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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.