Interview with Paul Read, the Gazpachomonk. #WABAS12

Paul Read - writer, broadcaster and Tai Chi master.

Paul Read – writer, broadcaster and Tai Chi master.

As a blogger and tweeter, I follow and read many other expats here in Spain. One who has intrigued me for some time is the Gazpachomonk. Apart from the obvious appeal of the name, I was delighted on meeting Paul at the recent WABAS weekend in Malaga recently to find that he is different from other expats – he has fresh and fascinating views on living here in Spain, coloured by his experience of Tai Chi, his love of history, and his wonderfully dry humour. I enjoyed Paul’s book, Inside the Tortilla: A Journey In Search of Authenticity, and am avidly watching his series of videos on Spain in the WABAS12 series (12 bloggers-on-Spain each posting a video every day for 12 consecutive days), so I decided to ask him some probing questions about authenticity, gastronomy, and eyewear.

Why are you called the Gazpachomonk?

In a parallel universe I am known as the “teapotmonk” (where I write about Eastern philosophy, teach Tai Chi and spout Taoist nonsense). When I moved to Spain, I wanted to keep something of this identity, but as I was now working in an Iberian context, I exchanged the tea for gazpacho. Critics argue that I still spout the same nonsense, it just has more of a garlic flavour these days.

How long have you lived here in Spain?

In 1994 I spent a year in Seville as part of a degree course I was taking. I returned to Spain in 1996 with my partner, Cherry, and we have been living here since then.

the town of Loja,in Granada province, which Paul brings to life in his book Inside the Tortilla.

The town of Loja,in Granada province, which Paul brings to life in his book Inside the Tortilla.

A previous chapter in Paul's life: working in markets on the Costa Tropical.

A previous chapter in Paul’s life: working in markets on the Costa Tropical.

Where have you lived, and which place(s) have you liked most, and why?

Ohhh, big question. The year in Seville was exciting and it still remains one of my favourite cities in the world. In 1996 we moved to Tarragona, but just for four months. Loved the place and the people, but couldn’t get work, so shifted to Madrid. However, found that too hectic, noisy, expensive and it reminded us too much of London. So we moved to Toledo – atmospheric and medieval and a really convenient place to buy a suit of armour and marzipan. However, it wasn’t too long before we realised it wasn’t so good for getting a pint of milk or a loaf of bread.

After two years without bread and many adventures later, we fled to Castille and Leon. But it was too quiet and too cold, so we headed south and in 1998 found ourselves in the coastal resort of Almuñecar in Granada. We stayed there working the markets for seven years until we couldn’t stand the ebb and flow of so many people – it was a bit like living in a big bus station, just more watery, and so we fled the coast and found ourselves here in Loja, where we’ve been since 2006.

What still frustrates you most about living in Spain?

When I hear people complain about either Spanish bureaucracy, corruption or oily tapas, I tend to want to poke them in the kidneys – not because of what they are saying, but because I find such posturing ultimately disempowering.

If frustrating things happen – and obviously they do to everyone – I’m convinced it’s as much to do with ourselves as our chosen country. Clashes of culture, language, social differences will inevitably lead to misunderstandings. How we respond is the only tool we have – and it comes down to this: how do we wish to play out our life here? Is it going to be an obstacle forever, or will it be a challenge?

What do you think of the expat scene?

Let’s be honest, we are all expats, and we all operate in some circle or another. Some do so on the coast, others in the campo or inland. Some are bound together by their inability to speak or contextualise the affairs of the country, others by their – often misguided – belief that they can actually do so.

Yet we all need to touch base now and then with our past, with people who share our history, our cultural or social reference points, wherever we find ourselves. In a way, I can understand the expat communities of the coastal strip who honestly make no claim about learning the language or integrating into another lifestyle. I may not be in agreement with their aims, but I respect their honesty. On the other hand, a lot of other expats – particularly those who boast of their ability to conjugate an irregular verb or publicly rejoice in shunning the rest of the foreigners in town – are simply hypocritical. It’s pure class politics raising its ugly head once more.

