Route published by Pedro Pablo Uriarte ”19 circular walking routes around Gorliz”
DETAILS OF THE ROUTE:
Time to make the climb: About 1 hour.
Full route: About 2 hours returning by the same route.
Cumulative elevation gain: About 330 m
This route is suitable for everyone and does not require great effort, although it does require a minimum amount of physical preparation, as you will climb the 290 metres of the Ermua starting from sea level, i.e., the beach. You will see that on the routes that follow – which are just variants of this route – things get a little more demanding, although nothing that anyone with a minimum amount of physical preparation can’t do.
This is a beautiful and pleasant mountain route with magnificent views over the sea and the cliffs of Astondo and the islet of Billano. In addition to seeing the landmark hospital from the outside, you can also take a look inside the coastal array of Cape Billano and next to it the lighthouse, standing proud, the icon of the town of Gorliz. We will look at the history of these three unique buildings briefly a bit later.
Leave Gorliz from Iberreta Plaza and walk down to the beach along Itsasbide Kalea. Continue towards Astondo along the beautiful, much-used beach promenade that runs in front of the magnificent Gorliz Hospital building, which celebrated its first centenary in 2019.
The strategic location of this unique sanatorium with its characteristic colonial style, in the middle of Gorliz beach is not by chance. The sanatorium has been officially renamed “Hospital de Gorliz” and is now part of the Osakidetza healthcare network, providing care for medium and long-stay patients. Its location benefits from very regular ventilation and it is said to enjoy the most hours of sunshine in Bizkaia, being protected from the harsh north wind by Cape Astondo. It was the first maritime sanatorium treating tuberculosis in Spain, caring for underprivileged children with vertebral tuberculosis lesions and severe spinal deformities, known as “Pott’s disease”.
The main supporter and first director of this hospital was Dr. Enrique de Areilza, a monument to whom was located in front of the sanatorium before the renovation of the promenade, and who was moved to the Astondo promontory a few years ago, from where he proudly looks down on his old hospital, albeit from further away. Designed in 1909, the first stone was laid in 1911, but a series of misfortunes and strikes delayed its construction for eight years, before it was finally inaugurated in 1919, the first building in Spain to be constructed entirely of reinforced concrete. A delightful, highly recommended book written by Gorliz author Juan Manuel Goikoetxea “Motores”, tells the 100-year story of the hospital.
But let’s get back to our route. A little further on from the hospital, when you reach the former site of the Hondartzape restaurant, which was recently demolished to reclaim the beach, turn right next to the Astondo lifeguard station, and a few metres further on you will see the road leading up to the Gorliz lighthouse on your left (18 min.).
There are signs at the entrance indicating the route. The road is flat at the beginning, but it starts to get steeper when you reach the Provincial Council’s livestock farm. On your left you can sometimes see a couple of deer grazing peacefully. The route then curves uphill, and you will come to a junction on your left with the path leading from the ruins of the Azkorriaga fort and the stone steps along the more coastal route, a variant that we will discuss later.
Also of interest is another path which, a little before crossing the path that comes from the coastal route, goes off to your right. After climbing over a fence, it takes you to the area of the fields and Fano farmhouses on a relatively easy path with a fairly gentle slope. It is described in route 6: “Climbing Ermua via Urezarantza”.
Take the path towards the lighthouse, which you should already be able to see from this area. It is an almost flat stretch and only gets steeper towards the end. The panoramic view that stretches out to your left along this stretch is breathtaking: the wide open sea with the grassy cliffs that almost look like they were carved with a knife, down to the rocky coves at the bottom of the chasm. You can see a small beach below, particularly at low tide; this is the Arizabale cove. The murmur of the waves breaking on the rocks will be with you the whole time.
When you get to the Lighthouse, take a break to get some fresh air and enjoy the scenery before taking the path that will lead you to the shepherd’s area of Fano and then on to Ermua. The wooden benches there are an invitation to sit and contemplate. To your right, you will be able to see the islet of Billano from this privileged vantage point.
This is where we will introduce a slight variation. Just as the final 100 m of the climb to the lighthouse begins to steepen along the path, if you look carefully, on your left you will see, among the ferns, a path that is fairly overgrown with vegetation and leads directly to one of the old artillery battery posts under the lighthouse. At one point the path gets very close to the cliff edge, so you have to be very careful and, if you have children with you, keep them well under control.
At this point, I should give you some information that I think will be of interest to walkers. This is where the tunnels and casemates of the coastal artillery batteries were installed, which were still in operation until only four decades ago.
This military infrastructure was built in 1941 by Franco’s regime and Republican prisoners as a coastal protection against a hypothetical Allied invasion, because although in theory Spain remained neutral in World War II, its material and logistical support for Hitler and the Nazi regime during the war was evident. Franco feared that the Allies would invade Spain from the north during the European war and, for this reason, he built these coastal artillery batteries.
The whole structure is connected internally by tunnels cut into the rock. The battery was equipped with three British 152 mm Vickers guns with a range of up to 21 km. There is another similar battery at Punta Luzero at the entrance to the mouth of the port of Bilbao, although it was equipped with German Krupp guns.
It is interesting to note that this part of the Basque coast has always been a strategic military area, with the Bay of Gorliz being a natural refuge for ships when the Bay of Biscay was rough, and the area was attractive to corsairs. Proof of this is the ruins of the Azkorriaga defensive fort, which we will talk about later, which is located on top of Uztrikoetxe.
