The small hamlet of El Rocío remains deserted throughout the year, except the time of pilgrimage. Its broad, sandy roads are lined up with palatial houses with spacious verandas but rarely will you find inhabitants in them. It is El Rocio Pilgrimage that attracts hordes from people from across the globe to celebrate Spain’s biggest festival.
El Rocío, situated near the town of Almonte in the province of Seville, southern Spain has a meager population of 700 people but during the weekend, when the festival takes place, as many as millions of people pours the streets and jams it with bustling traffic. Though every Andalucian city, town or village plays host to its own pilgrimages but El Rocío has won the cult status over time due to its mass appeal and outstanding colorful streaks.
The roots of this traditional festival can be traced back to the era of 15th century when a hunter, hailing from a local village of Villamanrique found an idol of Virgin Mary, La Virgen El Rocío, inside a tree trunk close to a park. This wooden statue of Mary is believed to have some healing powers among its devotees that can cure cases of infertility, mental disorders and numerous other diseases. A chapel was immediately built in the place where the tree stood and in this way it became a place of pilgrimage. Over the time, this chapel came to be known as Sanctuario de Nuestra Señora de El Rocío church, also known as Ermita and the cult of the Virgin del Rocio became more and more popular and widespread, involving tourists from various parts of Europe and Asia.
Previously, the devotions used to be a local affair but over the centuries, it became widespread. Since the year 1758, the entire event takes place over the weekend before Pentecost Monday, i.e. 50 days after Easter Sunday. Visitors start to arrive on Friday and get to leave the place on Tuesday, hence creating a big traffic jam on the Seville-Huelva highway and its surrounding lanes and bylanes. Whatsoever, the actual pilgrims don’t take the highway to visit El Rocio instead they follow a rough and rugged route alongside the main road, with their queues of horses and wagons.
The palatial houses adoring the wide roads as mentioned above are actually the bases of 95 brotherhoods, named hermandades. They are the senior members standing from each romeria. The pilgrims who are visiting the spot are known as Rocieros and they arrive in horses, wagons and carriages. Some of the carriages are decked up in flowers to transport silver and golden Madonnas to the church on Saturday morning. Each year, during late May or early June, thousands of pilgrims from various parts of Andalucia gears up to take participate in the traditional festival of El Rocio by boarding sturdy wagons and flaunting traditional attires – broad-brimmed hats, short riding type jackets and western-style leather chaps and boots for men and bright-flowery flamingo dresses for women.
It’s not rare to find pilgrims who still prefer to take the traditional path on horseback or in wagons, covered with flowers and curtains. These gypsy-styled wagons are pulled by pairs of oxen, whose yokes are adorned with stunning leather headpieces and bells are found hanging around their necks. Large groups of horse-riders and gypsy caravans form processions to reach the auspicious pilgrimage spot, and the way they all go together; forming a line is a spectacular sight to behold. These are the things that you won’t be able to find on a normal day, so if you are in Seville during that time of the year, you should never miss a chance to experience such stunning sights.
The procession lasts till the late evening and is accompanied by lots of chanting, strumming of drums, clapping and playing of tambourines, guitars and flutes from the masses. The entire thing moves along while bursting fire crackers and shouting slogans, like ‘Viva la Reina de la Marisima’ – ‘Long live the queen of the marshland’. All the participants sing rocieras (flamenco-style song dedicated to the pilgrimage) all the way long and again continuing in the night, around the campfire when they have stopped to eat, drink and relax.
In order to reach the shrine, the pilgrims have to cross the Donana Park, which is a protected wildlife park featuring very rare species of wild animals, like horses, lynx wild boar and many water birds on the marisma (wetlands) such as herons, storks, flamingos and egrets. Owing to proper law enforcements and well-organized Guardia Civil, the environment is not at all hampered and smooth functioning is possible. Several volunteers constantly follow the pilgrims in order to collect thousands of tons rubbish which would otherwise be left behind.
The climax of the festival comes at the wee hours of Monday morning when the statue of Virgin Mary is brought out to be paraded throughout the entire town. Then it has to be passed through the hands of all the 95 brotherhoods, making the event extremely frantic and that makes one wonder how has the statue survived for so many years!
Seville, Almonte and Huelva are the most popular starting points, if you are thinking of walk tours, whereas Villamanrique de la Condesa (between Seville and El Rocío) is also a good place to start with. It’s not too difficult to find decent accommodations in El Rocio but you have to book your hotels beforehand to avoid rush bookings.
Situated at the edge of Parque Nacional de Doñana, Spain’s one of the biggest wildlife refuge and wetlands, El Rocío offers plenty of animal sightings.
Some useful tips
- If you are driving, you need to be patient as there will be lot of traffic jams and congestions.
- Take light clothing and wear comfortable footwear. You can bring a jacket for late evenings.
- If not on foot, it’s better to take a bus to Villamanrique de la Condesa and start your journey from there.
- Take care of the environment; don’t leave any rubbish here and there as it may result into contamination of air.
- Don’t get indulged in too much merry-making as you have to get up early morning, hence any kind of hangover will be detrimental for your journey.