Paul's book covers many aspects of life in Spain, from flamenco to

Paul’s book covers many aspects of life in Spain, from siestas to Semana Santa.

Which Spanish dish do you make best? (apart from gazpacho!)

“Sopa de ajo” is my winter favourite right now. Whatever is in season is the base of all my favourite recipes – and of course that changes with the time of year – Ive a section on my website with all my best recipes – if you want to check that out.

Where did you get idea for your series of #WABAS12 videos?

I’d been doing podcasts for the last couple of years and had based them on the concept of trying to understand the foolishness of our present lifestyle choices by looking for explanations in the past. History is not about answering the questions of when or where, but rather why and how? These questions bring history alive, particularly when you can relate universal themes to somewhere as specific as the town you live in. So when the WABAS12 project was born, I decided to try and apply these ideas to the medium of video, and try my best to portray one small town in the most universal of ways. I wanted to show that you don’t need to be living in a major city to see the history of the world in front of your eyes.

Why do you always wear shades in your videos?

There are two possible answers:

1) Robin, Spiderman, Batman, Iron Man – they all hide behind something when publicly fighting injustice, right? Well the Gazpachomonk wears shades.

2) “Uveitis Anterior” is an eye condition that dilates the pupils of the sufferer and makes sunlight almost unbearable.

Why don’t you mention your partner in your book, Inside the Tortilla?

It’s true that my partner, Cherry, was by my side during many of the episodes in the book, and her presence is there if you look for it. But I chose not to include her directly because the emphasis of the book is themes and not characters – hence we never get to know a lot about the narrator, and the Hound has no name. Even the identity of the town is never mentioned, other than by its fictional name of “La Llave.” In this way I hoped the book would not fall into the pit of two bumbling expats “Year in Andalusia, Driving over Figs” home-improvement yarn so prevalent since the last wave of North European immigrants discovered blogging.

Do you have any future book or video ideas/plans? You mention a sequel at the end of Inside the Tortilla: The Labyrinth Years.

The Labyrinth book was co-written by Cherry and I during our Toledo years and sits as an unfinished manuscript at home. Whilst we ponder over its future I’m working on a new book for 2014 called Voices, in which a series of historical characters describe what keeps them sane in an insane world: themes of love, passion, migration, gazpacho, corruption, churros. Meanwhile, I’m still working on my Tai Chi series of books with the teapotmonk – and a selection of videos and podcasts that accompany them (http://teapotmonk.com/).

How and where do you find authenticity?

Authenticity is an endangered species these days. Like people, towns have their authentic voices – at times loud and clear, other times silenced in the rush to embrace the latest expression of modernity ( eco-tourism and Facebook pages come to mind). My search for authenticity arose because I felt myself drowning in this sea of nonsense.

When any place or person engages in the exploitation of people or the land, and tags it as something new and trendy, they suppress its unique voice, its character, and we all lose out. I hope the greed we have seen exposed politically these last few years encourages us to look once more at the uniqueness of where we live and who we are, and not to fall back on the old cycle of unfettered growth in a world with finite means. Have I personally found it? Let’s just say it’s an ongoing project.

What advice would you offer for those thinking of moving to Spain?

If I had to give two piece of advice I’d say…

1. I know this is difficult, but try not to move to Spain without renting for a full year first. Yes, it means paying out cash, but it will give you so many advantages over buying. You can move around and check out the area, the town, the people, the dialect, the weather, the noise, the heat, the health services, the working possibilities etc without committing yourself to a huge investment that would be difficult to change later on.

2. Language – forget the imperfect subjunctive, just get familiar with the basics and let your new world teach you the rest. This of course means that if your new world is composed of satellite TV, internet news and watching rugby in the local Sports Bar, then you may have to make a bit more effort. Think of language as a useful app on your smart phone. It’s a tool that’ll help to contextualise this strange new world, explain it to you and help you explain yourself to others. Moving to Spain without the language is, as I’m often prone to say, akin to taking up golf and then pulling your arms of their sockets just before your first round.

