A century of tradition: Seville’s olive oil biscuits go global

Ines Rosales, tortas de aceite

Sweet and savoury: from top left, cinnamon, almond (the latest), orange, and rosemary and thyme hand-made tortas de aceite (olive oil biscuits), individually wrapped in greaseproof paper with original design from the early 20th century.

The new foil packaging, used for the new flavours which are exported abroad, gives the tortas a longer shelf life, protecting them from damaging bright light.

The new foil packaging, used for the flavours which are exported abroad, such as Seville orange, gives the tortas a longer shelf life, protecting them from damaging bright light. It also features a full visual run-down of exactly what goes into your torta: olive oil, orange, sesame seed, aniseed, and wheat flour. That is all (except the sugar – oops).

Ines Rosales (far left) founded the company in 1910 in a town near Seville.

Ines Rosales (far left) sells her wares – the writing behind her reads “OTRA MARAVILLA DE SEVILLA” (another marvel from Seville). Photo courtesy of Ines Rosales

Over 100 years ago, a young woman in a town near Seville started making and selling snacks called tortas de aceite, using an old family recipe. Made from nothing more than flour, water, sugar and olive oil, with a little aniseed and sesame for flavouring, these thin, round biscuits were individually wrapped in greaseproof paper, printed with their inventor’s distinctive logo, to protect them.

The tortas soon became popular and gained fame beyond Seville to the rest of Spain. Over a century later, the olive oil biscuits are still produced nearby under the founder’s name: Ines Rosales. These days the company sells 12 million packets a year all around the world.

Delivery Ines Rosales tortas in the the early days. The transport has changed, but the recipe's still the same.

Delivering Ines Rosales tortas in the the early days. The transport may have changed, but the recipe’s still the same. Photo courtesy of Ines Rosales

The fact that a woman managed to start a business in 1910 is cause for astonishment, and celebration, in itself. Sadly, Ines Rosales died too soon, aged just 42. The business stayed in the family until her son sold up in 1982.

The tortas de aceite from Castilleja de la Cuesta have become a global success story. Adapting to more modern, international tastes, in 2009 flavoured versions were introduced, in both sweet (orange is my favourite) and savoury (rosemary and thyme). The “sweet olive oil tortas”, as they’re known in English, are a hit from Japan to the US, the biggest export market, where they’ve been sold since 1999; cinnamon flavour is the top seller (you can buy them at Whole Foods Market). China offers a set of up-and-coming new customers eager to sample these unusual snacks.

Working the super-glam factory visit look.

Working the super-glam factory visit look – no photos allowed inside, so this is the closest my camera got.

I was curious to see how they’re made, and since the Ines Rosales factory is very near my home, last summer I went to visit. The factory outgrew its high street location nearly two decades ago, and is now located in a town about 20km west of Castilleja, though the company’s official headquarters is still in the town. (Interesting facts about Castilleja de la Cuesta, which is in the Aljarafe region to the west of Seville: it was the home town of Rita Hayworth’s father; and conquistador Hernan Cortes, who conquered Mexico, died here.)

It is always intriguing to learn about a company which is expanding, despite the crippling economic crisis which has been affecting Spain for nearly five years. Each day 350,000 tortas are made by the nimble hands of local women, working on a production line behind a window. Men don’t make the grade for manual dexterity, when it comes to flattening the tortas, as with Carmen’s 18th-century cigarette factory in Seville.

torta de aceite, Ines Rosales

These women each make more than 20 tortas per minute. Photo courtesy of Ines Rosales

These Sevillanas deftly transform the little balls of dough into flat pancake-type rounds so fast you can barely see them doing it. You have to watch very carefully – blink and you’ll miss it.

Fresh out of the oven.

Tortas fresh out of the oven. Photo courtesy of Ines Rosales

Then they sprinkle sugar on and the tortas are baked, so the sugar melts and goes crispy. Oh yes. And since each torta is hand-made, they all look different. This is one of the main selling points of these traditional snacks – they’re not made in a mould – a cookie-cutter, literally. They’re shaped by human hands into individual biscuits.

Original ads decorate the walls at Ines Rosales.

Original ads decorate the walls at Ines Rosales -  see how little the packaging has changed?

I had a go at making tortas de aceite in a cooking class last year. Mine were passable, but I only made about 20, and had plenty of time to make a hash of it. These ladies are on a production line and make 21 tortas per minute each. Quality control is strict, with photos being taken of the tortas to ensure they meet exacting standards of size and shape. Those which don’t make the grade – purely for aesthetic reasons – are donated to an NGO to distribute, while 100kg a week are given away to the most in-need families.

