, literally. Apparently it has been closed for a couple of years due to fallen rock. We pulled over, got out, and could see the island we were trying to reach. This time guided by our gut we backtracked and found a parking area where we could catch a not very well marked trail.

As you can see the views were spectacular. The staircase consists of approximately 230 stairs. That part really wasn't bad at all though. At the top is a small church that dates back to the 10th Century. We were lucky enough to enter. In most cases the building is closed.  In addition to the church, there is a nice covered area with stone picnic tables and a fireplace. You may have noticed in the pictures that Morgan is ringing a bell. It is supposed to be good luck to ring the bell three times and make a wish. (My wish was for no more trips to the clinic...)

I have to admit, it took me all weekend to learn to pronounce Gaztelugatxe, a word in Euskera. Since I worked so hard at it, I thought you would be interested to know its meaning. Gaztelu is castle and aitz is rock or bad. So it is either Castle on the Rock or Bad Castle. You can choose.

After spending some time taking in the views at the top we headed back down. The underneath part of the stone bridge that connects the island to the land has two arches. You can catch those in the pictures as well. We spent about an hour climbing around on the rocks, looking at snails and finding the tiniest shells ever. The last part was the hardest. Climbing back up to the parking area. I don't really know why it was so hard. Perhaps because that part of the walk is much less inspiring.

Once back at the car we needed to head to Guernika where we met up with Marina, an exchange student who lived in Madison last year. She is from Mundaka, just outside of Guernika. She and her parents took us to a restaurant where we sat overlooking the countryside and filled our bellies with roasted chicken, salad and french fries. The setting was beautiful and the company outstanding. It was really nice to meet her parents and to see Marina again, only this time in her home setting.

Following our meal we went to Bosque de Oma.  It was a long walk in but once we found the painted forest it was well worth it. The tree trunks were painted by Agustín Ibarrola, a Basque artist who lives in the village below the forest. We aren't sure in which one of the houses but you can see the village in the pictures below.

In any case, this is by far the most unique forest I have ever ventured through. In addition to the painted trees, there are triangle numbered markers on the ground. The idea is that you stand on the marker looking in the direction it is pointing and from there you see the works of art created by Ibarrola. He managed to paint tree trunks such that looking at groups of them together you see a variety of shapes and designs. Very curious. My suspicion is that he occasionally must return to the forest to repaint as the weather must wear away at his art work.

After locating the 40+ markers we made our way down the hill and walked through the small town below. The total trip was a couple of hours at least. Lots of walking but well worth. We ended our visit with a really nice bar on the beach near the ocean just across from Mundaka. We look forward to our next visit with Marina and her parents when we hope to visit her home town and other beautiful cities along the way.

We returned home Saturday night quite late, exhausted, but energized by our excursion. We knew we needed sleep as Sunday we had plans to visit our friends in Victoria. We definitely were getting the most out of our rental car.

Sunday came fast. Our first stop was Murgia, a small town on the way to Vitoria. It was there that we met up with our friends Rosa, José, Sara and Marta. They took us up to the top of a rocky mountain, Las Penas de Oro where we found Nuestra Señora de Oro, a small church, accompanied by more outstanding views. (For those of you who don't speak Spanish, you can translate those sites pasting the URL in at It's not perfect but will give you the gist.)

Following our mountain top pictures, we headed to Vitoria where we visited Salburua nature preserve. The museum describing how they restored the area was quite interesting and we could have definitely used more time to explore it. Unfortunately they close at 2 for lunch and reopen later in the evening. This is typical of most businesses. I find it amazing that Spain has continued to preserve so much of this tradition. It is also not possible to shop on Sundays as nearly everything is closed. Fresh bread and pastry is available, video rentals, movie theaters, museums, etc. However grocery/food stores, clothing stores and the like are all closed.

Following the nature preserve we headed for lunch and spent the rest of the day just enjoying our time together. The girls really welcomed the opportunity to spend time with Sara and Marta, who are 12 and 10.

The drive home was uneventful but most importantly, we knew this was the beginning. We hope to make the most of our time here and enjoy similar excursions as we get to know more about the area in which we are living.

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