Three churches route: gems of religious art in the Basque Country
View of the shrine of Loyola in Azpeitia (Guipúzcoa).
Come and explore the very heart of the magical valleys of Guipúzcoa province, in the Basque Country, northern Spain. Here you will find three religious monuments in different artistic styles, surrounded by countryside and legends, that together make up the “Three Churches Route”. Would you like to come and find out which they are? Join us on a journey to some of the most beautiful spots inGreen Spain.
There are beautiful places in the world that seem to evoke the past and stimulate our spirituality. This is the case with the Loyola Sanctuary, the Santa María La Antigua Shrine and the Arantzazu Sanctuary, three emblematic churches that make up this route of some 40 kilometres through inland Guipúzcoa province. 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 last stop on this route is a little over 20 kilometres from Zumarraga, in Oñati, at the foot of the Aizkorri-Aratz Nature Reserve. Here you will find the Arantzazu Sanctuary, an example of contemporary religious art that is special for a range of different reasons. Firstly there is the origin of its name. According to local legend, the Virgin Mary appeared to a shepherd, standing on a thorn. The shepherd was surprised and asked her in the Basque language: “Arantzan zu?” (You, on a thorn?). From that moment and for several centuries after, the Arantzazu Sanctuary became a place of pilgrimage. After being damaged by several fires, in 1961 it was decided to build a new basilica. This is the second reason why this visit is not to be missed: some of the best contemporary Basque architects came together to create the new sanctuary and you can now admire its four iron doorways by Eduardo Chillida, its stunning altarpiece that covers more than 600 square metres, the Modernist paintings to be found in the crypt and the play of light created by its stained glass windows. The final reason to visit is sure to make you feel special, free and in peace. The sanctuary is in a beautiful natural setting. It is located on a cliff, surrounded by a forest of ancient holm oaks.
What is more, if you are a nature and sports enthusiast, then from Arantzazu you can climb Mount Aizkorri (1,531 metres), discover the Megalithic remains on the Urbia meadows or visit the underground galleries at Arrikrutz Cave (guides available in several languages). Contact the Oñati Tourist office for full information.
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.