You can find out more about Paul’s Spain-related books, ebooks, podcasts and videos at his website, Speaking of Spain: Resources on Living, Working and Sweating in Spain. (Paul has a great line in subtitles, as you can see.)
Watch his WABAS12 videos on his YouTube channel.
Other links: Paul’s books and his blog about Tai Chi.

A sensory experience: la higuera

This fragrant little beauty, on a tree in Benoajan after a 9km hike, made my day.

This fragrant fig tree in Benoajan, spotted at the end of a 9km hike, provided a moment of sheer euphoria.

They say that memories triggered by smell are the most powerful and long-lasting. Familiar odours can bring back, in depth and detail, experiences and places visited many years before.

As one website explains: “When you first smell a new scent, you link it to an event, a person, a thing or even a moment. Your brain forges a link between the smell and a memory. When you encounter the smell again, the link is already there, ready to elicit a memory or a mood.” This is called the olfactory memory. Fascinating stuff, I hear you say (or perhaps not), but so what?

Andalucia is replete with olfactory experiences such as azahar, sweet orange blossom, Seville’s spring smell. But one of the most intense I’ve ever had, seared into my memory, was on the recent Mr Henderson’s Railway gourmet hiking trip: the fig. I’ve never given much attention to this particular fruit – goes well with ham, used by the Victorians to make a dubious pudding. My father’s fig tree is famed locally for its prodigious harvests of the swollen purplish bulbs; but they always remind me of a livid bruise, and the visceral pulp is less than attractive. Visually, and in every other sense.

Walking the dogs in the fields near my house, on a late summer evening a few weeks ago, I became aware of a glorious scent. Warm and sweet, it encapsulated the sun-bathed Spanish countryside – soft and golden. After a while I realised it was coming from the higueras – our route takes us through a field of the huge-leaved fruit trees. None had figs, all having been mercilessly foraged by the crisis-hit locals. But the trees still smelled divine, nonetheless.

Our route from Jimera del Libar to Benoajan.

Our route from Jimera del Libar to Benoajan, following the Guadiaro river.

Back to Mr Henderson’s Railway - on day three of our Algeciras-to-Ronda trip, having eaten like kings in converted stations and cargo sheds along the line, and slept like queens in heavenly hotels (more on those soon), we hiked a 9km trail from Jimera del Libar to Benoajan. The trail runs alongside the historic train line (built by an English Lord, don’t you know) which follows the Guadiaro river. Two hours of full-on walking up and down hills on the hiking trail, with just a few seedy cookies for sustenance (thanks, Lidl), just about did me in. (You see, my idea of exercise is an hour’s gentle padel knock-about with another mum, or a slow ramble with children and aforementioned canine companions. Or, at a push, a bike ride showing tourists around Seville.)

It was hot that morning, though thankfully with ample shade from the trees lining the path, under which I rested my red-faced, sweating, exhausted self. We hardly met another soul, that’s how off-the-beaten-hiking-path this route is. Watching the train pass by, through tunnels and over bridges built by compatriots over a century ago, and the fabulous views of the river, railway and tree-covered slopes from the hillside path, made it all worthwhile. Just.

Deep in the wilds of Andalucia, pretending to be a hiker.

Deep in the wilds of Andalucia, pretending to be a hiker. You can see Mr Henderson’s Railway behind.

Then I felt that joyous little leap of finally glimpsing your destination at the end of an arduous journey (for me, at least) – in this case the village of Benoajan, across the river. As the track led downhill through the outlying houses towards the bridge, I caught a whiff of something sweet, and looked up. Hanging down above my head was a large, luscious, purple fig.

What a moment! The elation of completing the hike (everyone else had already finished – I was the last, but enjoyed indulging in this profoundly personal experience alone); the relief that I had survived without bruises, scratches or sprained joints; the anticipation of yet another fabulous meal just around the corner; the enveloping warmth of a September afternoon in Andalucia; and, dare I say it, the guilty frisson of being away from my children for so long – it was all wrapped up (no parma ham) in that fruit tree and its delectably rich, evocative, sun-drenched aroma.

