Route of the three churches: jewels of religious art in the Basque Country



This route runs through the magical woods and valleys of Guipúzcoa, in the Basque Country, northern Spain. Hidden in this natural setting are three religious buildings in different architectural styles, rich in legends, and forming the “Route of the three churches”. Would you like to find out more as we follow the route? Come with us as we explore one of the most beautiful realms of Green Spain.

There are beautiful places in the world that seem to evoke the past and appeal to our spiritual nature. For example, the Sanctuary of Loyola, the chapel of Santa María La Antigua and the Sanctuary of Arantzazu - the three iconic churches making up this 40-kilometre route inland in Guipúzcoa. Although short, this journey reveals a world full of beautiful natural spaces, like the valleys of the rivers Urola and Deba, traditional farmhouses (caseríos) and the culture and rich artistic heritage of the Basque Country. Let’s begin:

The birthplace of St Ignatius of Loyola

One option is to start the route in Azpeitia and its most famous building, the 17th century Sanctuary of Loyola. This church, the first of the three on the route, is one of the world’s most unusual Baroque constructions. The sanctuary was built in honour of St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus. The spectacular dome; the main altarpiece, made with marble, jasper, and other coloured stones; the silver sculpture of St Ignatius; and the large gardens, make for a very striking overall effect. The Sanctuary complex also includes the ancestral home of the Loyola family, where the saint was born, and the ethnographical museum, Caserío Errekarte. In the town of Azpeita, you can visit the Basque Railway Museum or take a bike ride along the greenway which was once the Urola railway line.

The cathedral of country chapels

Around 20 kilometres further inland from Azpeitia is the town of Zumarraga, closely linked to the iron-working culture (it conserves the remains of smithies, mills and dams) and with a rich artistic heritage. But the place we most recommend visiting is the second monument on this route, the chapel of Santa María La Antigua, also known as “the cathedral of country chapels”, which is thought to have been built on the site of a 12th-century fortress. According to legend, when the Christians began building it, people of other religions tried to stop them by throwing stones. However, far from destroying the church, the locals used the stones to finish building it. Whatever the truth of this story, there can be no doubt that the chapel is very attractive, with a Romanesque exterior, a Gothic entrance, and a surprising interior in stone and wood. Any time of year is appropriate for a visit, but early June is the local festival, when the traditional Basque dance, ezpata-dantza, is performed next to the chapel. The church is also the site of a Festival of Antique Music (Sundays in September) and a choral competition (in May). Finally, you will probably be interested in knowing that this is the starting point for another route, to see the megalithic funerary monuments of Zumarraga.

Contemporary architecture at its finest

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.

This wonderful route is a great way to spend a few days. The roads are good and there is free parking near all the churches, and there are also bus companies providing services to all these areas. Walk around the historic centres of the towns on the route, hike on trails like the GR footpath 120, which covers this same itinerary (Ruta de los Tres Templos), or simply take a deep breath and savour the fresh air of the Guipúzcoa valleys and the spiritual atmosphere of the churches. Enjoy this unique experience.

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