Flysch Wanderlust

“Spend the afternoon, you can’t take it with you” Annie Dillard said. Here in Zumaia, in the Basque Country, I’ve spent some of the loveliest afternoons ever, letting the hours sliding through vertically rising flysch rocks, and being washed away by the magical tides of the Cantabrian sea.

Zumaia flysch rocks going into the sea

Flysch comes from German and translates into sliding or slippery. In Spanish, the equivalent is rasa mareal. These dramatically looking rocky layers of sedimentary origin are composed by rhythmic alternation of cohesive hard rocks like limestone, slate or sandstone, interspersed with softer crumbly ones – marl or shale. This arrangement favors differential erosion, with the soft layers being grinned down by the sea and the wind. They offer unique and fascinating images of unpatterned shapes, and showcase over 60 million years of geological history.

Zumaia Itzurun beach flysch cliffs San Telmo chapel

Itzurun Beach

This is Itzurun beach, in the town of Zumaia, and the tiny building on top is a chapel dedicated to San Telmo, patron saint of sailors. Apart from the natural beauty of Itzurun, there is something that makes it unique, geologically speaking. The life time of our planet Earth is divided by scientists to make all its 46 billion years of age manageable, thus the eras often coincide with great geological events. The International Stratography Commission chooses different places in the world where the imprint of these changes remains; and curiously in Itzurun there are two stratotypes separated by just 30 meters.

Zumaia Itzurun beach flysch rocks green fields San Telmo chapel Cantabrian sea

Actually, the entire coastline of the area, from Mutriku to Deba and then to Zumaia, is a geological park, and there are plenty of hiking routes and boat rides created especially to enjoy the flysch landscape and learn about the amazing secrets it reveals – just check the website of Geoparkea.

Zumaia flysch rocks sea
Zumaia Itzurun flysch rocks sea

The Flysch 100 Billion Years of History, in a Few Words

The Iberian Peninsula, more than 100 billion years ago, separated from Europe. The Gulf of Bizkaia was born and, on the seabed, a black flysch formed. When the Iberian Peninsula collided with Europe more than 33 billion years ago, the sediments on the seabed were deformed, rising and creating the Pyrenees and the vertical layers of the flysch.

Zumaia flysch closeup

Because of its out-of-this-world landscape, Zumaia was also the scene of the fictional Dragonstone in the Game of Thrones.


Inspired by Flysch

In the town of San Sebastian, around 50 km from the flysch area, there’s this art and jewellery store, Tiriki Tauki.

The microworlds or nano-landscapes created by jewellery designer J. Galparso in his Flysch series express the asymmetric volumes and the contrasting textures and shapes of the Basque coast by integrating the use of stones, sometimes as a mineral – lapis lazuli, rubies, agates, sometimes as “sea” – blue topaz, labradorite or aquamarine, while the rocks are transposed into black silver.


Ceramist Liliana Rubio (Paralelaink) has her studio in Sant Jean de Luz. Her collections include the Flysch series of ceramics which artistically depict the layers of the rocks and the colours of the sea.


I am ending my post with photos of photos. The author is Enric de Santos, who had an analog photography exhibition in Barcelona, two years ago, displaying a small part of his collection of flysch landscapes and also of rocks which look curiously similar to some of the best known works of Antoni Gaudí.


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