This rociera has a peineta (comb) dedicated to the Virgen del Rocio, adored focus of Spain’s biggest pilgrimage.
Oranges tied to a simpecado (ox-drawn float carrying an image of the Virgin del Rocio), with ribbon in Andalucian and Spanish colours.
La Paloma Blanca, the White Dove – another name for the Virgen del Rocio.
The pregon, who shouts out the Virgen chants – “Viva la Virgen del Rocio!” – outside the church. The large brown bulk on the right is the ox, which pulls the simpecado cart, with its driver.
Walking staff with ribbon to show which town the rociero comes from, with some rosemary tucked in the top.
This carreta even has a matching upstairs bedroom window.
Every year I can, I scoot off with my trusty camera to capture the rocieros as they set off on Spain’s biggest annual pilgrimage to a small town in Huelva province – El Rocio.
As many others have affirmed, this romeria has a debatable religious element, with a large dose of fiesta fervour. Most genuinely adore the Virgin de las Marismas, as she is also known (as well as La Paloma Blanca), but for some it’s more the idea of a week-long drinking, dancing and everything-else-you-can-think-of session which attracts. I don’t care what they get up to, personally, as long as they treat the poor animals (horses, mules and oxen) used for carrying and pulling, responsibly – but sadly they don’t always, as around 15-20 die each year, a unpleasant aspect of the event which is garnering increasing publicity and controversy.
Here are some images from this year’s vintage, as the various hermandades (brotherhoods) set off on the Spain’s largest romeria: typical sights like the brightly-coloured frocks in the sunshine, and the pretty carrozas (gypsy caravans), but also some views and perspectives you may not have seen, and details which I found interesting.
Three flowers – and a bit of extra foliage, just for good measure.
This shot is blurred, but you can see the face of the Virgen del Rocio on this lady’s peineta (comb).
Hair decorations for El Rocio are often more rustic than for the Feria – ears of wheat, a sprig of rosemary, wildflowers, and a sunflower (currently glowing in fields all over Andalucia).
Santa Rufina and Santa Justa, two of Seville’s patron saints, with the Giralda. On the roof of the simpecado of the Seville El Rocio Hermandad.
A colourful romeria scene – girls with their bright flamenco dresses and carrozas (gypsy wagons) in the plaza in front of the Giralda.
Line of prettily decorated gypsy wagons next to the Giralda.
Carrozas passing the Moorish Torre del Oro, by the river.
The effort women put into making themselves look good here in Spain has never been under question, but for El Rocio, the hair accessories which the rocieras use to decorate their barnets can be especially creative. Whether they look good after tramping the 80km from Seville to El Rocio – through rivers and across the countryside, camping out at night, for three days in the heat – is another matter. But as they left Seville and surroundings towns, the level of artistry was impressive.
A major tradition such as El Rocio pilgrimage is composed of many details and moments, one of which is the pregon – like a crier – who calls out in adoration of the Virgin.
This is the chant the pregon shouts as the image of the Virgin images visit significant locations such as local churches, or in the case of Seville the Town Hall, before setting off for El Rocio (he is answered by the rocieros - with a resounding “Viva!”). Each time I heard it, by the time I’d got my camera onto the video setting, they’d finished.
“Viva la Virgen del Rocio! Viva!
“Viva la Paloma Blanca! Viva!
Viva la Reina de la Marismas! Viva!
Viva la Pastora Divina! Viva
Viva la Madre de Dios! Viva!”
Long live the Virgin del Rocio!
Long live the White Dove!
Long live the Queen of the Marshes!
Long live the Hold Shepherdess!
Long live the Mother of God!
You can see for miles from Puerta de las Palomas (1,639m), in the Sierra de Grazalema.
The pool at Calle Real 66 – always the top attraction for children. Not a bad view, either.
The romeria of Benamahoma, at the beginning of June.
First view of the Embalse de Zahara, from the snaking Grazalema road.
Nearly nine years ago I went to a small pueblo blanco (white hilltop town) called Grazalema in Cadiz province on a chilly November weekend, to see a friend’s photography exhibition. While I was there, myself and my then-boyfriend made a spur-of-the-moment decision (on my suggestion) – to get engaged. No bended knee or engagement ring, just a “Let’s do it!”. Families were informed excitedly by mobile phone, and a guest list and possible dates and venues drawn up on a napkin. Our wedding the following summer was a wonderfully English day (with some Spanish spice) of castle and pub, jamon iberico and salmon, sunshine and showers. But that’s another story.
