Custodians of the history of Bizkaia
In the vicinity of Bilbao, you will find lovely medieval villages with an amazing historical heritage.
Hinterland Bizkaia offers not only beautiful natural areas but ancient villages too. In them you will find awesome medieval treasures in the form of works of art and historic sites.
Visiting Balmaseda and Lanestosa in Las Encartaciones, on the border with Cantabria, Burgos or Álava, you will get to the heart of medieval Bizkaia. Their streets are peppered with ancient churches, basilicas, shrines and convents from the old days.
Durango and Elorrio, in the region of Durangalde, and Otxandio and Areatza, in the area of Gorbeia, are also faithful custodians of Bizkaia’s medieval past.
Narrow cobbled alleyways, cosy squares, stately buildings, farmhouses and palaces proudly bearing their coats of arms are waiting for you in Bizkaia’s medieval villages.
In the south, right in the province of Álava, is Orduña, the only city in Bizkaia that has been granted a town charter.
Hinterland of Bizkaia
Mountain traditions not far from the city
Until the end of the nineteenth century, Bizkaia was known as Señorío de Vizcaya. It had its own jurisdiction and authorities; its Assembly was independent of the Kingdom of Castile. Many of the villages in Las Encartaciones, a region bordering Cantabria, Burgos and Álava, date back to the Middle Ages – and they have managed to keep their medieval airs.
Balmaseda is a village associated with the mining business in Las Encartaciones. It can be reached in half an hour from Bilbao by car. It used to be a key point in the trade route from the Castilian plateau to the Cantabrian coast. Its iconic Old Bridge across the river Cadagua, built in the Late Middle Ages, stands as a silent witness to all kinds of historical events. Interesting sights in the Old Town include the Church of San Severino, from the fifteenth century, the Church of San Juan, in the Gothic style, and the Convent of Santa Clara, now converted to a hotel.
Lanestosa (one hour from Bilbao) is a lovely village in the hills, boasting a unique Old Town – a perfect blend of Castilian and Cantabrian features. The streets and alleyway have kept the medieval atmosphere; some have been kept their old cobblestones! Pay attention to the farmhouses, the porticoed square, the Baroque mansion known as Colina de Lanestosa, the Church of San Pedro (sixteenth century) and the houses built in the colonial style by Basque families that emigrated to the Americas and came back later, having made their fortunes there.
Durangalde, Orduña and Gorbeialde
At the foot of Mount Anboto, Durango is one of the villages with the richest heritage. The Old Town has kept its medieval layout. The Basilica of Santa María de Uribarri, a National Monument, boasts the largest portico in Euskadi. At the Kurutzesantu Museum you can see a real treasure: the Kurutziaga Cross, a Gothic carved milestone with high artistic and historical value. The Lariz Tower is said to have sheltered Queen Isabella. The Santa Ana Archway is the only remnant of the medieval city walls, marking one of the six gates that used to welcome foreigners into the village. Every year, a market fair is held in Durango in December (around the Feast of the Immaculate Conception) that is a major cultural event in Euskadi. It is the perfect time of year to visit this town.
Elorrio, 14 km from Durango, boasts one of the most amazing old towns in Bizkaia. Its streets are lined with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century stately homes in stone and masonry, proudly bearing the coats of arms that identified their noble owners. You can also visit an ancient burial site: the Argiñeta Necropolis.
From Bilbao, you will have to drive for 40 minutes to reach Orduña – the only city in Bizkaia to have been granted a town charter and an interesting historical and architectural site. Like Balmaseda, Orduña used to play a leading role in the old days of the Señorío de Vizcaya as a customs enclave and a key location in the trade route between Castile and Northern Europe. In fact, the old Customs House is one of the most beautiful buildings in town (now a hotel and wellness centre). It stands in Plaza de los Fueros, the largest and one of the loveliest medieval squares in Euskadi. If you are interested in sacred architecture, take a look at the Church of Santa María and the Shrine of Nuestra Señora de la Antigua, a pebble’s throw away.
