Romeria del Rocio: A dive into Andalucia’s most revered and festive spectacle

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Romeria del Rocio
ASSSA

The Romeria del Rocio can be considered Spain’s pilgrimage par excellence due to its massive participation. Annually, brotherhoods from far and wide travel via three main routes to the sandy village on the edge of the El Coto de Doñana National Park (Huelva). They all have one thing in common: their devotion to the Virgen del Rocio.

During Pentecost, the much-admired young men from Almonte carry her out of her church for a procession through El Rocio, amidst an ecstatic and emotionally overwhelmed crowd. One of the routes to El Rocio takes the pilgrims right through the Doñana National Park. We joined a brotherhood (Hermandad) and are eager to share this absolutely unique experience with our readers.

The virgin of El Rocio

La Virgen del Rocio

Prologue

Rhythmic clapping swells and gives us intense goosebumps. A wave of cheering, whistling, and applause enters the sweltering church with the cooling wind from the salt marshes. The crowd is so densely packed that we can barely move. There’s nothing to do but sway along, clap, and stay alert. Then the cause of the increasing tumult appears at the main entrance. It’s the ‘sinpecado’ (flag) of Hermandad Matriz de Almonte, the oldest brotherhood involved in this religious spectacle.

Behind the now boy-packed gate and before the gleaming golden altar, she stands stoically from her platform, looking down at the emotional crowd: the Holy Virgin of the Morning Dew, ‘la Virgen del Rocio.’ Everything the crowd in the church has experienced over the past few days revolves around her. People stand singing and praying before her, some even on their knees, or crying, and thousands of pilgrims have been on their way for days to see her.

The village of El Rocio

romeria del rocio

 The church in El Rocio

Sand, heat, dust, and porch houses are at the mercy of themselves year-round in the small village of El Rocio, in the far west of Andalucia, except for the tourists who come to admire the cathedral where the Virgin has made her home since 1280. On the day before Pentecost, this deserted Western scene completely transforms. In a bustling atmosphere, people are busy stocking houses, setting up outdoor bars, sweeping porches, painting facades, and polishing the gold in the church. More than six thousand people involved in organising the Romeria del Rocio await the arrival of the first pilgrims. From different directions, the tinkling bells of donkeys announce the first pilgrims. Praying, penance, celebrating – or all at once – they finally reach the goal of their journey: the village of El Rocio and its famous Virgin.

‘Everyone experiences it differently’

“During the Romeria del Rocio, it doesn’t matter who you are, what you do, or where you come from; that’s why I go every year,” says Paco from the brotherhood of Sanlucar de Barrameda. “The atmosphere is fantastic, everyone feels good, shares everything with each other, and all in a beautiful setting,” he adds, looking at the hilly landscape of yellow-white dune sand, shrubs, and pine trees. “The human aspect forms more of a religion for me than the pure veneration of the Virgin in El Rocio,” he answers when asked about his religious background. “Everyone experiences the journey to El Rocio differently, as pure religion, as a short vacation, or as a few days of partying with friends.”

Well prepared pilgrims

waiting to cross guadalquivir

Waiting to cross the river 

The festive component of the Romeria del Rocio becomes quickly apparent as we stand in line for the crossing of the Guadalquivir in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, behind which the protected nature of Doñana begins. Ahead of us, the back door of a jeep is opened, and the driver struggles to keep the rows of beer cans, bottles of (soft) drinks, and two whole hams from falling out.

crossing of guadalquivir virgen del rocio

The ferry in Sanlucar de Barrameda to cross the Guadalquivir

The peculiar line we’re in consists alternately of covered wagons pulled by tractors, decades-old Landrovers with strange constructions on the roof to sleep in, and jeeps with trailers stuffed with furniture, because of course, also during a pilgrimage through untouched nature these Spaniards have to enjoy an extensive lunch. After a few hours, our wait is rewarded, and, waved off by a few hundred people, we sail across the turquoise river towards the national park that begins on the other bank.

Romeria del Rocio through Doñana

On the dazzlingly white beach on the other side, an excited ‘we’re-going-on-a-school-trip’ atmosphere hangs in the air. Nine brotherhoods, totaling about 12,000 people, will disturb during three days the peace in the protected nature reserve. Another 96 brotherhoods from all over Spain and even beyond travel towards El Rocio via the other two routes from Seville and Huelva.

romeria through doñana

Pilgrimage through the Doñana sand

Hardly on our way, we are invited for an early drink by a group of Spaniards along the sandy path. Our plastic cups are quickly filled with the drink of the Romeria: manzanilla, the lightly salted sherry produced in Cadiz. “The manzanilla producers in the area all sponsor a brotherhood,” Paco explains. He gladly shares his years of Romeria experience with us. And together with his group, we watch in amazement at the passing creations. A woman in a flamenco dress hangs from a passing jeep. Manzanilla sloshes from her glass. The driver of a tractor hands us his business card. We can call him if we get stuck in the loose sand, something we will see multiple times and also experience ourselves.

A marvelous spectacle

Along the route, we see people in traditional costumes on horses and carriages drawn by donkeys. Covered wagons have been transformed into cafes where people sing and dance. Oxen are led by old men. Other men pour each other’s glasses while riding their horses. A car passes, its trunk filled with singing women in colourful dresses. Further along, we see a man almost falling off his donkey from drunkenness. All of this against the backdrop of an unreal dune landscape under a bright blue sky. The rustling wind, the olé shouts, and sevillanas as background music complete this marvelous spectacle.

