Scribbler in Seville

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.

10 thoughts on “El Rocio 2013: La Salida de Sevilla

  1. Cat of Sunshine and Siestas

    How cool to actually go walking with the romeros! I went to the celebration in Almonte last year and thought it was a bit of a waste of time. I was paying for overpriced beers to watch people in flamenco dresses dancing, just like at Feria. I think the pilgrimage is where all of the encanto is.

  2. the artichoke adventuresp

    Nice one Fiona……traditions live on even in these hard times!A few years ago I used to go to Jerez for work and one of our guys there always took a few days off for this famous fiesta, to sing in a group of singers who sang for certain groups of people/private parties along the route over a few days. He was one passionate guy…this fiesta and ,his family were his two big passions…I can remember clearly his passion as he explained how long he had been doing it and from where to where, the food and drink,the dustand the heat(although not this year!!) etcLove to see it up close

  3. Corinne

    These are gorgeous photos. I would love to attend one of these festivals. Is there a list somewhere on the web to find out when these things are happening? We’ll be traveling there this summer. Thanks.

  4. Mad Dog

    Fantastic wagons and dresses. It’s good to see people smiling with the recession going on 😉
    I liked your post on Spain Scoop today too – the rowing picture made me want to be there!

  5. mappingthepeace

    I live in the town of Sanlucar which sits next to Doñana and enjoyed watching the pilgrims pass through, and yes, many of them seemed very ‘jolly.’ Alcohol is a big part of Rocio. And the clothes were incredible.

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