If you are a nature lover and fancy long hikes in fresh air, Orduña is the right place for you. It stands next to Sierra Salvada and the spectacular waterfall known as Salto del Nervión. Also, you can reach the amazing Gorbeia Nature Park via Orozko.
At the foot of Mount Gorbeia, on the border with Álava, you will find Areatza, where you can take a look at the Gortázar Mansion (a fifteenth-century watchtower), the Church of San Bartolomé and the Convent of Santa Isabel. The area is only an hour’s drive from Bilbao and the landscapes, in the shelter of the legendary mountain, are fabulous. Finally, Otxandio, a village founded by Diego López de Haro in the thirteenth century near Mount Gorbeia and Urkiola Nature Park, offers beautiful natural resources and interesting architectural highlights, like the Renaissance Church of Santa Marina and its Baroque belfry tower.
If you are planning to spare just one day for Medieval Bizkaia, you could follow the so-called Ruta de la Lana (Wool Path) across Las Encartaciones. It follows road BI-636 to the boundaries of Balmaseda.
There is a Medieval Market every year in Balmaseda. For two days, the town brings its past back to life
The Wool Path used to be a trade route along which wool was carried in sacks from Castile and Burgos to the port of Bilbao, and then to the hubs of the textile industry in Europe.
The wool was shipped from the docks adjoining the Church of San Antón, in the Old Town of Bilbao. The road ran along the Mena Valley and Encartaciones.
The itinerary begins at Castrejana Bridge (aka Puente del Diablo) in Barakaldo, - a site wrapped in fascinating legends. It runs through the medieval villages of Alonsotegi, Güeñes and Zalla before reaching Balmaseda, a charming village founded in 1199, which makes it the oldest town in Bizkaia.
May is a perfect time of year to come to Balmaseda, since the two-day Medieval Market is held in this month (this year, on 12 and 13 May). Balmaseda’s Medieval Market is a major event in Bizkaia, gathering about 400 performers, crowds of local people, and lots of cultural activities.
How to get there
The strongest medieval area in Bizkaia is to be found in the region of Las Encartaciones, but there are lovely medieval villages in Durangalde, Gorbeialde and other regions as well. Most of these villages are accessible by road or rail. Check lines and schedules in advance, when planning your trip.
The Bilbao-Muskiz rail service by Renfe can be used in combination with Bizkaibus services to reach some of the villages. Also, there are two Feve rail lines, Bilbao-Balmaseda and Bilbao-Santander. Renfe’s commuter train C3 reaches Orduña from Bilbao-Abando station in 45 minutes. Durango can also be reached by train from Bilbao.
There are several bus lines connecting Bilbao and other cities in Bizkaia to Las Encartaciones, Durangalde and Gorbeialde.
To get to Las Encartaciones, take the A-8 and exit for Balmaseda. Then drive along the Corredor del Cadagua, which connects several of the villages. For Orduña (37km from Bilbao), take the A-8, then roads BI-4516 and BI-625. The N-240 leads from Bilbao to Areatza; the drive is only 30km. The AP-8 and road N-637 will take you to Durango.
Where to eat
Traditional restaurants serving typical dishes at reasonable prices abound in hinterland Bizkaia. In Balmaseda, the dish you should try is putxera, a bean stew cooked in a pot used by motormen in the Bilbao-La Robla railway to prepare their meals in the nineteenth century.
You can buy artisan foods too, from sheep or goat milk cheese to vegetables grown in local baserris (traditional farmhouses) to honey and jellies to txakoli wine from local wineries. All of them are fresh and carefully prepared by local baserritarras (farmers).
Where to sleep
All three regions – Las Encartaciones, Durangalde and Gorbeialde – have a wide range of accommodations where you can spend the night, the weekend or a few days in a relaxing break in the countryside. There are lodges, hostels, hotels, wellness centres, etc.
If you are travelling in a motorhome, you will find a motorhome park in Lanestosa (Encartaciones). Also, there are three campsites to choose from in the area.