Cogesa Expats
hramana mayor doñana

Happy people during the pilgrimage

Special route

Unfortunately, it seems that some pilgrims don’t realise they are travelling through a threatened protected natural area, where millions of migratory birds come or stop annually to breed. Everywhere in the sand, there are empty glasses and other waste. Environmental groups have been trying for decades to close Doñana to the tens of thousands of pilgrims, but a tradition that dates back almost five hundred years is hard to stop.

From lunch to evening mass

Even though the hundreds of Spaniards are in untouched nature, there will be lunch! Pilgrims tie their horses and donkeys to trees, conjure up long tables, and assemble complete kitchen units. Prawns, followed by bottles of sherry and wine, make the rounds, and every group has brought their own musicians. People laugh, sing, clap, talk, and dance. Dolores from Madrid gives us some prawns and arranges a new drink. Later, while the whole group sings and claps sevillanas, a couple on horseback approaches the circle, and the girl starts an impressive solo from her horse. The olé shouts increase, accompanied by the click of castanets. The pure Andalucia? “Yes, this predominates more for me than religion. Although, unlike most people here, I do go to all the masses,” says Dolores.

Religion in the camp during the Romeria del Rocio

evening mass in doñana national park

A mass at night in the Doñana national park

In the camp for the night, we attend two masses. The float with ‘sinpecado’ (banner) now serves as an improvised altar. On anything that can serve as a seat, the members pray along. Two little boys accompany the mass with solemn flute music to the mesmerising rhythm of a drum. In the distance, we hear the murmur of other brotherhoods and the neighing of their horses.

The mass of another brotherhood in the camp subtly transitions from whispered prayers to emotionally sung verses of the special sevillanas that everyone sings continuously during the Romeria. The lyrics invariably deal with the Virgin, the salt marshes, fishermen, farmers, el camino (the route), donkeys, wagons, and El Rocio. Here too, the festive feeling slowly re-emerges. People enthusiastically fill each other’s glasses, pass around cigarettes, and laugh heartily. Occasionally it falls silent, and a hoarse female voice starts another verse. Hand claps, tambourine, and drum now provide the rhythm.

The brotherhoods usually take three days and two nights to cross Doñana. Pilgrims who want to experience the full Romeria stay in El Rocio until the second day of Pentecost and then return home via the same journey through Doñana.

Meanwhile in El Rocio

party in el rocio

Cheerful atmosphere in the village

In the village, an excited atmosphere prevails, increasing as the early morning of Pentecost Monday approaches. It’s a coming and going of tourists, pilgrims, and day-trippers in the church. The Holy Virgin, around whom everything revolves, is continuously worshipped, admired, and serenaded. The street scene offers a colourful spectacle. Countless combinations of colours, dots, stripes, fabrics, and flowers form just as many different models of flamenco dresses. The dusty streets lead us past a large number of brotherhood houses, each with their own celebration. At the improvised bar on the central square, riders hang out with their horses. And as if they haven’t toured enough kilometres on their way here, people spend the whole day riding around in tinkling carriages or proudly showing off their traditional attire on horseback.

Mass before the procession of the Virgen del Rocio

Pentecost in El Rocio begins with an official mass attended by all believers, after which everyone goes their own way again. That same evening, all brotherhoods – tens of thousands of people – and visitors pray together during a mass on Plaza de Doñana. It is a moving event, and in the whole village, monotonous voices reciting ‘salves’ and ‘Ave Marías’ can be heard through loudspeakers. After the mass, the brotherhoods, carrying colourful torches, walk one by one to the cathedral. There, they, and we too, wait for hours for the moment when the boys from Almonte free their Holy Virgin with the ‘salto de la reja.’ Then she can begin her procession past all the brotherhoods.

‘El Salto de la Reja’

salto de la reja romeria del rocio

The Almonte boys jumped the fence

At three in the morning, our patience, and that of the hundreds of thousands present, is finally rewarded. As soon as the cheering with the arrival of the flag in the church swells, the cluster of men at the front of the church begins to push and pull and climb towards the Virgin. It gets rough. The crowd gets wilder, the chaos increases, and the clapping becomes fiercer. Senses fall short to fully grasp this insane spectacle. The first boy to reach the Virgin ties a black ribbon around her platform, ensuring eternal fame in his village. In the church, people are overcome by emotions, even fainting.

The procession

Meanwhile, the image of the Virgin moves jerkingly and stumblingly towards the exit. Leaning dangerously due to the pushing and pulling of many enthusiastic hands, she begins her journey towards the hundreds of thousands of people waiting breathlessly outside. There, everyone wants to touch the swaying Virgin or even carry her for a moment. However, the latter requires a lot of elbow work. Slowly, she begins her round along the brotherhoods who will sing to her all night and which will last well into the morning.

procession virgen del rocio

The procession

The next day around noon, everyone slowly starts packing their things for the return journey. In a few days, El Rocio will once again be a dusty and deserted swamp village, the tons of waste will be removed from the national park, and the birds in Doñana can go about their business undisturbed. The unreal, impressive, and festive atmosphere of this romeria will accompany us for a long time. And for days, the rhythms of the sevillanas and the sung melodies like ‘Salve Rociera‘ will echo in our minds.

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