Monthly Archives: June 2017

Spain:Gaztelugatxe (Road Trip Part 1)

One of the first stops on the tour of Spain’s coast: Gaztelugatxe, an islet in Basque country. The Basque name translates to castle rock and fits the location perfectly. It is a beautiful combination of man and nature with a man-made bridge connecting the island with its hermitage (Gaztelugatxeko Doniene/ San Juan de Gaztelugatxe), dating from around one thousand years ago. Only used as a convent for two hundred years, it has a very rich history, including use as a defense outpost and possible use during the Spanish Inquisition.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.jpg

This is one of the few places that  when I saw in a photograph thought, “I want to experience this in person.” I was extremely excited to visit and absolutely loved it.  The rocky coast surrounding it is stunning with exposed layers jutting out of the ocean in bold stripe patterns. The partially submerged rocks provide habitat for some ocean creatures which, if you’re lucky, may make an appearance.

Jagged exposed layers along the coast

A very steep one kilometer walk from a parking lot followed by 241 stairs takes you up to the hermitage with views of both the coast and wide open ocean. Although I traveled here by personal vehicle, the area connects to coastal hiking trails. Navigation was a bit challenging with road signs in Basque. It’s located about 35 km east of Bilboa and the drive is rather scenic and pleasant. I was surprised that the site was both free to access and not crowded (on a weekday). According to legend, after climbing and reaching the church you should ring the church bell three times and make a wish. This was fun to do but hearing everyone else ring the bell was a bit much after a while trying to enjoy the view and appreciate the ancient place, so go with that in mind.

The stop is a gorgeous introduction to the dramatic Basque coast which eventually mellows further East. I absolutely recommend visiting if you can.

Thank you for reading and check back for more!


Sentiero del Viandante: Bellano to Varenna

After establishing my summer in Europe would include a short stay near Lake Como, I immediately searched for hiking guides to the area. It was tough to find information in English about walks or trails on the Eastern side of the lake but I eventually stumbled onto Walking the Italian Lakes (Gillian Price). The book has several maps and details about multiple hikes around Como, including the Sentiero del Viandante (Wanderer’s Trail) and the east “arm.” This walk is part of a millennia old route and follows the side of the Lake Como for about 45 km – a great distance for someone looking for a challenge while not going too far off into nature. The entire route could be done in two days but to really enjoy the lakeside and explore the various side trips, break the Wanderer’s Trail into four or five days.

This week I decided to walk the Bellano to Varrena segment as I am staying just uphill from Bellano.  The track entrance is located off Strada Provinciale 62, the road that heads uphill from the Bellano Train Station, making it easily accessible with public transportation. The narrow entry on the curve of road is marked by orange plaques. Once on the path, markings were generally easy to follow. The segment is just under 10 km with the route weaving through orchards, forest, church yards and even a cemetery. It took me about 90 minutes to complete with very little stopping, though, there are alters and many opportunities to rest along the way.

I chose to do the route on a Sunday, thinking it would be very quiet and I was correct -I didn’t come across any other walkers. Most of the trail is wooded and shaded with a few places to sit down and have a rest. Although not technically challenging, there a are a few steep climbs. Just before descending into Varenna the road takes a few sharp bends with FABULOUS views of Lake Como. Once in Varenna it’s a bit of a labyrinth to get out of the old town but it’s a nice place to get lost and admire the church and squares and history of the village. The nicest part of the day was putting my feet into the cold water after the walk!

Many variations on the Sentiero del Viandante are possible with all the connections to other trails like one to Alpe Giumello (from Bellano) and to Castello do Vezio, or, making up your own detour to visit a village or beach off course. It took me some time to figure it out but bus routes connect Bellano and Varrena to some of the villages higher up the mountains. These higher places have nice views of sunset, Lake Como and take you out of the heat bubble that is down below. Tickets for these buses need to be bought in advance at the local train stations (and you’ll have to speak Italian).

The best view of the lake came at the end.

I’d like to hear what others have to say about hiking near Lake Como. Leave a comment below if you have a favorite trail.

Thank you for reading,

Alpe Giumello and Lake Como

After a few days in Italy I am feeling settled in and already diving right into both the lake (it’s cold) and the regional foods (yum, yum). My jet lag has finally gone so yesterday I decided to hike and was as easy as just stepping out the door. I’m staying about halfway up Alpe Giumello, on the north eastern side of the Lake Como. From the peak it’s possible to see up to 80 km into the distance, depending on visibility and weather. I thought walking up to the summit would be a nice way to get to know the area while getting into good hiking shape, an activity I will be devoting a lot of time to during my travels.

Lake Como in the evening.

The walk can be done from Bellano proper or at any point along the area’s main road, SP 66. Following along the winding mountain course requires watching for speedy drivers barreling around each switchback. (Upon arrival, my companion told me, “Speed limit signs in Italy are per-person in the car”). Occasionally tiny signs will indicated a footpaths that cut the road corners, leading to the Giumello summit. The walking route does not appear to be regularly maintained although certainly more welcoming and shaded than the road and in good enough shape to follow. The trail winds upwards and through a few small villages and bends overlooking deep valleys and layers of mountains to the east.


Views along the way up.

Following along the footpath whenever possible I made my way up. Much of the route was a shaded hillside forest abundant with wildflowers and the occasional lizard without a clear view of the lake. I continued for about an hour seeing no other hikers and only one cyclist. Lake Como is surrounded by beautiful mountains all offering a unique view, sometimes including Lake Lugano and distant alpine chains covered in snow. A few summits are very popular and can even become a bit crowded. Fortunately I had a lot of privacy and peace but I wondered why Giumello was not more popular. I did a lot a research on hikes around Lake Como before arriving and never saw anything about this easy and beautiful route. At lower altitudes near the lake, heat builds throughout the day and creates a haze obscuring the view of the mountains.


Goats at the top.

The forest ends at a ski resort where green summer pasture wraps around the top of the mountain. A few well-worn foot paths gently curving along the side of the summit with views of Lake Lucerne on a clear day. To reach the top and get the best view it’s up to the walker to figure out which way is safest and manageable for themselves. Talking a zigzagging route of my making I arrived at the very top where a large cross stands. The views were stunning in all directions: rugged rocky peaks, the beautiful expansive lakes and both French and Swiss snow-capped ranges. Up on the peaks you can really see the surrounding area well, even during very hot days.

The hike is roughly 15 km hike up from Bellano, the mountain could make a nice day trip from  Varenna or anywhere on the east side of the lake. The route also directly connects to the Sentiero del Viandate with accommodation available in several villages along the way. For the extra organized it’s possible to purchase a bus ticket in advance in the Bellano train station to be used for the journey back down the mountain from Vendrogno. My experience with the local bus was that it was never on time but made several strips a day between the two cities. With some patience it would be worth taking the ride to avoid hiking back down.

Sunset began and it was time to start the climb down.

The east side of Lake Como is known for being far calmer and more reasonably priced than the popular west side but it has all the same things to offer. For me, the best part about this area is seeing the sunset over the lake and hearing the nightly thunder roll in, almost like a chiming clock, letting me know it’s time to go to sleep.

If you are curious about visiting Lake Como, leave me a message and I am happy to hear about what you have planned.

Thank you reading.