You won’t be surprised to hear, therefore, that Grazalema, which sits in a lush national park where eagles soar and wild boar roam, holds an important place in my heart. I haven’t been back since that weekend, but recently I was invited to stay in a house in a village called Benamahoma, which is close to Grazalema.
The walk up to Punta de las Palomas viewing point, with baby pinsapo firs.
A pinsapo, a type of fir tree only found in this region.
Craggy outcrop – dramatic scenery of the sierra.
The Sierra de Grazalema has truly spectacular scenery – all windy, zig-zagging roads and jaw-dropping views across vast valleys and up sheer granite cliffs, with splashes of vermillion pink from wild oleanders. This area is famous for its pinsapar, a pine forest with a species of fir tree only found in this part of Andalucia, at 1000-1700m above sea level – the pinsapo. While you need a permit to enter the forest, you can see examples of this rare species by the roadside and at viewing points along the road, such as Puerta de las Palomas on the Grazalema – Zahara road.
I had never heard of Benamahoma, but I know the prefix “Ben¨-” means son of, as it’s quite common here in Andalucia, which was ruled by the Moors for eight centuries.
Flowers bloom in a street in Benamahoma, in the Sierra de Grazalema, one of the wettest areas of Spain.
Pretty fountain in Benamahoma, which is famous for its pure natural spring water.
One of Benamahoma’s restaurants with terrace.
As we followed the windy road from the nearest town, and gateway to the Sierra, El Bosque, Benamahoma itself was hidden from view until we came round the corner and suddenly saw a higgledy-piggledy line of white houses, strung out along the side of the hill. We drove up the main street (well, the main of two streets) passing pavement cafes, stone hillside plazas, along hairpin bends and up steep slopes. At the top of Calle Royal was a house with a blue front door, number 66. This was to be our home for the weekend.
Each floor has its own spacious balcony-terrace – this was the top floor one, outside our bedroom.
Pots and climbers in the beautiful terraced garden.
As the house is on a hillside, overlooking a wooded slope opposite, the view is one of its best features. Below you have a pretty terraced garden, sloping down to the pool, refreshingly green and bursting with glorious flora and foliage, from bougainvillea to roses; beyond, allotments of vegetables owned by Benamahomans, and then the tree-covered hill stretching up to the sky. Each of the three floors has a long terrace-balcony stretching along the width of the house, with plenty of room for chairs and tables, so you can sit outside and soak up that natural scenery.
Sitting room with dining area, opening to kitchen, and door to balcony with view of garden.
Cooks will love all the kitchen gadgets, from juicers to blenders.
Double bedroom with green and (very) pleasant view.
The top floor has four bedrooms, three doubles (one with access to the balcony) and a single, along with a bathroom. The sitting room is on the ground floor (also with balcony access), with an open fireplace, sofas and a dining area; a hatch connects to an excellently-equipped kitchen – as well as the gas cooker and oven, fridge and microwave, there was a juicer, coffee grinder, two hand blenders, loads of pots and pans, earthenware cooking dishes, and some pretty chinaware and glasses. You can have fun trying out Spanish recipes using wonderful fresh local ingredients.
The allure of the TV room was irresistible for my kids.
Coloured hanging lamp casts pretty reflections on the ceiling.
Essential for younger visitors (like my children), there are plastic bowls and glasses, a notch up from your standard, ubiquitous IKEA fare. In the basement there’s a TV room with wood-burning stove, two squishy sofas and arm chair with big foot rest. Very cosy for wet winter evenings, and there’s a double bedroom next-door with plenty of DVDs and CDs. A door leads from here to the lowest balcony of the three, and down into the terraced garden, with the pool at the bottom. Altogether, nine people can sleep in the house comfortably; for the four of us, it was like being in a palace.
The pool is almost hidden by this burst of vibrant pink bougainvillea.
