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Route of the three churches in the Basque Country

  • Arantzazu sanctuary. Oñati © Turespaña

    Arantzazu sanctuary. Oñati © Turespaña

  • Arrikrutz cave © Turespaña

    Arrikrutz cave © Turespaña

  • Loyola sanctuary. Azpeitia © Turespaña

    Loyola sanctuary. Azpeitia © Turespaña


"There are beautiful places in the world that seem to evoke the past and appeal to our spiritual nature. ..."

There are beautiful places in the world that seem to evoke the past and appeal to our spiritual nature. This is the case of the sanctuary of Loyola, the shrine of Santa María La Antigua and the sanctuary of Arantzazu, the three emblematic monuments which form the route known as the 'Route of the Three Churches', which runs through some 40 km of valleys in the interior of Guipúzcoa, in the Basque Country.

Furthermore, despite the short distance involved, this route is home to a world of beautiful nature areas such as the Urola and Deba Rivers, traditional farmsteads and the Basque Country’s rich culture and heritage. Let’s start the route:

The birthplace of San Ignacio de Loyola

One option is to start the route in Azpeitia, at its most famous building: the 17th-century Loyola Sanctuary. When you get there, not only will you be seeing the first of the churches on the route, but you will also be before one of the world’s most unusual Baroque constructions. This sanctuary was built in honour of San Ignacio de Loyola, founder of the Compañía de Jesús order. You will be amazed by its spectacular dome, its main altarpiece in materials such as marble and jasper, its silver sculpture of San Ignacio and by the extensive gardens that surround it. Furthermore, the Sanctuary site is also home to the Loyola family House-Tower, where the saint was born, as well as the Errkarte Farmstead ethnological museum. Once in Azpeita, another suggestion would be a visit to the Basque Railway Museum or a bike ride along the route of the old Urola railway line.

“The cathedral of shrines”

If you continue heading inland, some 20 kilometres from Azpeitia you will come to the town of Zumárraga, which is very closely linked to the culture of iron production (it has old forges, mills and dams) and has a wealth of artistic heritage. What you definitely should not miss, however, is the route’s second monument, the Santa María La Antigua Shrine, also known as “the cathedral of shrines”, which is said to have been built on the site of an old, 12th-century fortress. Legend has it that when the Christians began building it, people of other religions wanted to destroy it by launching stones at it. However, not only could they not destroy it but the local people also used these stones to finish construction of the church. Once you have discovered its history, enjoy its stunning Romanesque exterior, its Gothic doorway and its amazing interior in stone and wood. Any time of year is good for a visit, but you should make note of these dates: at the beginning of July, a traditional Basque “ezpata-dantza” dance is performed next to the shrine to celebrate the local patron saint’s day. The church is also the venue for the La Antigua Medieval Music Festival (Sundays in September) and the La Antigua Choral Competition (May). Finally, you will be interested to know that from this shrine there is a route which will take you to the Megalithic funereal monuments discovered in Zumárraga.

The height of contemporary art

The final stop on the route is just over 20 kilometres from Zumarraga, in Oñati, at the feet of Aizkorri-Aratz Natural Park. This is the Sanctuary of Arantzazu, a fine example of contemporary religious architecture, and special for several other reasons. First, the origins of its name. According to legend, a local shepherd saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in a hawthorn tree, and was so surprised he asked her, in the Basque language: “Arantzan zu?” (Why are you in a thorn tree?) The sanctuary of Arantzazu has been a religious site for centuries, and after several fires, it was decided to build a new basilica, large enough to hold all the visiting pilgrims, which was opened to the public in 1955. And this brings us to the second reason for visiting: some of the finest contemporary Basque architects created the new sanctuary, and today we can admire the four iron gates by Eduardo Chillida; the spectacular altarpiece, over 600 square metres; the modernist paintings in the crypt; and the play of light from its stained glass windows. A final reason is that you will feel a special sensation of peace and freedom in the sanctuary’s natural setting, on a cliff, surrounded by a wood of hundred-year-old hawthorn trees.

And if you are fond of nature and hiking, from Arantzazu you can climb Mount Aizkorri (1,531 metres), discover megalithic sites in the Campas de Urbia, or visit the subterranean galleries of the Arrikrutz Cave (with guides in several languages). Contact the Oñati Tourist Office for detailed information. The sanctuary itself also has a tourist information office, which opens at weekends, at Easter, and in summer.

Come and immerse yourself in this wonderful route for a few days. Road access is good, there is free parking next to all the churches and there are also bus services operating to these areas. Stroll around the historic centres of each town and village on the route, go on excursions related to the route such as the GR 120 hiking trail, close your eyes and enjoy the fresh air of the Guipúzcoa valleys and the spirituality to be felt in and around the churches. In short, come and live unique sensations.

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