These installations are connected by underground tunnels from below the lighthouse to well above it, through which soldiers climbed up and down and which were used to supply the cannons with ammunition. The lighthouse itself is built on one of the shooting platforms. One of these coastal batteries is still preserved and painted sky blue on a post under the lighthouse, its cannon shortened and totally useless, bearing silent witness to a military past. From here, you can climb down a path and visit these facilities, although you will have to take some care due to the steepness of the terrain. We do not recommend entering the maze of tunnels, all of which are full of colourful graffiti, unless you are accompanied by someone who knows the galleries well and have sufficient lighting, as there are holes in there of uncertain depth. Nor do we recommend going in with children. In wartime conflicts, these cannons never fired a single shot, but I remember as a child hearing the roar of gunfire from my house in Gorliz in the early hours of the morning during the manoeuvres that the military occasionally staged, firing missiles at a humble txintxorro (small rowboat) with a yellow awning that could be seen in the distance in the middle of the sea.
The military structure with its cannons was dismantled in 1979 and the vast land occupied by the army in the whole area, including the military detachment where some of my acquaintances did their military service, was returned to Bizkaia Provincial Council. Today, this land is used as pasture for the provincial institution’s experimental livestock farm. Missiles have been replaced by cows and Pottok ponies. What a blessed change.
Gorliz Lighthouse is 21 m high, including the access road to it, and was built in 1990. It is currently run by Bilbao Port, the official institution that manages the lighthouses of Bizkaia. A sign put up by the aforementioned institution halfway up the ascent points out that access to the area is “at the sole responsibility of the walker”, as there have been occasional landslides on the road that have caused danger to pedestrians. In fact, part of the road that has collapsed into the void has been fenced off for years to prevent falls. The lighthouse does not have a beacon, and the installation is automated and operated by remote control. It projects its light beam up to 25 miles inland from the sea. Interestingly, the Gorliz lighthouse is the highest above sea level of all the lighthouses in the Bay of Biscay: 165 metres.
But let’s get back to the route. After the lighthouse, there is a very visible path to the right of the road as you walk uphill, which climbs up to the fields and farmhouses of Fano, passing through bushes and tall ferns. It is signposted and easy. It is a not very long but somewhat demanding stretch that will make you sweat a little. On your left, half-hidden by the undergrowth, you will see the entrances to two of the artillery casemates. One of them, the most easily accessible, was the bunker for the direction of fire or rangefinder of the coastal battery.
Once at the top of this stretch you can enjoy the views. Depending on the direction you are walking in, to the front and a little to the left you can see the range of cliffs that extend towards Armintza and Bakio and, close by, below, the somewhat sinister image of the islet of Billano. On a good day you can see the “La Gaviota” gas platform off the coast of Bermeo.
Carry on along the main path and you will come to a wire fence between holm oaks to prevent the sheep that sometimes graze in these fields from escaping. Open the gate and close it to leave it as it was. On your right you can see the farmhouses of Fano and sometimes flocks of sheep in the low-lying pastures. It is an idyllic pastoral image.
The path leads into a wide open field that gently ascends to another fence that you will have to climb over.
This takes you into an area of clay soil that tends to be slippery in the rain and in no time at all, you are faced with another fence under the holm oaks which, until recently, you also had to climb over, but recently the wire fence has been broken and you can push your way through it.
From there, you will enter a typical Cantabrian holm oak forest, where the branches sometimes act as a roof, making it look as if you were walking through a tunnel. On this stretch of the path, on your left you can see the sea below and the cliffs always close by.
Carry on walking through this jewel of nature and after a few minutes you will reach the summit of Ermua Mendi (292 m above sea level) on your left, a little hidden behind the branches of the holm oaks. If you are not careful, you might miss it and leave it behind you. There are a few boulders with a couple of mailboxes: the oldest one is in the shape of a little house where you can leave your card, and the other is a sculpture imitating the real lighthouse that can be seen in the background. It was put up a few years ago by the Gorlizmendi mountain group, but unfortunately it was broken and dismantled by vandals.
We should point out that, to your right, in the most intricate part of the holm oak grove, there is a beautiful little path that is barely visible above the layer of coriaceous holm oak leaves, which comes from another less frequented path that we will discuss on route 6.
A few metres after the summit there is an ashlar stone hut, part of which is in ruins, with a triangulation station on its roof. It was probably a coastal surveillance post.
Interestingly, although people walking from Astondo to Mount Ermua can unfortunately no longer admire it, there used to be a work of art in this coastal area known generically as “Ibilbide”. It consisted of a series of small bronze sculptures, no more than fifteen or twenty centimetres high, made by the sculptor and painter from Getxo Ibon Garagarza. They were located at various strategic points along this stretch and were of interest to the artist from a landscape point of view. This was in 2000. Today, unfortunately, there are none left. A few were taken by thieves and the artist opted to remove the remaining ones to avoid complete looting. It is a real shame.
The descent to Gorliz from the summit of Ermua can be made along the same path you took on the way up, especially if you started from Astondo beach and want to go back to it.
However, there are a number of alternatives for getting back to Gorliz, and everyone will choose the one that seems most suitable for them, depending on their strength and the time they have available. We have already mentioned some of them in route 1: you could go down the old path to the Haurtzaindegia and the old Entrepinos hotel; or go down through Fano and from there to Urezarantza and the centre of Gorliz (Elexalde); or carry on from the summit and the stone hut, where, in a few minutes, you will come to the signpost and then turn off to the right onto a path that starts there, which we will mention again on several occasions. Follow this tree-lined path down to Fanobidea and, walk straight on for a couple of hundred metres. Then take the paved track on the right that will take you to straight Urezarantza. From there, go up to Elexalde via the sports centre to reach Plaza Ibarreta, from where you set off. This is the descent route marked on the map below.