You can tell that someone has lived here – the New Zealand owner comes back every summer – as it doesn’t haven’t that anonymous, purely-for-rental feel. A pretty sunhat hangs on the wall, which was indispensable for me while watching the children in the pool under the hot sun. Lots of good reading material, including books on Arab history and Spain, and a library of DVDs, as well as menus for the village restaurants which featured dishes made with local wild game – venison, wild boar and rabbit. Good hearty fare, with fish-eaters like me being lucky to try trout caught in lakes and rivers in the area, which has the highest rainfall in Spain.
Quirky personal touches make the house feel homely – we loved these animal towel hooks by the pool.
I love attention to detail in a house, and this one had colourful traditional tiling along the bottom of the wall, with plenty of small tables for leaving keys, books and mobile phones, lovely bold print cushions, and lamps for soft lighting. The furniture was mostly dark wood, but without being too heavy, backed by white walls and some decent paintings. Glazed cupboards are such an attractive way to store china, glass and linen. In the garden, and on the terrace-balconies, were plenty of chairs and loungers with cushions and mattresses for the ultimate in chill-out-with-a-fab-view.
The house as seen from the garden, with long balconies to take full advantage of the view.
The swimming pool is surrounded by citrus trees, and beyond are hills and sky.
Pool with sunloungers – it’s the perfect size for children, and to cool off from the Andalucian sun.
What could be more fun that jumping into a pool on a hot day?
But what the children had been terribly excited about, right from the moment I told them where we were going, was the swimming pool. You don’t need much else with children, other than a volume of water. View? Not interested. Flowers? Ditto. But endless jumping, splashing and diving possibilities? It’s an unequivocal, resounding “Yeeeeessss!” every time. We had brought a li-lo, ball and some diving toys, and they were happily occupied for several hours each day, while I had one eye on them, and the other on the view, gorgeous orange irises and my copy of Grazia. The steps in the garden are steep and a little perilous in some spots, with no side protection, so this garden might not be suitable for very young children, or those with mobility problems. Also, there’s no WIFI or satellite TV, which didn’t bother us, although some might find such media disconnection tough to cope with.
The amazing bright turquoise colour of the lake water is from copper deposits.
Over the past few years I’ve heard many people talk about a restaurant called Al Lago in Zahara de la Sierra, another white town, this time located on a lake . After taking one of the most spectacular roads in Andalucia (the CA531, in case you’re interested), which offers jaw-dropping views of the extraordinary-coloured Embalse de Zahara – a deep shade of torquoisey-green, thanks to the copper deposits, spread out like a long jagged Damien Hirst splash among the crags and creeks, with tiny islands just offshore you can swim to – we arrived in Grazalema and found El Lago. The restaurant has a wonderful shady, breezy terrace above the road, overlooking the lake.
Plate of cold tapas at Al Lago restaurant in Zahara.
The lunch menu had an interesting selection, including pulpo a la gallega, slow-roast lamb and tandoori salmon. We tried a selection of cold tapas – cheese, ensaladilla, roast peppers, anchovies, and a rice salad, while my daughter snaffled all the olives. The food was extremely good, if considerably pricier than what we’re used to in Seville tapas bars. The owners, Goan-Pakistani Mona and American Stefan, also have some bright and airy rooms, with lake views.
View of Grazalema, enveloped by greenery, from below the town.
Then it was time to head off Grazalema – we didn’t make a nostalgic trip back to the hotel where that fateful decision was made, or the bar where we celebrated afterwards, but we did wander round the main square, Plaza de España, where there was a painting competition, and saw a beautiful old fountain, and a shop selling hand-made wooden toys including some wonderful plush bits of mini-fruit in their mini-wooden crates (and some toy wooden guns – this is a major hunting area).
Cheese shop in Grazalema, where you can buy payoyo cheese.
Cheese made from milk of the payoyo goat.
Typical narrow cobbled street with white-washed houses.
Grazalema is also known for its wool blankets in earthy tones, but what got me excited was a sign saying “cheese”. La Casa de la Abuela Agustin had payoyo cheese galore – mature, semi-mature, with herbs, as a cream in a jar. Payoyo is a strong-flavoured, aromatic cheese from Cadiz and Malaga provinces, made from milk from the payoyo goat. As a cheese-lover, I bought a big chunk with tomillo (thyme), and the cream, which we tried last night with gnocchi – it was fabulous, with a deliciously rich flavour.
Christians’ shield, as used in the Moros y Cristianos festival in Benamahoma in August.
and the Moors’ shield.