Enjoying a torta in the Ines Rosales canteen, after my factory visit. Well, it would be rude no to.

Enjoying a torta in the Ines Rosales canteen, after my factory visit. Well, it would be rude not to.

The company is unusually forward-thinking for Spain, in that some years ago they introduced a sugar-free torta, while other traditional biscuits, normally laden with manteca (lard), come in non-animal product varieties.

The mark of a traditional product.

The mark of a traditional product.

Last year the tortas de aceite of Seville province were officially registered by the European Union as an Especialidad Tradicional Guarantizada - which translates as Traditional Speciality Guaranteed. This tells consumers that it’s a product made from traditional raw materials, produced using a traditional method. Basically, the tortas  have been made the same way for a very long time – on a larger scale now, but using the same ingredients and hand-made process.

The orange tortas are one of my family’s top merienda (tea) choices, while the rosemary and thyme ones are a fab accompaniment to that well-earned Friday evening glass of wine. Or put some grated cheese on top and grill gently for an instant, super-tasty pizza. Ines Rosales have loads of recipe suggestions on their website, suggesting the savoury ones (sesame and sea salt is the other non-sweet variety) as ideal summer-time outdoor nibbles. A little piece of Andalucia to impress your guests.

While the classic tortas are widely available, as Spanish like them with their coffee (I don’t like aniseed, which is why the new flavours are more to my taste), not all the other varieties are easy to find, even a few km from their home-base where I live. For this reason I was very excited to hear that the first-ever Ines Rosales shop is opening soon in the centre of Seville – in Calle Hernando Colon, near Plaza San Francisco to be exact. Be sure to visit when you’re here.

Festive Seville: Mapping and Food Fairs

Happy New Year to all my lovely readers! I hope you had a wonderful festive season, spending lots of time with your friends and family.

A couple of posts ago, I listed all the events that were going on in Seville over the Christmas period.

Although it feels odd still to be talking about last month, I thought it would be fitting to report back on how they all went. I will try to avoid to less obviously festive aspects of our adventures, as I don’t know about you, but I have a serious dose of the January post-Christmas blues.

Flower-covered facade of Ayuntamiento.

Flowers projected onto the rear facade of the Ayuntamiento.

Ayuntamiento, mapping

Meccano construction on the Town Hall.

The Mapping

This is a (free) show of 3D-laser video projections on the rear facade of the Ayuntamiento (town hall), watched in Plaza San Francisco. This was not as imaginative or spectacular as last year’s, which also had more detail and was more technically impressive, and I thought it seemed longer too. However it had some great set pieces, like the Scalextric track with cars racing (video below, quite loud – be warned!), and the sweeping tour of some of Seville’s monuments: Plaza de España, the Atarazanas, Torre del Oro, and Triana Bridge (video also below). But there was no fake snow at the end, alas.

Scalextric section

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=776TXAWFNCg&w=420&h=315]

Seville monuments (watch from 9:20)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JRGThE5aaQ&w=560&h=315]

The markets

We managed to get to three food markets, the first two of which are annual events, so they’ll be on again next Christmas.

The location of convents which make and sell pastries around Seville. Most have their own shops, and many bakeries stock their goodies too.

The location of convents which make and sell pastries around Seville. Most have their own shops, and many bakeries stock their goodies too.

We started off with the convent pastries in the Alcazar, made by nuns in 24 religious establishments located around Seville province. These include seven in the city (see map above), and one in Estepa, which is particularly famous for its mantecados.

What a magnificent setting for such dainty confections, with the colourful tiles and high ceilings of the palace’s long Renaissance salons, which were lined with tables piled high with pretty white and pink boxes.

mantecados, polvorones, Christmas, Alcazar, Navedad

Sweet treats: convent pastries on sale at the Alcazar.

These traditional Christmas shortbread-type biscuits have wonderful names like huesos de santos (saints’ bones) and coquitas de la Habana (little coconuts from Havana). Thankfully they weren’t all laden with pig fat – manteca (lard) is one of the main ingredients of crumbly polvorones (also known as mantecados); some came in vegetarian versions too. Other ingredients typically include egg and sugar, with some spice or pine nuts.

The annual Seville Province Gastronomy and Handicrafts Fair.

The annual Seville Province Gastronomy and Handicrafts Fair.

We briefly visited the Provincia de Sevilla craft and gastronomy fair, held in the patio of the Diputacion (Provincial Government, one of four levels of government in Spain – over-stuffed civil service? really?). This always takes place over the last two weekends before Christmas.