Fig salad: a late summer classic.

Fig salad: a late summer classic.

And lunch, on the pretty, shady terrace of a converted mill, next to a stream and drenched with pink bouganvillea, vines heavy with grapes, and yet more fragrant fig trees, lived up to its expectations – delicately-flavoured, colourful salads, hearty pasta, and exquisite ice-cream to refuel after all that physical exertion, accompanied by some excellent dry moscatel wine (a recent discovery, well worth trying). And although I didn’t order it myself, I tried a friend’s fig salad. And, reader, I liked it.

Bright bouganvillea against a white wall: so Andalucian.

A burst of colour – bright bouganvillea against a white wall is so Andalucian.

What smell triggers your memory?

10 things I’ve learned I can’t live without

A few weeks ago, I reached an important milestone – both in my life, and in my time lived in Spain: it’s 10 years since I arrived here in Seville. Back in September 2003 I came to this beautiful city – via London and Quito, Ecuador – with no expectations, no idea of what I’d find (I’d never been here before), and a few names as contacts.

A decade later, I have a small, tumbledown house (literally), two dogs and a semi-wild cat, two children and a husband, lots more English-language novels, thousands of leaflets, guidebooks and novels about various aspects of Andalucian and Spain, from the Civil War to flamenco, as well as a decent collection of children’s DVDs. And one of the contacts is still a good friend, and unofficial godmother to my son.

Having read Josh’s reliably excellent post on five things not to forget when moving to Spain (clue: it’s about food, and nursery food at that), it occurred to me that since I’ve been here 10 years, my anniversary would be a great excuse hook for a post on things I’ve learned that I can’t live without. Practical posts aren’t my forte, but this might be of some use or interest to a new, or potential, expat.

So here goes (artwork: Copyright Lola and Zac Flores Watson):

no1

1) Revo internet radio
If I want to dance, I find some pop tunes on Radio 2; hear the news, Radio 4; remember why I left London, Radio London; listen to some quirky tracks, Radio 6 Music. I go off into my own little world when I’m in the kitchen with my radio on. Some British expats refuse to listen to British radio or watch British TV. Balderdash and poppycock. (Confession: I do listen to RAI in the car.)

no2

2) Satellite dish
I rarely watch TV, except for the news – once the kids are finally in bed, I’m either working on the computer, eating, or asleep. We don’t even have one at the moment as our sitting room is a building site. But when we do, the reason I value it so highly is CBeebies. Have you seen Spanish children’s TV? Think, the most moronic, sexist, casual-violence American animated nonsense you can imagine, and that’s it. Brain-rot. At least Ballamory has sound ideas on racial harmony. And its theme tune is far less irritating than Sponge Bob Squarepants, FFS.

no3

3) Girls’ nights out
My best girlfriends are all English. What a cliche, I hear you say. But that cultural familiarity, the unspoken bonds, the mutual understanding of being married to a Spaniard (four of my closest mum mates are) and all the communication challenges that implies. All we need is a bottle of wine (or three) and you can leave us there till the wee hours.

no4

4) The Week
My wonderful, though sadly aging, Dad gets me a subscription every year to this weekly news mag, which distills the most interesting and important stories from British and foreign media into 60-odd pages – perfect loo or bath reading material. And it gets passed on to one of those mentioned in 3).

no5

5) Nice soap
The Spanish don’t seem to do nice soap, unless it’s made of honey and glycerin with oatmeal flakes suspended inside and costs 4 euros. Buy a four-pack of normal scented stuff from any English supermarket and you’ll be fragrant for months.

