History and nature go hand in hand in Urdaibai
Sculpted by the sea, the wind and the rivers, the spectacular and full of wildlife landscapes in Urdaibai have been the home of humans for millennia
This long-time presence is not only reflected in the impressive monuments preserved in the area, but also in all those places full of symbolism that hold the essence of Biscay, on the roads travelled by our ancestors, in the towns where yesteryear customs are still maintained, and in the ports, where traditional fishing arts are still practiced.
por campas donde pasta el ganado, por islas y acantilados que se enfrentan al oleaje, por un mar en el que habitan diversas especies de cetáceos, y por tranquilas playas de fina arena en la que disfrutar del sol. Un paraíso natural declarado Reserva de la Biosfera por la UNESCO en 1984.
The variety of landscapes in Urdaibai is infinite. The environment of the estuary, formed by the Oka River at its mouth in the Cantabrian Sea, is made up of small mountains with plenty of forests home to native plants, of marshes that give shelter to bird species from all over the continent in their migrations, of slopes where vines for making Txakoli grow, of fields where cattle graze, of small streams and creeks where wildlife flourishes, of islands and cliffs that face the waves, of a sea inhabited by diverse species of cetaceans, and of quiet beaches of fine sand where you can bask in the sun. A natural paradise that was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1984.
Two essential visits for nature lovers are Ekoetxea Urdaibai in Busturia, an informative center that values its biodiversity through expositions and entertaining activities and from which the entire Biosphere Reserve can be seen, Urdaibai Bird Center in Gautegiz Arteaga, which is both a live nature museum and a privileged observatory for discovering the birds that inhabit or make stops in the Biosphere Reserve during their long migrations.
The presence of the human being has also left an indelible mark on Urdaibai, like in the Santimamiñe cave, located in Kortezubi. This archaeological site keeps remains of human presence from over 14,000 years ago and contains impressive samples of cave paintings on its rock walls.
Another indispensable part of the history of Biscay is one of the greatest symbols of Basque freedom, the Casa de Juntas and the Tree of Gernika. The current oak is a direct descendant of the first Tree of Gernika in memory, under which the representatives of the Biscayan people have gathered since immemorial times, just like they do today.
Another Urdaibai icon is San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, an islet located in a unique environment, declared a protected biotope, in which legendary tales and incomparable landscapes go hand in hand. The 241 steps that connect the island with the mainland are a whole pilgrimage to one of the most spectacular views of the Biscayan coast. It is also said that on the last of these steps, Saint John the Baptist himself left his footprint.
The ports that offer refuge to the arrantzales, our fishermen, after the long journeys they went on to capture the best of the sea, are also part of the essence of Urdaibai. The charming town of Ea, with its traditional houses; the lively Mundaka, a mecca for surfers from all over the world for its famous left wave, the best in Europe; the vertical Elantxobe, built on a slope facing the sea; or the medieval Bermeo, where the fishermen's houses and the palaces and towers of the town’s nobility alternate, continue to zealously preserve the seafaring soul in our ports. In Bermeo, there is a route that runs through some of the most important places in the town. where you can discover the wall murals that reflect the local history and culture, always linked to the sea.
Matxitxako is another one of the places that represent the maritime nature of the entire region. Its location, at the northernmost point of the Cantabrian coast, makes it an excellent point to observe the birds and cetaceans that live in the environment, just as it once was a point of reference for sailors who were looking for a safe harbor. For that purpose, a lighthouse was built on the cape in 1852, being replaced by a more modern one in 1909, which has been lighting the way home to the arrantzales in the area to this day.
Continuing along the coast at Urdaibai, you can find some of the best beaches in Biscay, perfect for enjoying a peaceful time with family and friends or to practice sports and water activities. Open to the sea is the small cove of Aritzatxu, hidden under a cliff in Bermeo. In Ibarrangelu, Antzora’s nudist beach offers beautiful views of Izaro island. Stretching at the foot of Cabo Ogoño, Laga’s wild beach is one of the best for surfing. Right next to the historic center of the town of Ea there is a lovely beach and, located in the Natxitua neighborhood, the natural Lapatza cove is ideal for those who are looking for a quiet place to enjoy the sea.
The sand deposited by the Oka River on the banks of its shores has also created spectacular beaches, such as Laida Dune Beach, in Ibarrangelu, or Kanalape Beach, in Gautegiz Arteaga, a cozy sandy area with privileged views over the Biosphere Reserve. In Sukarrieta, a grassy beach surrounds the island of Txatxarramendi, while Toña Beach is very frequented by families. San Antonio Beach, in Busturia, is protected by the island of Sandindere. In Mundaka, Ondartzape is a beach that almost disappears when the tide rises, a highly appreciated spot by those who practice scuba diving. Finally, the quiet Laidatxu Beach provides us with an ideal setting to spend a relaxing day on its sands.
Inland, in the towns that belong to Urdaibai, it is easy to feel the rural atmosphere and lifestyle that has developed over the centuries in the area, and discover the legacy left by our ancestors: Ajangiz and its monumental Church of the Ascension; Arratzu and the medieval bridge of Artzubi on the border with Mendata, part of the Camino de la Costa on the Jacobean route between Zenarruza and Gernika; or Ereño, a small village with a privileged viewpoint over the estuary where the Romans used to extract marble back in the 1st century.