Moor’s gun with beautiful inlaid handle, made in Morocco around 100 years ago – decorative only.
For me, this picture of two Christian soldiers has a bit of Monty Python about it.
That evening, back in Benamahoma, we were taken on a tour by Quitin, the man who looks after the house for its New Zealander owner. We visited the headquarters of the Moros y Cristianos group, which puts a festival with street battles between the two sides every August, fighting in honour of the patron saint, San Antonio. They showed us the outfits (formerly woollen tunics for Christians), helmets, swords, shields, pennants, and guns – the Christians’ are working weapons, like blunderbusses, which fire real gunpowder, while the Moors have exquisite inlaid wood, but non-functioning, arms made in Morocco. Battles from the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Christians expelled the Moors, are re-enacted by the villagers, as hand-to-hand fights, with positions in each force being passed down through families as with hermandades. Benamahoma is the only village in western Andalucia which celebrates this type of festival, popular in Granada, Jaen and Almeria provinces – this year, this delightfully eccentric event takes place on 1-3 August.
Garden dedicated to those shot in the Civil War in Benamahoma.
Quitin showed us the bullring, where the Moros y Cristianos festival kicks off on the Friday night; this was also the scene of a dark chapter in the village’s history about which, most unusually, Quitin was happy, and indeed, keen, to talk to us: the Civil War. Villagers were shot there, and now next door you can see a memorial garden, Parque de Memoria Historica. Even the existence a place of peace and remembrance is a political act in itself, as there are many who would rather forget that period entirely. The small garden is visually striking, with a sculpture depicting rows of people carved into family groups within each other, and more sombrely, profiles of people lined up against a white wall.
Sculpture in Garden of Historical Memory, representing families affected by the terrible events 80-odd years ago, glows golden in the evening sunlight.
The effect is extremely moving – there’s no information, numbers or names, but the mere acknowledgement that atrocities took place here is a major development for Andalucia, and a poignant reminder of tragic events in this secluded and quiet village, nearly 80 years ago. It’s the sort of place you might not find if you weren’t being shown around (or reading this); knowing important details about a village’s history makes staying there a much richer and more fulfilling experience.
Spring in the village, which is known as “El Nacimiento” (the birth).
Further on, passing the last few houses, we saw the “Nacimiento”, a spring from which bubbles the purest, most crystal-clear water – there are vast underground reservoirs in the area. The village’s name means “son of Mahoma, or Mohammed”, as its natural water source was highly valued by the Moors, for whom water was important for a number of reasons: visually – in gardens, with soothing trickling fountains and long symmetrical pools; spiritually, for washing before prayer; and for life – their agriculture and irrigation systems were highly sophisticated and some channels still survive today. An abandoned trout factory has left a large intact stone building, used as a laboratory, and all the square pools where the water still runs, but any fish there are free.
Christian-Moorish clock tower of hermita-mezquita, with Islamic symbol – uniting the two faiths.
Back in Benamahoma, you can see many references to the village’s Moorish past – both plazas have horse-shoe shaped arches, most famously seen in Cordoba’s Mezquita. It was almost dark by the time we ended up at Plaza de España; the chapel next door, Quique told us, is called the hermita-mezquita, and has the typical Muslim symbol, often seen on the rooves of minarets, of three balls topped by a crescent.
This combination of Christian shrine with Islamic symbolism was another motive for pondering Andalucia’s ever-complex and shifting relationship between past and present. The little chapel plays a part in the Moors and Christians festival – on the first day, (**spoiler alert**) the Moors win, and they take the village Virgin here: on the second day, (**ditto**) the Christians are conquered, and they take her to the church, which is attached to the bullring. A neat balance between eastern and western faiths.
Romeria procession led, as always, by pennant and piper.
On Sunday, we were lucky in that the village romeria passed our house just as we were about to leave, and the little procession caught me unawares so I ran out of the door in bare feet clutching my camera. The Virgin and saint rode in their carts; some people, including young children, rode horses; the women wore flamenco dresses and flowers in their hair, and sang traditional songs.
