Once a year, a million people converge in this quaint Spanish village for The Romería del Rocío

Andalusia, home of the Romería del Rocío pilgrimage

Ana Gomez Mendoza hikes up her floor-length polka-dot skirt and leaps into the back of the horse-drawn carriage.

At 44, the former construction-company boss looks tough enough to rope a steed, even in her full-length, form-fitting, white-and-lavender outfit.

I sit across from her, my own red ruffled skirt mixing with hers at the ankles. It’s just daylight, the Andalusian sun still low and cool, and in the sparse pine forest that surrounds us, sleepy Spaniards are striking last night’s camp and getting their horses on the road. Soon the wide sandy path is crowded with carriages and carts. Each is filled to bursting with pilgrims: women in flamenco dresses, men in finely tailored grey riding suits and wide-brimmed bolero hats, children too in traditional costume.

Everyone shouts greetings to Ana —“Hola guapísima!”—and men on horseback drinking tiny bottles of beer called botellíns salute us as they pass. It’s barely 8am.

“These are all my people,” says Ana, standing and blowing kisses. She turns to me with a sly grin: “You want tea or beer?”

I’m about to say tea, but then notice that Ana is emptying a litre of gin into a battered tin teapot. She mixes in a dash of lemonade and pours a healthy portion into a plastic cup.

Venga niña,” she says in her thick Andalusian accent, passing me the boozy breakfast beverage. “You’re riding with us.”

 

Religion and razzmatazz

The Romería del Rocío is Spain’s biggest religious pilgrimage, drawing Spaniards from across the country to the tiny southern town of El Rocío. 

Effigy og Virgin Mary
The effigy of the Virgin Mary, said to have been found in a tree trunk in the 15th century

Most of the year, the Andalusian village looks like a deserted Hollywood Wild West set, but each year in late May or early June almost a million pilgrims descend on El Rocío.

They come to pay homage to the Virgen del Rocío, a sacred effigy of the Virgin Mary. Legend says the religious doll was found in a tree trunk back in the 15th century, and she’s been worshipped ever since. Evidence suggests that the tradition of coming to El Rocío for an annual period of celebration likely predates Catholicism.

Most pilgrims travel in brotherhoods, large groups from a town or neighbourhood that eat, drink and ride together. Each brings its own statue of the virgin housed in an elaborate shrine pulled by bullocks. Pilgrims generally start their trip mid-week, arriving in El Rocío on Friday and then partying until Sunday night.

The weekend reaches a climax in the very early hours of Monday morning, when men battle for the honour of carrying the Virgen del Rocío around town to greet the virgin effigies of each brotherhood. It’s a religious affair, but one fuelled by alcohol, merriment and a healthy dose of ribaldry (rumour has it that an Andalusian baby boom arrives nine months after the Romería del Rocío each year).

As a foreigner and first-time pilgrim, I reflect that celebrating the Catholic Church’s ultimate symbol of purity with what’s arguably Spain’s wildest party seems a tad contradictory. But no one on the road seems concerned, so I go with it, down my “tea” and ride into a dusty haze of gin-fuelled celebration with the unlikely goal of holy worship at the end of the road.

 

Feted ladies

“The most famous woman in El Rocío is the Virgin,” says Jaime Guadiaga Dominguez, a rosy-cheeked Sevillano.

We’re riding in La Hermandad de la Macarena, a brotherhood of some 815 pilgrims from a neighbourhood in central Seville. They’ll travel the 40 miles from their homes to El Rocío over three days, and Jaime will spend most of them in Ana’s carriage.

“But the second most famous is Ana,” he adds, laughing. Ana just smiles, then begins to sing: “I’ve spent a year waiting for this moment…”

Ana has indeed spent the past 12 months sewing seven days’ worth of outfits, planning elaborate meals to be shared with the brotherhood and preparing her horses for the journey. Her coche de caballo—an eight-person carriage pulled by horses—is modest compared to some. A group of at least 20 passes us in a jardinera, a flatbed on wheels outfitted with a long table and benches that’s pulled by a tractor. A man leans over the edge to pass over a botellín. I reluctantly take it—if I’m not holding a drink, another offer is about three seconds away.

 

"Water is for horses"

We ride for several hours as friends hop on and off. When we roll up to an old man in a straw hat, Ana begins shouting, “Pepe, get up here!”

Pilgrimage in river Quema
Most of the brotherhoods will pass through the shallows of the Quema River

“No!” shouts Pepe. “I said I would walk the whole way. It was my promise.” But he jumps on anyway. With a shock of white hair and crinkly blue eyes, 70-year-old Pepe proudly informs us he’s the cohetero, responsible for lighting loud fireworks to warn towns of our arrival. He shows us his metal firework launcher and we all admire Pepe’s handiwork. Then someone asks for water. “Water is for washing and horses!” Ana responds.

Around noon, the procession slows as we approach the river Quema. Most of the 140 brotherhoods will pass through its shallow riverbed, stopping to salute their own effigy. Pilgrims wade into the water, holding up skirts and trouser legs. Soon there are hundreds of us surrounding the cart bearing La Hermandad’s tiny statue of the Virgin Mary. The crowd grows silent, waiting. An old woman raises her arms and begins singing, verses of adoration for the beloved virgin. Pairs of women begin dancing in the water, splashing and smiling with arms raised, hands soft and flower-like.

When all is silent again, a tall man on horseback splashes forward until he’s nearly face to face with the little statue. He takes off his hat and raises it in the air towards her.