Errigoiti is a rural town that features an interesting monumental complex, made up of the parish of Santa María de Idibaltzaga, a type of shrine known as humilladero and the surrounding houses. Some of the few remaining vestiges of the Roman presence on the Eastern Cantabrian coast can still be seen in Forua, a town that is also home to the church of San Martín de Tours, one of the oldest in Biscay. The neo-medieval palace that Napoleon III built for Eugenia de Montijo stands out on the horizon in Gautegiz Arteaga. Mendata has the perfect surroundings to explore, either on foot or by bicycle, where you can learn more about life in the baserris or caseríos –our traditional houses– thanks to the Idatze Etxea, an Interpretative Centre dedicated to these caseríos and their surroundings. Morga is a key step on both the Way of St. James and the Ruta Juradera. The town’s medieval roots can be appreciated in its manor houses and in the church of San Martín, whose origins date back to the 10th century. Legend has it that the eighth Lord of Biscay was buried alive there. In Murueta, visitors are impressed by its characteristic historic centre as well as by the Maiukitza Mill, located on the very edge of the marsh. In Muxika, the medieval baserris of the neighborhood of Unda, the Muxika Tower House and the Romanesque chapel of San Román are all worth a visit. In Nabarniz, the chapels have a central role, each neighborhood has its own: the curious chapel of San Cristóbal in Ikazurieta, the chapel of San Miguel in Uribarri, San Gregorio’s in Merika, Santiago’s in the neighborhood of Lekerika and the church of Santa María de Gorostiza, around which the neighborhood of Elexalde was developed.
Routes in Urdaibai to immerse yourself in
Among the paths that traverse Urdaibai, the Ruta Juradera, the route the ancient lords of Biscay followed in order to swear the jurisdiction of the Territory under the Tree of Gernika, stands out. This trail begins next to the sea, in the seafaring town of Bermeo, from where it goes towards Mundaka and its lookout point all along the coast, allowing us to enjoy incomparable landscapes. The next stop is in Sukarrieta, where you can visit the Roman anchorage of Portuondo or rest for a while in the botanical park on the island of Txatxarramendi, to then head into the marsh in Murueta and the Calzada Real in Busturia. After visiting the Roman town and the church of San Martín de Tours in Forua, the road heads towards Gernika and the Casa de Juntas, under whose tree the lords once had to swear to keep and respect the laws of Biscay.
To enter the towns on the right bank of Urdaibai, you must follow the Ruta de Los Dominios del Encinar, a route that starts in Kortezubi, passes next to the Santimamiñe cave and Basondo Wildlife Park –a refuge for wild fauna–, runs through Gautegiz Arteaga, where you can contemplate its dream castle, and takes you to Urdaibai Bird Centre, where you can observe the birds that nest in the marsh. Later, the route passes through Ibarrangelu and its beaches, Laga and Laida, surrounded by holm-oak forests, and leads to the San Pedro de Atxarre viewpoint, which offers one of the best views over the Biosphere Reserve and its estuary. The charming fishing villages of Elantxobe and Ea, facing the sea, give way to a green rural interior and the Ogella cove.
The Golako River Route is perfect for getting into the inland towns and exploring the rural nature of Urdaibai. Starting at the Ajangiz observatory, the path then heads towards Mendata and the intriguing of Montalbán Tower House, with its pentagonal floor plan. Crossing the evocative Romanesque bridge of Artzubi, where the Coastal Way of the Jacobean route has passed for centuries, the route enters Arratzu, and continues past the Olazarra ironworks and mill –vestiges of the industry of another era–, to get to the Oppidum de Arrola, an Iron Age settlement.
Muxika, the largest municipality in the region, has its own route to discover the town’s rich heritage. This Medieval Route begins at Muxika Tower House and the chapel of San Román, both in the neighborhood of San Román, and continues through the neighborhood of Ibarruri, where you can admire Etxezarreta Palace, Olabarri Mill, the Gothic chapel of San Pedro and San Pablo, and the Baroque palace of Ormaza with its horseshoeing frame. In the village of Unda, its baserris are beautiful examples of the typical rural architecture in the area at the end of the Middle Ages. After going past the chapel of San Lorenzo in the rural neighborhood of Magunas, the route ends at the Balcón de Bizkaia, in the town of Mendata, where wonderful views of the interior Urdaibai are waiting for you.
The rural nature of Urdaibai can be fully appreciated thanks to the Caseríos y Estelas Route. Departing from the church of San Vicente in Muxika, the route has its first stop at the top of Gerekiz, in Morga, where the pre-Romanesque chapel of San Esteban and two tombstones from the Roman period are located. In Andra Mari, the Zorroza Palace has served as model for many of the baserris in the area, while in Mekaur, the Renaissance church of San Martín surprises with its Mannerist doorway. The route continues towards the neighborhoods of Metxikas and Zallobante and the church of San Lorenzo in Errigoiti, passes through the neighborhood of Elexalde, where you can visit the imposing Santa María de Idibaltzaga and San Antonio Humilladero, and finishes on Mount Bizkaigane.
The Route of Prehistoric Valleys to the Summits of Urdaibai is a walk through history and nature that begins next to Santimamiñe’s archeological site, in Kortezubi, and the beautiful valley of Oma, a green sea from which typical baserris and the mills of Bolunzulo and Olakoerrota stick out. The route then heads towards Nabarniz and its church of Santa María de Gorritiz-Gorostizaga, from where you can access the top of Mount Iluntzar to enjoy a unique view of Urdaibai and Lea-Artibai. Ikazuriaga Baserri, in the neighborhood of Ikazurieta, and Aldekoa Baserri, in Lekerika, are two beautiful examples of the traditional architecture that exists in Urdaibai. The Arrolagune Interpretative Centre on Mount Arrola, in Arratzu, narrates the history of the ancient town that existed there between the 4th century BC and 1st AD. The next stage of the route leads to Ereño and the chapel of San Miguel de Ereñozar, where the unbeatable views that extend from the sea and the estuary in Mundaka to Mounts Urkiola and Gorbeia will surely delight you.