Absolutely off the beaten path, and hardly visited by any foreign tourist, in Zumarraga lies the “cathedral” of the Basque hermitages. It´s believed that this amazing church was built on the remains of a XII century fortress. While the outside walls and façade are austere and without much interest, the interior is surprisingly outstanding, completely covered in oak wood coffering. There´s a complex wooden framework all over the ceiling, that makes of the inside of this big hermitage a beautiful, relaxing sight. If there´s someone singing on the choir, as it happened during my visit, the effect is simply breathtaking.
Together with the sanctuaries of Loiola and Arantzazu, it is part of the Route of the Three Temples in the Ignatian Land (founder of the Jesuits). The legend says that the church is made of the stones thrown by the Giants that inhabited the Basque Country before the arrival of christianism, who wanted to destroy it, as churches were a menace for their survival.
If you really want to see a different church, in a non touristy part of the Basque Country, but close to eveywhere you may stay…this is the place.
The sanctuary of Arantzazu is an oddity in the world of monasteries. A franciscan monastery for the past 500 years, it´s located on the steep road that leads to the highest mountain in the Basque Country, Aitzgorri (Red Rock, in Basque). The legend says that the shepherd Rodrigo de Balzategui saw an image of the Virgin Mary hidden in a thorn tree…and he exclaimed “Arantzan zu!!”, that means “You in the thorn”, in Basque. Thousands of Basque women are called Arantzazu or Arantxa following the name of the Virgin of Arantzazu. The franciscans built the monastery on the mountain, and in 1954 they decided to build a new one, after several fires had severely damaged the building. The “new” monastery is spectacular, perched on the rocky slope leading to the Urbia meadows on the way to Aitzgorri, there´s a visitor´s centre and a hotel, and the inside offers the remotest idea you´d have about a monastery. The walls are painted, there are poems and sayings, and it looks quite “70´s modern”. Outside, on the front wall, 13 apostles (yes, thirteen), or some figures that look like them.
Down, the town of Oñate (Oñati, in Basque). You can´t miss the University, founded in the XVI century, and the first one in the Basque Country, that closed in 1901. Also, its magnificent church, crossed by the river, that can be seen from inside the church. The rest of the town is also full of magnificent buildings and it´s well worth a visit. Nearby, the famous cider houses, Idiazabal cheese farms,…