“Viva la Virgen de la Macarena!” he bellows.

“Viva! Viva! Viva!” responds the screaming crowd.

The procession begins to move again, but Ana steers our cart out of the line. “Lia’s new here—she needs to be baptised!” she shouts, and calls to Jaime to grab a cup.

I climb down into the river and Jaime follows. “I baptise you Lia, duchess of lynxes and rabbits!” he says, laughing at his own nonsense. Then he pours the icy river water over my sweaty skin.

“You’re Rociera now!” says Ana.

I reflect again that the pilgrims seem to apply the rules of church rather liberally. I’m not Catholic but am happily welcomed to the trail.

 

Bedding down

We emerge from the river and find ourselves in the Doñana, Western Europe’s largest nature reserve.

Our path is bordered on both sides by the ashy trunks of towering pines, and through them we spot an old man, bent over a giant steaming cauldron. Ana steers over to his makeshift kitchen.

“I’m Rafael,” he says with a gentle smile, then lifts the lid to reveal his creation: Olla Falsa, a traditional Andalusian stew of chick peas, garlic and laurel. He’s waiting for some friends, but of course he insists we eat.

“This isn’t Romería,” Rafael says, spooning the stew into bowls. “Before, it was more real. We came without preparation, we slept under the stars.” It’s true. Today, the majority bring specially built trailers called carriolas that are pulled by giant tractors, and their mass mixes with the horses, clogging the trail.

That night, the mechanical drone of the carriolas’ electric generators drowns out the singing of Ana and her friends, though they don’t seem too bothered. “Life advances,” says Pilar, one of our group.

I drag my air mattress, mosquito net and sleeping bag into the darkness until the camp is just a glowing hum in the distance, and I’m asleep almost instantly.

 

Trekking into town

When I wander back early the next morning, I tell Ana and her friends, “You can give away my spot in the carriage”.

Today, the final day on the road, I’ll travel as the first pilgrims did, on foot.

Within hours of setting off, the sun beats down and a steady wind whips ochre dust into the air. After several hours of trudging, a wide bridge emerges on the horizon. Beyond it, the faint whisperings of a distant town appear: El Rocío.

And what a sight it is. The usually silent streets are bustling with carts and riders, loud men selling ice and bread over megaphones, women and men loitering on every corner, dressed to be seen. The streets are lined on both sides with whitewashed homes, and every front patio is overflowing with its own boisterous party.

I witness numerous chance reunions, friends joyfully bumping into one another, shrieking and hugging after a long year apart. Plates of fresh blanched prawns are everywhere, and the strong Spanish sherry known as Manzanilla flows like water. Everyone has been waiting a year for this weekend, and their determination to make it count—and to make it spectacular —is palpable.

Friday and Saturday pass in a blur of fiestas. Sunday night arrives in a flash, and I find myself invited into the rented house of an accountant from Seville named Sophia. This is her third year in El Rocío, and she and 30 of her friends sleep eight to a room in bunk beds, hats and ruffled dresses exploding from every corner.

“It was a lot more organised on the first day,” says Sophia with a throaty Manzanilla-laced laugh. She walks me to a framed portrait of the Virgen del Rocío in the hallway surrounded by glowing candles. Even in the midst of the party, faces pause and grow sober as they pass her image.

“We come to El Rocío first to see the Virgin,” explains Sophia solemnly. Then she brightens: “After that, we come to eat, drink and live with our friends for a week.”

 

Food and friends

We head outside, where her roommates and then some have jammed themselves onto the tiny terrace.

Pilgrims in El Rocia share food 

There is always a lot to eat over the weekend: cheeses, cold cuts, olives and stews

Huge trays of home-cooked delicacies begin emerging from the kitchen: serrano ham croquettes, cups of steamed snails in hot fennel and mint scented broth, slabs of garlic slathered pork.

It’s midnight on Sunday, so with drink in hand I make my way with the throngs now flooding the village’s main plaza to do what we’ve all come here to do: get a look at the little lady.

It doesn’t happen right away. I stand in the crowd tens of thousands strong for more than three hours. We are watching as brotherhood after brotherhood files solemnly past the open doors of the glowing white church. A brilliant light shines from within, and if I strain my eyes, I can see the gold alter in front of which She sits.

Finally, the local Almonte brotherhood approaches the doorway, and without warning hundreds of men begin brawling for the honour of carrying the statue. After about 15 minutes of struggle, a group breaks the Virgin free from grasping arms and swinging fists and emerges triumphantly bearing the float into the pulsating crowd.

Grown men weep and mothers fight their way towards the float with babies in extended arms, desperate for their offspring to bathe in the Virgin’s healing light. It makes sense that this is how the week should end, El Rocío as one roiling crowd, tearfully, joyfully praying for its own salvation.

 

The party never stops

On Monday morning I find Ana and her friends packing up the cart, prepping for the departure the following day.

Like everyone else in village, they’re talking about the Virgin.

“We don’t try to get close to her, but somehow, she comes close to us,” says Pilar. She suddenly seems like a young girl as she describes it. “It’s a moment of great happiness. It’s why we do the journey.”

This is what everyone says. Yet I’ve seen things this week—the way Ana is adored, Rafael’s generosity to strangers, how Sophia and her housemates care for one another—that make me think the Romería del Rocío is so much more. It’s a celebration of life that endures even in the face of great national hardship, and everyone is welcome, so long as you’ll raise a glass to the Virgen del Rocío.

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