no6

6) Facebook, especially groups
I don’t understand anyone who doesn’t use Facebook. How else would I know when anyone’s birthday is? Or what their children look like now? Or what embarrassing thing happened to them at work last week? Or which Youtube video’s gone viral? I work at home, so there’s no water-cooler moment, no chat while the kettle boils (do they even have kettles in Spanish offices?) It’s like a mouthy coffee break, getting squiffy cocktail hour, and catch-up chat on the phone, all rolled into one. And the groups are indescribably useful and supportive. I’ve made fantastic contacts, found work, and received (and, I hope, given too) useful advice via Facebook groups.

no7

7) Extra reserves of patience and tolerance
The I-don’t-understand-you grimace, the “you don’t need that form”, “you only need one copy”, “you don’t need the original”. Ignore, push, insist, ask again, request clarification (you did need the form, four copies, and the original). If in doubt, start again from the beginning. Be firm and try to stay calm. Spanish administration is hell, but at least make sure that the bolshy jobsworth funcionario (civil servant) who’s trying to deny you that essential document – because she wants to go and have her coffee break – does her job properly. (Although in my case, I don’t think they get off scot-free either – I need everything explaining at least four times, which must have its less endearing qualities.) And if they’re being really obtuse, officious or offensive, just picture them in their underwear.

no8

8) Chutney
Cebolla caramelizada doesn’t quite cut it. In fact, Spanish jams in general are sub-standard. English fruit and vegetable chutneys, however, especially spicy ones, have this strange power of making an ordinary cheese sandwich into a thing of wonder.

no9

9) Regular trips back to the motherland
We go about twice a year – I need to be among people who speak my language, literally, and may not be as warm or friendly as the Spanish, but who won’t frown at me when I mumble because I’m too knackered to en-un-ci-ate clear-ly. Where supermarket shelves overflow with a heavenly array of cakes, biscuits and naughty puds, and crisps and chutneys (see 8) come in 359 flavours. Where friends who’ve known me for years can tell me what I need to be told. And where I, and especially my children, can spend precious time with aforementioned aging parents.

no10

10) My family
Well, obviously. I’m hardly going to dump them by the roadside and go gallivanting off to the Algarve for a week on my own, now, am I? (Well, actually, there was talk of a girls’ weekend away – see 3) The biggest change for me since arriving in Seville, apart from giving up smoking, designer clothes and poncy cocktail bars, has been having my children. They’re half-Spanish, or half-Andalucian as their Dad would say, bilingual, and comfortable in both cultures, thanks to 2 and 9; and 1 helps too. My husband, for his part, keeps our shoddily-built bungalow standing, tending to plumbing, electrical, structural and countless other problems, and is a bear-ish sort of bloke who is useful around the house and garden (great veg patch) – just as well, since he doesn’t have a job. Anyway, they’re the bees’ knees and I love them to bits. I managed without them for three days recently, on a very nice trip in Andalucia, but that was quite long enough, thank you. I can’t go without hugs for more than three days. Ni pensar.

What can’t you live without?

 

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The value of knowledge – a gourmet hiking adventure in deepest Andalucia

Toma Tours, Manni Coe, tuna, atun de almadraba, almadraba, Cadiz, gastronomy, gourmet, restaurant

A guided tour of the blue-fin tuna, a must for serious foodies on a trip to Andalucia.

I love to travel around Andalucia, and try to explore more of this hugely varied region whenever possible, usually in day trips. After 10 years of living here, there are still legions of parks, mountains, lakes and towns that I haven’t visited yet.

So when Manni of Toma Tours invited me to come along on his special preview of Mr Henderson’s Railway – three days of slow food and easy hikes, based around a historic train line between Algeciras and Ronda – I didn’t jump at the chance, I positively leaped. A trip without having to do any internet research, plan the trip, make bookings, read maps, or mediate between squabbling children. For I am, like most Mums, my own family’s tour planner/manager/guide/arbitrator.

Tuna fillet on wakame seaweed.

Fresh almadraba tuna fillet on wakame seaweed – from Barbate, in Cadiz, only caught a few months of the year.