This is authentic rural Andalucia, a small, friendly, pretty village, which makes a perfect base for exploring the area – the Sierra de Grazalema is a hiker’s paradise, and other towns you can visit include Ubrique, Cortes de la Frontera and Ronda, not to mention the Parque Natural de los Alcornocales, another forest with great walking paths and picnic spots. The house itself is cleverly prepared to cater for hot weather (shutters, pool, lots of garden furniture, air-con) as well as the inevitable rainy or cold days (two fireplaces, comfy sofas,TV and DVD library, books). And there are plenty of bars and restaurants within walking distance – an essential element of any Andalucian holiday.
Important note: If you’re going to this area by car, be aware that the road from Zahara following the southern shore of the lake (CA 7375) eastwards is closed due to a bridge in need of repair. You can take the CA531 back again from Zahara, but we trusted to luck and turned off where the road was closed onto a track which looked well-used (the locals’ temporary alternative), indicated by coloured markers along the way, which went over the mountain and rejoined the CA5311.
Two boys watch from a perfect vantage point as the Virgin of La Sed arrives at Plaza de España.
These military-style uniforms for the mounted band of La Paz are typical of the pageantry that is Semana Santa in Seville.
Check out the “tails” of these helmets.
The Cruz de Guia, carried by nazarenos from La Sed, which marks the official beginning of the procession.
Children ask for sweets from a nazareno – “Nazareno, dame un caramelo!”
Nazarenos start young, and junior to them are monaguillos, or altar boys, who carry baskets of sweets to give out to children along the procession route.
Nazarenos approaching Plaza de España – you can see one of its towers of the right.
The first procession to go out in Semana Santa (Holy Week) here in Seville is La Paz, on the afternoon of Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday). Dressed in long white robes and tall, pointed hoods with eye-holes – nazarenos; and the same white robes, without hoods but carrying black crosses – penitentes; the long snaking line of 1700 cofradia participants takes an hour to go past.
Jesus paso of La Paz passes the central area of Plaza de España: two examples of Sevillian extravagance – the baroque float with its richly-robed statues, and the supremely majestic neo-mudejar building – both from the first half of the 20th century.
The two highlights for thousands of people who, like me, had come to watch La Paz with friends and family, are the two pasos (floats) – one of Jesus de la Victoria, accompanied by the familiar Roman centurion with white feathered helmet, on a baroque gilded base which shone dazzlingly in the bright sunshine; and the other of Nuestra Señora de la Paz, the Virgin Mary under an intricate palio (pillared canopy) on a float of shining silver adorned with white flowers. This Virgin is well-known for the olive branch she carries – a sign of peace.
Penitentes of La Paz carry their crosses through Maria Luisa Park on a glorious Sunday in April.
The first part of their route goes through Maria Luisa Park, which celebrates its centenary this year – it was created for the Ibero-American Expo of 1929, originally planned for 1914 but delayed by war and other factors.
Virgin de la Paz under her curtained palio (canopy).
The procession passes Plaza de España, one of the city’s most spectacular monuments and the centrepiece for Expo 29. This semi-circular sweep of bricks and tiled arches is a suitable backdrop of magnificence and grandeur for the dazzling religious statues with their carved decorations, fresh flowers and embroidered gowns.
These fellows, some considerably heftier than others, bear the weight of the pasos on their shoulders – they’re called costaleros. It’s hot and exhausting work, so these guys are taking a well-earned break. Note their corset-belts.
Penitentes passing Plaza de España.
I must state that my interest in the Semana Santa processions, is not a religious or spiritual one; it is more a case of appreciating the sense of theatre and passion which goes into them, and with which they’re received. For me, it’s about how people – in this case, Sevillanos – perceive their beloved effigies, as they are borne by men called costaleros from the church of their barrio to the cathedral, and back again. On this particular occasion, it was more of a nice day out in a beautiful park than any close allegiance to these statues – at least, that was my impression. Watching La Esperanza de Triana return to her church at the end of the Madrugada yesterday afternoon – well, that was an entirely different experience, ambience, crowd.
Over the past week I have taken over 1,000 photos of Semana Santa – I watched many pasos in landmark spots all over the city. So watch out for more posts with images of Holy Week processions over the coming days.
Women selling fruit and vegetables in a square in the medina of Tangiers.
A woman shells peas to sell in the street.
A mix of dried spices, leaves and flowers. Moroccan cuisine is highly aromatic.
The classic colours of Morocco at a spice stall.
