Inside the El Rocío Pilgrimage in Spain
“You can’t wear that flamenco dress for the pilgrimage to El Rocío, Bonita,” laughed Maria Cárdenas, our Airbnb host. “You will die in the heat.”
She pinched the thick red fabric between her thumb and held it in front of my face like a specimen. “See? Heavy, tight dresses like this are made for festivals in the city bullring of Seville,” she explained. “You need lightweight stretch polyester for pilgrimages — for horse riding , walking, dancing, naps in the grass.”
The El Rocío Pilgrimage is a high-octane religious spectacle – an annual multi-day celebration, held in Andalusia, Spain’s southernmost region – of flamenco dresses, caravans and fervor religious that seems to be getting stronger and stronger, despite the ever-decreasing influence of the Catholic Church.
Participants can spend months preparing: planning menus, renting tractors, organizing caravans. It also goes through the choice of a dress that allows you to relieve yourself behind a bush while releasing all the elegance of the Duchess of Alba by Goya.
Having studied for a year in Seville in 2012, Kevin, my collaborator, has long dreamed of returning to document the El Rocío pilgrimage, which was canceled for two consecutive years during the pandemic. My connection to Spain is more recent: I moved to Mallorca last year after deciding that life was too short not to live on a Mediterranean island. Kevin and I regularly work together on travel assignments, and when he told me about El Rocío, it was an easy yes, because the best way to get to know a new country is to party with him.
Although we are documenting the 2022 pilgrimage (this year’s will take place at the end of May), we are also taking part in a celebration. Andalucia – famed for flamenco dancing, cowboy culture and pilgrimages – has a distinct and alluring identity that the people of southern Spain are justifiably proud of.
The pilgrimage to El Rocío is arguably the most powerful visual representation of Andalusian culture, and it is this, along with religious zeal, that propels hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to the Sanctuary of the Virgin in the village of ‘El Rocio. Some travel on foot, others atop richly decorated caravans. Many are on horseback: stiff-backed riders in smart outfits with wide-brimmed hats, high-waisted paseo pants, and cropped guayabera jackets.
On the first day, Kevin and I hiked through Doñana National Park, about 40 minutes south of central Seville, looking for the pilgrims we were assured would be there. Finally, we heard the faint tinkle of cowbells, the clatter of horse hooves, the creak of caravan wheels, the accents of flamenco guitar, voices singing in unison. Within minutes, the dusty road had turned into a festival. The caravans marched past. Pilgrims squeezed bottles of Cruzcampo beer and slices of cured Iberian ham into our hands. The singing reached a crescendo.
In Spain, Catholicism is taken seriously. But also beer, ham and cheese – even at 10 o’clock
Many Andalusian towns and villages developed their own pilgrimages – known as romerías, so named because pilgrims traditionally traveled to Rome – dedicated to their particular patron saints. But the four-day march to El Rocío has become cult.
According to legend, a statue of the Virgin Mary was discovered in a tree trunk several hundred years ago, in the marshes of the Guadalquivir River. For a few centuries, devotion to this sanctuary was limited to the surrounding towns of Almonte and Villamanrique de la Condesa. But in the 20th century, to celebrate Pentecost, the hermandades (brotherhoods) of pilgrims walked up to four days to reach the region – from around Seville and Huelva, and finally beyond Andalusia, from Madrid, Barcelona and the Balearic Islands and The Canary Islands. At night, the hermandades camped in the forest, dined together at long tables and danced flamenco around campfires until the reality of the next day’s 15-mile trek could not be ignored.
Kevin and I share an obsession with international festivals. His impulse is to capture portraits, mine is to listen and learn. But wherever we go, Kevin and I tend to focus on faces.
In El Rocío, no face was closed to strangers. We were invited in caravans; told to sit down and eat stew and sliced watermelon; drawn into flamenco dances; and we were asked to take a nap after lunch in the grass — otherwise we would “never survive until Sunday,” one participant told us. No one we met hesitated to be interviewed or photographed. Everyone seemed to accept that El Rocío is a spectacle. Our astonishment and curiosity were received as a sign of respect.
We joined the caravans in the muddy waters of Quema, a ford of the Guadiamar River, a tributary of the Guadalquivir. In the town of Villamanrique de la Condesa, every restaurant and bar was overflowing with spectators. (El Rocío is televised as a sporting event throughout Spain.)
On Friday night, the first of the hermandades arrived in El Rocío, a small town that reminded me of the Western movie sets I’ve seen in California and Arizona. Its character is entirely shaped by pilgrimage; the most important hermandades – like Huelva, with its 10,000 pilgrims – have huge boarding houses on the outskirts of town, with convent-like rooms and vast communal dining and dancing halls. The smaller hermandades are only looking for short-term rentals. Even with our beginner Spanish we were ushered into a whitewashed house and given beer, chunks of manchego cheese and slices of cured ham. I was struck by the fact that most of the staples of Spanish cuisine are essentially pilgrim foods: controlled decomposition turned into a delicacy.
In El Rocío we found religious fervor in the streets, in the Churro huts, in the hermandades themselves. But there was also fervor for fervor itself. I am the Irish daughter of a Presbyterian clergyman, raised in no-frills religious celebrations; tea and a scone are as decadent as Presbyterian celebrations. In El Rocío, I found myself intoxicated by the pageantry and the rituals, and by the idea that a pilgrimage can and should also be a source of rejoicing.
Friday night turned into Saturday morning, and Kevin and I found ourselves chatting with two young friends from Madrid – in their thirties, like us. Young people used to want to escape religious traditions, they told us. But El Rocío offers them an escape, they said, from the stresses of modern life.
“I love El Rocío because it’s the only time of year my whole family gets together – no excuses,” said Carmen Mora, 32, who works for a travel tech start-up . “It’s healthy to forget about city life for a week – my street clothes, the technology, my job, the pressure.”
“It’s good for the spirit to be immersed in tradition,” she added.
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