Manni’s company, Toma, takes small groups of visitors around Andalucia (and beyond, to Morocco) – hiking hidden trails (he’s super-fit), eating the finest seasonal produce and drinking local wines at out-of-the-way restaurants, and experiencing all the wonderful cultural and natural attractions the region has to offer, in both major cities and smaller towns, as on this trip. Manni has lived in Andalucia for over 10 years, as well as studying Spanish at University, and has an impressive knowledge of the region’s history and culture.

The trip took place during the first week of the school term, finishing on my son’s birthday, so the timing wasn’t ideal – my son’s face when I told him I wouldn’t be there on the morning of his big day was heart-breaking. I had to leave the trip early to get home in time that day, missing the last visit – to a bull farm, with an iberico (prime Spanish pork)-fest lunch. No great loss for me, since I’m a non-meat-eater and not a bullfighting fan, either.

Mr Henderson's Railway, train,

A scenic stretch of Mr Henderson’s railway in the Serrania de Ronda, running above the river Guadiaro; the hiking trail overlooks the train tracks.

In terms of the hiking aspect, I’m no fitness freak (read: lazybones), so the thought of the hikes filled me with trepidation. All resolutions to get (even slightly) fit and take some proper exercise prior to the trip went out of the window, with dog-walking being my sole aerobic preparation. Not many hills where I live, except the one that goes down to Seville, and that’s a bit hardcore for me. How did I fare? You’ll just have to wait for the next post to find out.

vegetables, home-grown, organic

Home-grown organic produce in one of the restaurants where we ate with Toma Tours.

As I set off for Algeciras, the starting point for the trip, I felt naked without my family, and realised this was going to be the longest I’d ever been away from my children – three nights (in seven years). Then it dawned on me this that was also going to be three days with NO COOKING, CLEANING, WASHING, TIDYING UP, NAGGING, OR CHIVYING, and I suddenly felt light-headed with excitement. As much as I insisted on taking reams of notes (to the amusement of fellow travellers in the group), and snapping endless photos (ditto), I could devote 100% of my attention to take in my surroundings, which is very rare.

To return to the trip – Manni has been closely involved in the restoration of Mr Henderson’s Railway, a line which was built in the 1890s by the eponymous gentleman (he was later made a Lord) to take officers from Gibraltar up to Ronda. They had to take a boat from the Rock to Algeciras, but then they could sink back into the luxury of the venerable Edwardian-era Reina Cristina Hotel – the first hotel on Spain’s southern coast; sadly, its once-magnificent views of the bay are marred these days by the industrial machinery of the port – before hopping onto the train at the nearby railway station. Manni has in-depth knowledge of the construction and history of the railway and its two hotels (there’s one in Ronda too).

An old train station with terrace restaurant.

An old train station-turned-terrace restaurant on the Algeciras-Ronda line.

The train stopped at various small stations along the way to Ronda, many built below the mountain-top villages they served, such as Gaucin – in some cases they were several kilometres away. Today, a few of these stations and their accompanying storehouses have been turned into restaurants, which form an integral part of the tour we were doing, next to the railway which has three trains per day from Algeciras to Granada. Often in tiny, way-off-the-beaten-track places, they’re the sort of restaurants you’d be unlikely to stumble across on your own – this is where local knowledge is key. So Manni can guide you to the most best and most fascinating of everything: train lines, hiking trails, gastronomic secrets, hidden boltholes…

This gorgeous naturally designed pool had one of the best views I've ever seen.

This pool is sublime – fabulous view across the valley, and perfectly landscaped to look natural, with plants and rocks.

In later posts I will write in more detail about each section of the trip, but the main impression I took away with me was that the heart and soul of a company like Toma Tours is Manni – his charm, dedication, enthusiasm, professionalism, and sense of fun. He’s one of those people who carries you along with him on a wave of goodwill.

Manni Coe of Toma Tours, who will whisk you to the best spots in Andalucia.

The ever-smiling Manni Coe of Toma Tours greets us at Ronda station.

