A Game of Thrones Adventure in Bilbao

If any of you are Game of Thrones fans, you will love this. I personally do not watch the show, but after hearing that there was a hiking spot near Bilbao called San Juan de Gaztelugatxe that portrayed Dragonstone Island in the show, I was all in.

View of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe from the bottom of the hike

This past Sunday, a couple friends and I made plans to check out this famous spot. My host mom told me to go earlier rather than later because it gets really busy as it is a popular tourist destination. Therefore, I asked everyone to meet at the Plaza at 10am to catch the 10:30 bus. Of course, my host mom and I both wake up late that morning. I ended up getting on the metro at 10:05 and knew I wasn’t going to make the bus. By the time I had arrived at the Plaza, it was 10:35 and there were no bus, nor friends in sight. Obviously, this would happen with my luck. I ended up having to sit in the Plaza for another hour to wait for the next bus at 11:30. I felt so horrible. I had organized this entire trip and my friends were counting on me to arrive, and I literally missed the bus. How embarrassing. I finally got on the bus knowing that the hike was going to be the very last stop about 40 minutes from Bilbao.

Once the bus arrived, I had no idea where I was. There was supposed to be another bus that would take you to the beginning of the hike, but I could not figure out where it was for the life of me. I ended up just following the paved path of the highway through the forest for a solid 45 minutes. After exploring the forest, I came to some restaurants and bars at the top of the hill. Finally, there were a ton of people I was able to follow and figure out where the hike actually started.

Approaching the 240 stairs to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

Finally seeing the sign for the beginning of the hike, I felt a sense of relief. Now I was just focused on finding my group of friends. There were two people with clipboards before the hike that gave everyone tickets, and also asked where we were from. The people around me were from all over Europe and even the United States. I heard lots of English speakers which was slightly comforting. They also warned us that this was an intense workout and slightly difficult. That wasn’t really what I wanted to hear after hiking through the woods on the side of the road for 45 minutes prior. The windy road to the actual island was all downhill, which was a nice break, but also great for getting shin splints. As I observed the people around me, they were all dressed fairly nice for a hike. It looked like this was their afternoon walk with the kids or something. Meanwhile, I was dying from the heat and looked lost in confusion trying to find a familiar face.

I successfully climbed the 240 steps, while taking a break to observe the beauty around me. It’s so hard to believe that beautiful places like this even exist. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be cruising my way through the Basque Country exploring all the hiking hot spots. Once I reached the top, out of breath, the first person I saw was Megan, one of my good friends here. I almost wanted to cry because I had done all of this by myself which is completely crazy. Everyone was so surprised to see me. They thought I would have gone back home, but no, I don’t give up that easily.

Crosses located along the stairs

At the top of the island is a church dedicated to John the Baptist. Legend says he even set foot on this island, but there is no actual proof. Legend also says that if you count the number of steps as you climb and ring the church bell three times when you reach the top, you will get married. Unfortunately, I did not know this before I completed the hike (very sad). The bridge to get to the top is completely man-made and its purpose was to provide a retreat for the lords of Biscay. Basically, a super awesome hideout spot to get away from the King of Castile. How awesome is that? I have found that there are many islands surrounding the coast of the Basque Country and most of them were used as hideout spots for the oppressed back in the day.

Church at the top of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

After taking some pictures at the top of the islet, we made our trek back down. Going down the stairs was pretty sketchy because it was super steep and narrow, but then we had to hike all uphill back to the beginning of the hike. It was quite the adventure. I was just happy that I was with my group of friends, and no longer alone. Once we reached the beginning, we decided to get some ice cream to cool off and catch the bus back home. I was so exhausted and passed out as soon as I got home. I’m still sore to this day. Another learning experience for me, especially being independent most of the time. The views were worth every second of the grueling uphill hike.

Christie Chaump studied abroad in Bilbao, Spain in Summer of 2018. To read more about her time in Bilbao, check out her blog, My Adventure Awaits.