Hello El Rocio, home to one of the largest and most colorful pilgrimages in the world. A million people walk for days to lose their minds at the sight of the small statue of the White Virgin being carried out of an Andalusian church. To understand their near-hysterical devotion, join the singing, dancing, praying pilgrims in their long march and discover its pagan roots.
Men on horseback, swirling dust clouds, covered wagons, dancing señoritas in livid flamenco dresses, a heaving mass of people crowding a statue of the Virgin Mary, a white church, yet more horses and a raging campfire. I’m looking at photos that hang on the wall of Jerez de la Frontera’s hermandad, one of around 90 religious brotherhoods that make the yearly pilgrimage to El Rocío.
It’s been buzzing like a beehive here for the last couple of months. People come and go, hauling their worldly possessions back and forth. In the middle of this commotion, like the queen bee herself, stands a splendid wagon with a bright, exuberant painting of the Virgin, which will be pulled to El Rocío by a team of horses. Tomorrow, after mass, it will be time. Time for the thousands of “brothers and sisters” to set off on a journey that will last four days.
I have reserved myself a place with the pilgrim wagon for those who will travel by foot. Having given them my baggage, it is now time to wait. I order a glass of wine at the bar of the hermandad (this is Spain – of course there’s a bar!). Next to me is Juan, a seasonal laborer who works with olives and sunflowers in the spring and summer, and who picks the grapes destined for sherry in the autumn.
Every year he also makes the pilgrimage to El Rocío and back. Why? Out of pure love for the Virgin. Don Alvaro Domecq, another companion at the bar, is the owner of a Spanish bull ranch. He bought the property with the capital from his Domecq bodegas. Don Alvaro makes the journey by horse, but for the same reasons as Juan: love and respect. The laborer and the aristocrat are members of the same brotherhood.
People have a very personal relationship with the Virgin Mary
In Spain – but Andalusia in particular – people have a special and often very personal relationship with the Virgin Mary. She is a woman, a mother and a saint, someone who is close to the people and can help, comfort and understand them. There are many different Marias, each of whom specialize in fields such as hope, health or conception and have their own set of dedicated followers.
But with the Virgen del Rocío there is something unusual at play. During Pentecost, the moment when the spirit of God hovered over the apostles is commemorated. The symbol for the Holy Spirit, a white dove, is also the name of the Virgen del Rocío: la Blanca Paloma. Does that mean the Virgen del Rocío and the Holy Spirit are one, then? Alas, it cannot be explained so simply. Believers tell you that, during Pentecost, the Holy Spirit embodies the Virgin, and that’s the most convincing explanation they can give.
Hundreds of horsemen and Amazonians on beautiful steeds lead the way, followed by a horde of gaudy multi-colored covered wagons and a miles-long stream of off-road vehicles; that is the spectacle as my adopted brotherhood leaves Jerez de la Frontera. At the same time, similar processions are setting off right across Andalusia, from all parts of the region. They travel on highways, over mountain passes and across rivers.
However, the official number of people who actually make the pilgrimage from Jerez on foot is just 20 – myself included. The first day we walk under a scorching sun through the sherry-grape landscape, along the sealed road to Sanlucar de Barrameda, where we cross the Guadalquivir on little ferries. On the other side, we walk in the Coto Donana National Park, which is normally prohibited, but an exception has been made for these pilgrims since the dawn of time.
Slowly the true nature of the journey becomes clear
Now that we have left the inhabited world behind us, the mood among our troop has changed. In the thick of the woods and sandy pathways, all our worries fall aside and slowly the true nature of the journey becomes clear. There are the stirrings of a loving family feeling that will only grow stronger in the coming days. After yet another few hours walking through the dust, we make a temporary encampment in a wide-open space.
The wagons are placed in a circle, the horses unsaddled, here and there little campfires are built in preparation for the evening meal, while a guitar is gently strummed. As I see the women in their colourful flamenco dresses and men with wearing cowboy hats walking about with the sunset as their backdrop, I could almost convince myself I’m in the Wild West.
After I find a place to pitch my tent, I lay down and am out like a light. That night I dream uneasily of horses violently trampling me, then surrounding me like vultures and fighting among themselves to take a morsel of my flesh. The next morning, the meaning of this dream is quickly made clear. When I stick my head out of the tent, I look right into the eyes of one of ten mules who have been grazing all night on the juicy grass around my chosen camping spot.
Have you spent the night with ten women?
“Has pasado la noche con diez mujeres?” asks the first man I meet. “Have you spent the night with ten women?” The joke spreads like wildfire. Everywhere I go I am looked at with a mix of mischievousness and compassion. Later, I realise that jokes of this nature are not entirely coincidental during el camino, as the road to El Rocío is called.
Our day begins with a mass, given poetically in the tall grass by the priest traveling with us. Then our caravan is on its way again. The sky is an unyielding blue, while the air is sweet with dew and pine needles. I prepare myself for a long and gruelling trek over difficult sand, but it turns out to be unnecessary. After only a couple of hours on the road we stop and hand around the sherry. Sevillanas, Andalusian folk music, are sung and danced, and it’s almost as if we don’t need to go any further. This is a scene that will repeat itself regularly over the coming days.
When I am invited to take a seat in one of the wagons, I decline. I want to walk every meter to El Rocío myself. Not that ‘paying penance’ is the theme of this pilgrimage; it’s just that giving up is out of the question. In the middle of all these beautiful, easily amused people and idyllic nature, far from the stress and difficulty of normal life, I drift away to an earthly paradise. Everything here is shared: food and drink, jokes, stories, songs and feelings. And the love? The love as well, as proved by the birth statistics, which experience a huge peak exactly nine months after the romería.