He has supported the restoration of the railway, got to know the restaurant owners (who clearly adore him; he is a rather good-looking chap, which helps), and loves to share his new discoveries with people – to introduce them to the wonders of  the Guadiaro valley which runs north from Algeciras towards Ronda, through spectacular wooded mountains and limestone cliffs. These people include a certain TV presenter who was investigating railways for a BBC programme.

Ronda, view

Relaxation room in our Ronda hotel – get that view.

If you have an interest in railways (or even if you don’t), and you like to combine hiking – the full trip is five days, with 3-5 hours of walking per day – with some astonishingly good food in wonderful surroundings, off the tourist beaten track in Andalucia, then you can’t do better than the Mr Henderson’s Railway Gourmet Walking Tour. And I even got home in time to bake my son’s birthday cake. Nothing fancy, just a Victoria sponge, but he was delighted. And we all survived fine without each other for three days. Now, when’s my next trip?

El Rocio 2013: La Salida de Sevilla

el rocio

A group of romeros (pilgrims) in the Puerta Jerez. They all wear medallions of their hermandad around their necks.

Amidst all the excitement of Ferias around Andalucia every spring, another major celebration takes place near here: El Rocio. For over 200 years, every Whitsun, pilgrims have walked to this small town in Huelva to worship the adored Virgen del Rocio, popularly known as La Blanca Paloma (the White Dove). El Rocio looks like something out of a Wild West movie, with its clapboard houses and wooden rails outside bars for tethering your horse. It fills up for a few days every May or June, with romeros arriving from all over Spain, and beyond; a large number make the journey from towns across Andalucia.

The El Salvador hermandad crossing the San Telmo bridge to Los Remedios - the first stage of its journey to El Rocio.

The El Salvador hermandad crossing the San Telmo bridge from the centre of Seville to Los Remedios – the first stage of its journey to El Rocio.

The hermandades (brotherhoods, associations attached to churches) from around here – Seville and town in the Aljarafe, the “high area” to the west of the city, where I live – leave over three days, staggered so that the roads don’t come to a complete standstill (the same is also true for their return). As it it is, much traffic is diverted and normal routes closed to make way for the carretas (gypsy wagons) pulled by pairs of bueyes (oxen), carriages pulled by mules or horses, and the romeros (pilgrims) who ride their horses.

There are also tall, bow-topped caravans pulled by 4x4s, but they’re considerably less photogenic; from a comfort point of view, however, they are far superior, with air-con and water tanks; the unusually low temperatures this year have meant heating is more necessary than cooling.

Passing the Plaza de Cuba roundabout with its bright red roses.

Passing the Plaza de Cuba roundabout with its bright red roses.

I walked with one of Seville’s five hermandades, Sevilla El Salvador, which set off from outside the church in Plaza Salvador, on its route out of the city. The procession includes the simpecado, an image of the Virgin carried on its own carreta; family carretas, each decorated with a different colour or colours, each carreta pulled by a pair of oxen, sometimes with a spare beast tied to the wagon’s rear, and their driver (bueyero); men and women on horseback, the ladies in colourful flamenca dresses, riding side-saddle; and many romeros on foot.

el rocio

Always an incongruous sight, the colourful carretas passing modern blocks – these are in Los Remedios, as the procession heads west out of the city.

I chatted to one of the buyeros, who told me there were considerably fewer carretas this year, and that many people had chosen to walk the route, rather than riding their horse. The current economic crisis affects all aspects of Spanish life, even long-standing traditions such as El Rocio. But many people come out to watch the procession of simpecado, oxen, carretas and horses go past, standing in the street to watch as they pass by, or putting a hand out to touch the simpecado.

El Rocio

These women are excited about starting their pilgrimage to El Rocio, the high point of the year for many. The morning was chilly, hence the wraps.

el rocio

The drummer-piper is an essential element of any pilgrimage; you can see the simpecado behind him.

The simpecado, pulled by two oxen, leads the the way.

The simpecado, or image of the Virgin, pulled by two oxen, leads the the way.

Everyone wants to touch the Virgin's cart.