In a crowded, covered space, the average age of visitors seemed to be around 60, so two small, rampaging children intent on running everywhere at high speed, were a dangerous addition to the mix. Before retreating to a less risky area, we spotted lots of delicious local goodies, some of which were taken to the UK as Christmas presents.

Bodegas Salado's cava was popular with the crowd at the Seville Province fair.

Bodegas Salado’s cava was popular with the crowd at the Seville Province fair.

Among the stands of Seville-made produce, we saw olive oil, honey (orange blossom, rosemary and eucalyptus), cheese, embutidos (sausages), and wine. Bodegas Salado, in nearby Umbrete, make a variety of wines, including a cava. Their stand was mobbed by thirsty pensioners desperate for a free copa de vino. But I managed to elbow my way in and try some. Not Catalan, but perfectly acceptable. This bodega offers tours – on my list for 2014.

Spanish food, Portuguese food, Santa Cruz

Spanish-Portuguese food and craft market in Santa Cruz.

Then we moved on to another food market, this time in the patio of a school in barrio Santa Cruz. This was organised by EuroAAA, the Euro-region of Andalucia-Algarve-Alentejo (southern Spain and Portugal). In a large, open space, this was much better for the kids, who could charge around without annoying anyone – there was even a face painter!

Little Portuguese cheeses, a snip at 1 euro each.

Little Portuguese cheeses, a snip at 1 euro each.

We got some delicious little Portguese cheeses, as served with bread and butter as an appetizer at many Algarve restaurants (although no sardine pate, sadly); Flor de Sal, prime sea salt, produced in the salt flats at Castro Marim, just over the Portuguese border (as always, the Portuguese owner of Agua Mae, Luis, spoke excellent English); and Monte Robledo cheese, a tangy favourite from the Sierra de Aracena, made of goat’s and sheep’s milk and rolled in rosemary, oregano or paprika.

Riding a camel on the Alameda. As you do.

Riding a camel on the Alameda. As you do.

Nothing like a good, old-fashioned funfair ride to fill a small person with seasonal joy

Nothing like a good, old-fashioned funfair ride to fill a small person with seasonal joy.

We also did the camel ride in the Alameda (the Reyes arrive on camels, so they’re a big part of Christmas here). They take three children each, one of the hump and one either side. This was a huge success, despite (or perhaps because of) the half-hour wait; and we couldn’t resist some funfair rides too. The colour and excitement, and exotic treats like riding a “ship of the desert”, are such a wonderful part of Christmas for kids. Seeing the delight on their faces is present enough for me.

What we didn’t manage to see/do: ice-skating at the Prado or the Setas (son); the Mudejar Belen at the Palacio de los Marqueses de la Algaba - a model of Seville in post-Moorish times (me). Next year!

Coming up in next blog posts: the Norfolk coast, and the Cabalgata de los Reyes in Gines.

What to do in Seville during the December Puente – and over Christmas

navidad, navidades, Christmas, Christmas lights

Typically understated lights on Avenida de la Constitucion.

Christmas, Navidad

One of the fabulous bell-stars (not to be confused with the 1980s all-girl pop group) on Calle Sierpes.

This weekend is a bank holiday in Spain – a double one, with two (legitimate) days off – today, Friday, and Monday. First, Dia de la Constitucion (6 December), celebrating Spain’s Constitution; then Dia la Concepcion Inmaculada (8 December) – a Sunday, which is carried over to Monday 9 December.

Traditionally, the Christmas buzz gets going after this puente, but in Seville it’s already happening now thanks to a broad range of events - some regular annual ones, and some new. In any case, the Christmas lights are already up, so make sure you make at least one visit in the evening to get the full festive effect.

Here I will list my pick of the markets and other attractions this puente, and in most cases, throughout the Christmas season until Reyes – 5 January.

MARKETS AND FAIRS

I love a good browse – especially when there’s so much variety on offer. You can get all your Christmas presents here – books, handicrafts, food, wine. Chatting to the owner/designer/maker of a piece is all part of the experience.

dulces, claustros, dulce, navidad

Convent pastries, made by nuns in Seville province.

Convent pastries market in the Alcazar – 6 – 8 December.
Get your Christmas yemas and lardy goodies - mantecados and polvorones – made by nuns from nearby convents. Some are available in vegetarian versions too. An essential part of the seasonal diet for many Spanish.