Stalls have an amazing variety of goods, including garlic, ginger and volcanic pumice stone.
A turquoise street in the Medina with yellow and red houses.
For me, the most memorable part of my all-too-short visit to Tangiers was wandering through the Medina – the old city, just below the Kasbah. In my last post, I talked about our guide, Aziz. If I had been trying to find my way through alone, I would certainly have got horrendously lost – normally a fun part of exploring a new city, but when you’ve only got a day, with lots to see and learn, not ideal. But as it was, Aziz knows these labyrinthine streets and took us up steps, around corners, and under archways. We saw the real Tangiers, which is a third-world city without running water in some homes, with refuse on the streets, and with a vital sense of life. As I said in a previous post, this is my first time in a developing country in over a decade, so I was looking through newly naive eyes.
Coloured, patterned leather slippers are reminiscent of tiles and plasterwork, with their intricate patterns.
House in the medina, in a shade to close the famous albero of Seville.
Fat, juicy olives in all colours, in the market of Tangiers.
When I mentioned to a very well-travelled, highly-experienced photographer friend that I was going to Tangiers, and asked what advice would she give me – especially in case of not-ideal climatic conditions (it rained) – she just said “colour”. Only showers, as it happened, but those zingy colours can’t be suppressed by a light downpour – houses, spices, clothes (not the djellaba, the long hooded kaftan, which we only saw in earth tones – white, grey, brown or black).
Berber women selling fresh fruit and vegetables.
Produce from the countryside in hand-woven baskets.
A moped trailer piled high with oranges, fresh from the farm.
We were lucky enough to be in Tangiers on a Sunday, when the Berber market takes place. Berbers are the native people of Morocco, before the Arabs arrived; they’re nomadic, tribal people. They come into the city – mostly women, but men too - bringing their fruit, vegetables, milk, cheese and eggs (and even live chickens, too) to sell on the pavement next to St Andrew’s Church, by the Grand Socco, on Sunday mornings.
Some handy tips for visiting Tangiers
One euro = around 11 dhirams. Most places accept euros, but give change in dhirams.
Some Moroccan women don’t like being photographed; I tried to avoid capturing their faces.
Alcohol is served, but discreetly, as Morocco is a liberal Islamic country – mostly in tourist hotels, and smarter bars and restaurants.
Kif (marijuana) smoking is tolerated for Moroccans, and very popular among the young, but illegal (if also popular) for tourists. Beware.
In future posts, I’ll be looking at Tangiers in artistic, musical, cinematic and literary terms, as well as telling you about the trip I took out of the city to the coast.
This is also my all-time most popular post. A controversial look (see comments) at how to know when someone means something totally different from what you think they’re saying. OK, so it’s actually about swearing, exaggeration/fibbing – and jamón. The stuff of real-conversations life here in Spain.
Number two post of 2013: contemporary Spanish fashion designers do Zurbaran’s saints.
Frocks by contemporary designers reinterpreting famous paintings of saints by 17th-century Sevillano artist Zurbaran. Dead clever. This one was “Freshly Pressed” (as in the badge, top right), which means it’s one of only eight posts chosen by the kind folks at WordPress to feature each day from the tens of thousands posted daily. Which was nice. So if you found my blog through Freshly Pressed, a special hello – it’s good to have you.
We’ve all made an arse of ourselves by mixing up two similar-sounding words in a foriegn language – one innocuous, the other devastatingly embarrassing or offensive. If you haven’t let us in on your experience yet (the comments are much more entertaining than the post, believe me; careful you don’t spill your tea on your PC or tablet as you chortle), then come on over and join the group therapy session – it’s time to spill.
Ceramic celosia (Moorish lattice screen) of new museum.
Ah, some more history and culture *breathes a sigh of relief*. This museum of tiles, with a winning mix of groovy contemporary architecture, original Moorish brick kilns and some exquisite antique azulejos, was scheduled to open in September 2013, then October, then November, then December, and it’s still not open in January 2014… you get the picture. Well, what do you expect? We’re in Spain, people! Which makes this post even more valuable, as it’s all you can see of it for now.
Where can you find sea urchins, sand architecture, man-sized bumble bees, and the Queen in drag? At Spain’s craziest carnival, of course. Probably our best daytrip of the year, out of many. And we even dressed up, sort of.