Everyone wants to touch the Virgin’s carreta.

el Rocio

The Virgin simpecado is resplendent with its gleaming silver and bright flowers. Low-key it is not.

One of my favourite sights: a frilly pink flamenca dress-clad romera on her horse.

One of my favourite sights: a frilly pink flamenca dress-clad romera on her horse.

El Rocio

Now heading out of the city into the countryside, friends greet each other on one of the carretas’ frequent stops.

Fewer people went on El Rocio on horseback this year; everyone is having to cut back.

The riders look dashing in their collarless jackets, hats and leather chaps.

This road is little-used, but main roads are closed to allow the romeros to pass through towns and cities.

This road is little-used, but main roads are closed to allow the romeros to pass through towns and cities.

El Rocio

A young ox-driver – they control the huge beasts by leaning back against them to slow them down.

El Rocio

Two friends enjoying puros as they ride their horses.

Crossing the river on an iron bridge which is popular with cyclists as a quiet, safe route to Seville from towns outside the city.

Crossing the river on an iron bridge, as the carretas near the first town on their route.

El Rocio

Fernando wanted to impress on me that the pilgrimage is about Faith, Devotion and the Virgin. (And, of course, we have a few drinks.)

People are often keen to talk to curious outsiders at these joyous, deeply-felt events, so while we were crossing the bridge over the Guadalquivir river, I got talking to a man riding his horse called Fernando. On hearing that I was a foreigner, he was keen to inform me (repeating himself a number of times which led me to conclude his breakfast might have featured an added alcoholic element) that the pilgrimage is about “Fe, Devocion y la Virgen” (Faith, Devotion and the Virgin). And a few copas. “But without the Virgin, we have nothing,” he declaimed, rather superfluously, I thought. But then Andalucians do love stating the obvious, preferably with dramatic flourishes.

Heading for the hills: up to the Aljarafe, the high area to the west of Sevilla.

Heading for the hills: in sight of the Aljarafe, the high area to the west of Sevilla.

This romera (pilgrim) wears romero (rosemary) in her hair.

This romera (pilgrim) wears a sprig of romero (rosemary) in her hair.

I’m always intrigued by the Spanish language, and the word romero originated as someone who goes on a pilgrimage to Rome – hence romeria – but romero also means rosemary in Spanish, and many people carry or wear rosemary sprigs as they walk.

This man has rosemary tied to his walking stick.

This man has rosemary tied to his walking stick.

And this carreta has some attached too, with a pink ribbon - pretty touch.

And this carreta has some attached too, with a pink ribbon – pretty touch.

El Rocio

Bursting into song, and clapping, helps the pilgrims on their way on El Rocio.

On arrival at the edge of the first town, by a metro station of the almost-unpronounceable San Juan del Aznalfarache (trips off the tongue after a while), they stopped for a sing-song, which then continued as they walked along the (closed to traffic) main road, past the petrol station and then up the hill towards the centre. The romeros were now closely grouped together, led in their singing by a couple of guys with guitars.

Walking and singing through the streets of San Juan del Aznalfarache (try saying that after a few finos).

Walking and singing through the streets of San Juan del Aznalfarache (try saying that after a few finos).

My last sight of the Seville romeros was this man on his horse.

My last sight of the Seville romeros was this man on his horse.

After a few of these rociero songs, it was time for me to leave the happy gang and reluctantly head home. I passed horse-drawn carts on my way down, as they headed up the hill, loaded up with groups of friends and family, their picnic hampers strapped to the back of their carts. Until I returned to the main road, which was now deserted, apart from one lone rider.

At the end of three days’ ride, their route taking them through Doñana National Park, they will reach their destination, where most hermandades have their own house to stay in, with stables for the animals. On Sunday, the much-adored Virgin comes out of her sanctuary, and visits each hermandad’s house. That is the most important day of the pilgrimage, the climax, the occasion for the most frenzied celebration. Then it’s time to pack up and head home again.

El Rocio this year is on Sunday 19 May; 2104: 8 June ; 2015: 24 May.