Antique book market – Plaza Nueva – until 9 December
Great for quirky presents for hispanophiles; as well as books, you can find postcards, prints, maps, posters and comics.

belen, belens, nativity scenes, nativity figures, nativity, feria del belen

Fish stall at the Feria del Belen (nativity scene fair). They’re half the size of your finger.

belen, belenes, nativity scenes

Colourful Mexican belen. Stand 14, Oscar Lazarte. He also has some wonderful Cuban and Peruvian figures, including Noah’s Ark.

belen, belenes, nativity

Houses for your nativity scene.

Feria del Belen – Nativity scene market – Avenida de la Constitucion – until 23 December
Come here for figures for your belen (nativity scene) – most homes, offices and shops have their own. Rivers with flowing water, all the complementary figures including the cagon (pooing man), and foodstuffs – mini-fish and legs of jamon (widely available in Jewish Bethlehem in 0AD), to complement Jesus, Mary and Joseph with the animals, shepherds, and three kings.

Christmas market – the Alameda – until 5 January
This market features children’s attractions, ponies, dromedaries, and a Grand Flea Circus. Slightly apprehensive about the animals’ treatment; have yet to see.

NAvidad, Christmas

The super-sparkly Ayuntamiento (Town Hall) in Plaza Nueva, where the book and handicrafts markets are held.

Handicrafts market – Plaza Nueva – 13 December – 5 January
Great for unusual Christmas and Reyes presents – stalls mostly belong to designer-makers. Good buys (though less portable) include handmade ceramics and wooden toys.

Gastronomy and Handicrafts of Seville Province Fair – Diputacion de Sevilla – 12- 15, 19-22 December
Find gifts here for foodie friends and family – look out for Ines Rosales tortas de aceite, Colonias de Galeon organic wines from the Sierra Norte, and extra virgin olive oil from Estepa (Oleoestepa) and Carmona (Basilippo).

Independent designers market – Muchomaskemarket – El Arenal – 14-15 December
This two-day event takes place at a co-working space in Cuesta del Rosario 8 (4o) and features 29 stands of fashion, gastronomy and interiors, including recycled materials and cakes. Also workshops – learn how to make baby shoes out of felt, and how to print textiles.

Christmas market with live Nativity Scene – Plaza Encarnacion – until 6 January
Go skating, buy some presents, visit the animals at the Belen Viviente.

SPORT

Whether you’re a wobbler like me, or an elegant glider, skating is fun. And when it’s in such beautiful surroundings as these, even more so. And when it’s followed by a well-earned copita or three with friends – well, that’s a top evening in my book.

Ice rinks – until 6 January
In the Prado de San Sebastian and Plaza Encarnacion. For opening times, see here. The one under the Setas is interesting because it’s ecological synthetic ice, made by local Sevillano company Xtraice.

CULTURE

The programme is less varied at this time of year, as the spotlight falls on seasonal concerts, but there are some star events.

Sara Baras in her flamenco show La Pepa - one of the many highlights in Seville this Christmas.

Sara Baras in her flamenco show La Pepa – one of the many events in Seville this Christmas.

Flamenco – Sara Baras – Fibes – 13 December
The innovative dancer brings her new show, La Pepa, to the Seville Conference Centre. Set in Cadiz city in 1810-1812 – the time of the historic First Constitution and War of Independence against France – it also stars bailaor Jose Serrano. More information: Fibes.

Handel’s Messiah – Maestranza Theatre - 19 and 20 December
The great choral work performed by local amateur choral associations – a “from scratch”. Humming along is positively encouraged. More information: Teatro Maestranza.

Quidam – Cirque du Soleil – Palacio de Deportes San Pablo - 18-22 December
If you’ve never experienced a Cirque du Soleil show, I’d highly recommend this – a unique combination of music, dance, theatre and circus acrobatics. Thrilling and great fun, and worth the hike to San Pablo. More information: Cirque du Soleil.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7uc9lUuJQpE&w=560&h=315]

OTHER EVENTS
Finally, two free events/experiences to round off your Christmas visit to Seville, whether it’s a quick visit of a few hours, a weekend break, or you live here and want to try out everything that’s on offer. 

EVOO, AOVE, olive oil, extra virgin oilve oil

The four types of olive oil on offer, from smooth arbequina to strong picual.

Tasting the olive oil, at the mobile catas around the city this and next weekend.

Tasting the olive oil, at the mobile catas around the city this and next weekend.

Olive Oil Tasting Carts – all over the centre – 5-7, 12-14 December
Nothing to do with Christmas, but a great initiative worth mentioning. All around the centre, from Plaza Encarnacion down to Plaza Juan de Austria, you can find 50 carts each offering four types of EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) to taste; the idea is to introduce people to the delights of distinct varieties. They’re in place from 10.30am to 2.30pm and you can see a list of all the carts’ locations here. I’m a big fan of picual, having seen it being made on a farm in Jaen where I stayed recently; you can also taste smooth arbequina, peppery cornicabra, and fruity hojiblanca. I love this mobile cata idea; you are also given a brochure containing recipes using each type of oil to try at home. I’m tempted by the buñuelos de bacalo.

