Ever since I first saw the storybook-cute gypsy caravans lined up outside the cathedral my first year here in Seville, I have been intrigued by El Rocio. Flowers, white lace, curtains tied back with ribbons – all these ingredients seem too schmaltzy for words, but somehow they work when combined with the massive beasts of burden which pull them.
The largest pilgrimage in Spain (an estimated one million people take part), it is part religious (the much-adored Paloma Blanca, the Virgen del Rocio, is the focus of this romeria), part fiesta (singing traditional rociera songs, dancing Sevillanas and consuming vast quantities of beer and sherry).
So every year (barring pregnancy and very small babies) I try to catch them setting off, as their route leaving Seville passes through one of our neighbouring towns. They walk and ride (on horses, in trailers, in 4x4s) from all around the city (and other places in western Andalucia, as well as further afield) to a small town called El Rocio, with unpaved streets full of picturesque white houses whose wooden porches have rails to tie your horse to.
Going back to the journey, I love seeing the rocieros (El Rocio pilgrims) decked out in their finery, from polka dots to leather – if the mood is a mix of faithful and festive, the style is flamenco-meets-Wild-West. The girls look gorgeous – it’s hard not to, in all those figure-hugging frills and flounces, with a flower in your hair – and the boys (jinetes) on their purebred mounts look unbelievably dashing, in their bolero jackets and embossed leather chaps. Both wear leather boots, essential for wading through mud and rivers, while the women wear little leather bags on straps round their waist or across their bodies.
Here are some of my chosen top looks from the Triana hermandad when they passed yesterday afternoon.
On the way, the groups camp out and cook their dinner (though no open fires are allowed this year, due to fire risk). The carriolas (wagons) have TV, air-con and fridges, while the open-sided trailers (carretas) and carts have coldboxes under the seats, or sometimes strapped to the side.
Some people know how to keep their food stored in style – none of those scruffy plastic storage boxes for this group of pilgrims.
But this was my favourite. A donkey – what’s that in the basket on his back? Fresh food for tonight’s pot.
He was a bit sleepy – even birds need a siesta.
As a veggie, I really felt for this fowl; probably a good thing that it had no idea what fate awaited it. Its dueño was already legless, so the three of them – burro, pavo and borracho – must have had an interesting journey.