This is partly because the worship of la Blanca Paloma is not just a Christian phenomenon. During the reign of the myth-encircled Tartessus, who came to Andalusia around 3,000 years ago, there already existed a massive pilgrimage to honour a fertility goddess, which traveled to approximately the same place where El Rocío lies today. When Christianity set in, all pagan rituals were forbidden, but most managed to survive nevertheless as a kind of wolf wearing a Christian sheep’s clothing.
Such is the case with El Rocío. Immediately after the conquest of Andalusia by the Moors, a hunter discovered a statue of Mary left behind somewhere in the woods. He set out to drag the heavy piece to his town but fell asleep from exhaustion halfway there. When he awoke, the statue was gone. It had somehow managed to transport itself back to the place he had originally found it. The message was clear: a church was to be built on that very spot and the statue would never again be moved.
Each singer proclaims his holy love in emotional couplets
Don Alvaro, Juan and I sit around a huge campfire for hours. It’s time to sing sevillanas dedicated to the Virgin. One after the other, each singer proclaims his holy love in emotional couplets. Then, after three days of walking and all-night cacophonies of drink, dance and devotion, we’re almost there. The morning of the fourth day, I relax and appreciate the intimate, peaceful atmosphere among our group. It won’t last when we reach the hectic scene of more than a million enthusiastic pilgrims waiting for us in El Rocío.
Last year I visited the village in September and encountered a ghost town: a finely divided network of sandy paths with low white houses, completely deserted save a pair of dogs. But now? Absolute chaos. If on my first visit it seemed a place where rampant gold fever had died out, now it’s as though the gold is in abundance again. The huge number of horsemen, wagons and women in long dresses only serve to reinforce this feeling. If it weren’t for the TV teams and the occasional jeep, I could almost forget we are in the 21st century.
After a triumphant march alongside friendly brotherhoods, who wait for us with guitars, song and large volumes of sound and sherry, we finally come to the house of the hermandad of Jerez – one of the biggest in El Rocío. An hour after our arrival (after we first walk in formation to the hermitage to give our respect to la Blanca Paloma and the brotherhood of Almonte, who is our host here), the first bits of laundry are hung out on the patio to dry.
On the street, bonfires are kept continuously burning, intended to honor the hunter of legend. There are countless stalls tendering memorabilia, T- shirts, boots and saddles. Marquees offer us protection against hunger and thirst, and gypsies are there to read hands or hire out their ponies for a fun-ride. On the outskirts of town, in the marshes, the pink flamingos stand on one leg as normal, as if nothing special is going on.
The eve of Pentecost – the madrugada del Rocío – which falls on a Sunday, is the high point of the journey. That’s when the statue of la Blanca Paloma is carried out of the church, through the streets of El Rocío and past all the more important brotherhoods. Although the total distance the statue is carried is merely two kilometres, the procession lasts for more than 12 hours.
Tears flow while the most bizarre scenes are played out
Emotions reach their peak and everyone lets the tears flow while the most bizarre scenes are played out. It begins with the statue leaving the church. The brotherhood from the village of Almonte, who will carry the Virgin, gather hours beforehand in the chapel. The excitement becomes palpable and the first of many fainters hit the floor.
When, at around midnight, the signal is given, the brotherhood scramble over the fences where the Virgin is enclosed in order to be the first to carry her. “Viva la virgen del Rocío, viva la Blanca Paloma!” is cried. The statue is so heavy that people regularly collapse under its weight; it tilts and must be set down again. The brothers of Almonte push and shove the thousands of pilgrims who try to touch the statue in worship or with prayers of despair.
Many throw themselves forward, but are quickly pushed back with just as much force. Crying babies are passed overhead by fanatical parents, get lost in the whirling mass, pop up again and are pushed, even with their heads, against the statue. They are now insured against bad luck and bad health for the rest of their lives.
The majority of people have not slept all night
A woman in a wheelchair is passed through in the same manner to receive the blessing from the Holy Virgin. The brothers carrying the statue rotate shifts continuously. While one carries, the others form behind, a flower grimly clenched between the teeth; it’s an impressive cordon of sweat and blood, with crackled colours, dust and rose petals around the statue. Priests of smaller brotherhoods who are not on the route are taken up on the shoulders of the crowd and supported by their parish with a song of praise. The hermandad of Jerez is one of the last visited, at around 11am when the sun hovers high in the sky. Thousands of people have gathered, the majority of whom have not slept all night. The bells toll, rose petals fall and the brotherhood’s priest cries out: “Viva la Virgen del Rocío!”. With tears in our eyes and a lump in our throats, we cry back.
The next morning after a breakfast of hot chocolate and churros, Juan, Don Alvaro, the others and I begin the journey back in silence, following the same path that led us here. Everyone is content and introspective. No laughs, no song. The only words uttered are essential ones. When we arrive back in Jerez de la Frontera, I shake the hands of my new friends and bid them farewell.
“Until next year!” I say, determined to come back. “Next year?” asks Juan, surprised. “And what about El Rocío Chico – you’re not coming to that?” El Chico is a pilgrimage in August, similar to what I have just been through but on a much smaller scale. Another long walk – four days there and four days back. I’m not going to make it, but Juan will be there for sure. Because when you are a rociero, you are one all year round.