Mapping – Plaza San Francisco – until 5 December
This fabulous laser show is projected onto the back of the Ayuntamiento building. Dates aren’t 100% confirmed yet, but this year’s show, “El Espiritu de Navidad” (The Spirit of Christmas), will probably kick off on Tuesday 10 December, until Reyes (5 January); last year they were every hour from 6pm to 11 or 12pm. One of the Christmas season’s most popular events, with 700,000 watching the show last year, which won a European Best Event Award. (No, I’ve never heard of them either – no matter. Awards are a Good Thing.) Here’s a taster from last year.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrHuF0Lyheg&w=420&h=315]

What do they do in your town or village at Christmas? Here’s a listing for Granada by Molly.

Torrijos 2013: a picture post

Devotees (or the merely curious, like us), head for the chapel to see the visiting Virgin, and the Christ statue.

Devotees (or the merely curious, like us), head for the Hacienda’s chapel to see the visiting Virgin, and the Christ statue.

Another year, another Romeria de Torrijos in the village where we live. For weeks beforehand, the horses and oxen are trained and prepared in the fields around our house, carriages practise-driven, carretas decorated in brightly coloured tissue paper, and of course flamenca dresses and accessories sought out, examined and donned.

This year was perfect weather – blue skies, but not too hot. We missed the procession of ox-carts due to a prior social engagement, but stayed later to make up for it. I’m always intrigued by the chapel of the Hacienda de Torrijos, the Arab-era estate where the romeria takes place.

An image of Jesus was supposedly discovered 400 years ago by a hen pecking near the chapel wall, a dubious event related in a tiled niche. But enough to convince the faithful/supersitious/gullible (delete as appropriate) creyentes, who leave small silver offerings – arms, legs, cows, horses - to ask the Son of God to cure their, and their livestock’s, ailments – as well as messages of thanks.

I will leave the rest of the photos (and captions) to speak for themselves. Hasta la proxima!

Clapping hands in time to the song, as men play the guitar. Romerias are about friendship, feasting and flamenca.

Clapping and singing, as men play the guitar. Romerias are about friendship, feasting and flamencas.

A typically animated group enjoying their lunch, with the Hacienda de Torrijos behind them.

A tableau of romeros enjoying their lunch, with the Hacienda de Torrijos behind them.

This way you can't lose your glass when you move around visiting groups of friends, while at the same time displaying your football allegiance.

This way you can’t lose your glass when you move around visiting groups of friends, while at the same time displaying your football allegiance.

Horsemanship starts young in Valencina, and obviously he has to look the part, in his traje corto and Cordobes hat.

Horsemanship starts young in Valencina, and obviously he has to look the part, in his beautiful traje corto and Cordobes hat.

When my daughter lost her new balloon (dalmatian with turqoise collar), only candy floss could cushion the blow.

When my daughter lost her new helium balloon (dalmatian with turqoise collar) to gravity, only candy floss could cushion such a terrible blow. My son’s bubble gun was more grounded, thankfully.

I love the way the sunlight falls on these horses' arses (so to speak).

I love the way the sunlight falls on these horses’ arses (so to speak).

A horse-drawn cart kicks up dust crossing a field.

A horse-drawn cart kicks up dust crossing a field.

My daughter Lola poses with some romeros - pilgrims (Chaucer overtones make that word sound so wrong in English).

My daughter Lola poses with some romeros – pilgrims (the medieval overtones make that word sound so wrong in English).

This hibiscus flower is the new fashion for flamenca hair accessories.

This hibiscus-style flower is the new fashion for flamenca hair accessories.

Entrance through the left arch, exit on the right - the chapel of Hacienda de Torrijos

Entrance through the left arch, exit on the right – the chapel of Hacienda de Torrijos

Huge exotic shell looks incongruous against the azulejos of the chapel entrance.

Huge exotic seashell looks incongruous against the azulejos of the chapel entrance.

Little silver ofrendas to give thanks to Cristo de Torrijos for curing feet, legs and hands.

Little silver ofrendas to give thanks to Cristo de Torrijos for curing limbs and extremities.

The story of how the image of Cristo de Torrijos was found - by a hen!

The story of how the image of Cristo de Torrijos was found insde this very wall - by a hen!

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.