It’s December 24th. The atrocious weather continues without let up. Gale-force gusts of wind turn my Ortlieb panniers into sails (and not necessarily in the right direction of travel), making for slow progress. So much so, I only manage to cycle the 40kms of undulating coastline to reach the historic harbour town of Loredo just before nightfall.
In the dying light of day, I cycle through the town’s narrow cobbled roads and soon emerge from the north side looking for a good spot to camp; mindful to keep a distance from any more hay bales and curious farmers. The skies open again with yet another downpour. As I reach a fork in the road, I take the lane which passes a small collection of run-down dilapidated farmhouses.
A weathered-looking man in his forties followed by an old Labrador emerges from one of the dwellings. Wearing a faded blue poncho and a dustbin liner for extra protection, he shouts something over the pitch of the wind and walks briskly towards me. ‘¿A dónde vas’, he asks in a low, gruff tone. ‘¿Por dónde se va a camping,’ I reply wishfully. He shakes his head in disbelief. The wind picks up again and breaks the momentary standoff. ‘Follow me,’ he responds, making the sign of the cross on his chest.
The prospect of weathering out the storm under the canvas for another night did not hold much appeal, and with no better options, I turn the Sherpa around and we walk the five minutes downhill into town. He introduces himself as John, a Basque mariner from Bilbao, and tells me proudly how his Republican grandfather fought the fascists in Spain, and later in Normandy, France. Reaching a large aged-wooden door, he knocks assertively. A brief exchange then ensues between the mariner and the surprised-looking Sister who answers. The word ‘chico’ is mentioned a few times. This obviously does the trick and she invites me into the Church. (I wonder if I would have been granted admittance if I was introduced as ‘hombre?)’ John wishes me a ¡Feliz Navidad! and disappears back into the driving downpour.
Relieved not to be spending another night under the canvas and humbled by a serendipitous encounter with a kind stranger who finds me shelter in my hour of need, I hang out the contents of my panniers to dry and fall into a deep sleep.
And there you have it. A non-believer, taking refuge in a Nun’s Convent; on Christmas Eve.