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Valleys of the Nervion and Arratia:Unspoilt nature

The Nervion and Ayala valleys are two of the best preserved natural enclaves in the Basque Country. Mountains, steep paths, rivers and streams which are nearly unspoilt, in these depressions in the southern part of Vizcaya and on the slopes of Mount Gorbea. Admiring the source of the Nervion river will no doubt fulfil the wishes of the explorer inside every hiker.

In order to enter into the heart of this beautiful natural place, the best thing is to accept the invitation of the Nervion river and follow its course. From Bilbao, the best way to access the towns of Arrigorriaga, Ugao-Miraballes and Arrankudiaga, is via the highway towards Donostia-San Sebastian, and then taking the BI-625 road at Basauri. After driving through the more industrialised, populated area, we arrive at Areta, on the border of Vizcaya and Alava, which is the gateway to the Valley of Orozko. Apart from its famous bread, Orozko also has other places of interest, like the Town Hall and the Careaga Palace.

In Olarte, on the way to the Arratia valley, we can see Aranguren tower-house. Next, Ibarra, a typical Basque hamlet, greets us. It is worth going up the small mountain pass of Oikotz-Gana to enjoy the beautiful views and take up position in the middle of the valley of Arratia, where there are still several towns which preserve their rural appearance. The first town is Artea, with its unusual hermitage of Apostle St. James (Santiago) and the Eco-museum of the Basque Country House.

St. Bartholomew's Church and Gortazar Palace are the most remarkable buildings in our next stop: Areatza-Villaro. Just a short distance away is Zeanuri, an area of rivers and woods from which we can go up to the Barazar mountain pass, via the N-240 road. Once we are over the pass, through which the Urkiola river flows, is Otxandio, an agricultural and livestock farming town, proud of its traditional architecture, like Santa Marina church and the baroque Town Hall.

We leave Otxandio towards Durango, and take the turnoff to the left to go down the Dima mountain pass. This town is located amongst mountains and plains, and it is a very good provisioning centre for travellers. There cannot be anything better than a good serving of its famous red beans to get our strength back and to continue enjoying the area, which still has many surprises for us, like St. Peter's church or the Hermitage of Piety.

If there is still some natural light, it is a good idea to do a detour to the hamlets of Oba and Artaun, and not to miss one bit of their beautiful landscapes, in particular the massif of Mt. Gorbeia. But one of the treasures that are hidden in the valley is the Balzola caves, located in the neighbourhood that bears the same name, between Otxandio and Dima. A hole 75 metres wide by 25 metres high allows access inside. The inside has been decorated by nature with plenty of stalactites and stalagmites. In the surrounding area is Jentilzubi bridge, a natural arch created by the continuous action of the water. To return to Bilbao, we take again the N-240 road via Igorre, Lemoa, Bedia and Úsansolo. At Galdakao, and before we finish our tour, we can go up to the neighbourhood of Elejalde to contemplate the gothic church of Santa Maria, declared a National Monument.

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