Spains largest religious festival attracts hundreds of thousands of people. The goal of this Pentecost gathering is the honouring of the Virgin Mary, but also for non-religious people the event is worth a watch. The best way to experience the Romería del Rocío? Get invited by one of the brotherhoods.

STEUN RO

“The Virgin of El Rocío performs miracles,” claims Macarena Robles, a serious expression on her face. “When my little cousin was very ill, every day her mother walked 15 kilometres from Almonte to El Rocío to ask the Virgin to cure her daughter. One month later, the girl was completely healthy again.” I listen and nod politely, but doubt whether the recovery was really the work of the saint. The receptionist from Almonte feels my scepticism and smiles. “You just wait,” she says. “The Romería is special. A lot of people, like yourself, plan to visit only once, but somehow they keep coming back.”

Carnival parade in cowboy style

The sandy streets of El Rocío are deserted for the biggest part of the year. But with Pentecost, the small Western-style village in the south of Spain fills up with hundreds of thousands of people. They all come for the Romería del Rocío, one of the most famous pilgrimages in the world. At first sight, the event looks like a carnival parade in cowboy style, with lots of horses and decorated wagons. Women in colourful Flamenco dresses parade through the streets, a big bright flower in their hair. Men on horseback are dressed immaculately in traje corto suits, their backs straight. Tourists arrive in busloads, their costumes and leather boots brought along in giant plastic bags. But behind the dressing up and the fun fair stalls, there’s a different world, one that stays hidden from most of the spectators. That’s the world of the hermandades (brotherhoods).

Many brotherhoods walk from their hometown all the way to El Rocío – picture by Marijke Verschuren

Currently there are over 120 hermandades, coming from all across Spain. Most members start the pilgrimage in their hometown, from which they commence their walk to the Andalusian village. On the way, they sing, dance, pray and meet up with other brotherhoods. The Hermandad Matriz de Almonte, organisers of the festival, determines which organisations are allowed to take part in the pilgrimage, which dates from 1653. They only nominate a few new groups per year. “You can’t get together with a group of friends and call yourself a brotherhood, just because you want to take part in this event,” explains Fali Camacho, daughter of the Hermano Mayor of the Hermandad Matriz de Almonte. “Participating religious organisations have to prove their dedication by doing voluntary work, having a positive attitude and helping those in need.”

Inside the world of the brotherhoods

On the Saturday before Pentecost, all brotherhoods present themselves before Maria. Their carriages are pulled by cows or mules and decorated with the simpecado (a representation of Maria that will join the brotherhood for their entire journey, literal translation: ‘without sin’). While we’re admiring this flamboyant procession, a man comes over and introduces himself. Antonio González is a member of Hermandad Alcalá la Real and invites us into the house his brotherhood rents for the duration of the Romería in order to get an insider’s view of this spectacle. “I feel that you wanted to understand what’s happening,” he says. “We’d like to try and pass the essence of the Romería on to you.”

Horse-drawn carriages make El Rocío look like a film set from a Western movie – picture by Marijke Verschuren

“In life you have to have something which offers support. It’s that way for everybody, whether you’re Muslim, Buddhist or Atheist. I find this support in my religion; if I’m in trouble, I ask la Paloma Blanca (the white dove, one of the names of La Virgen del Rocío) for help,” our host says, while introducing us to the rest of the brotherhood, pouring drinks and telling stories. According to the local legends, the Virgen del Rocío is a sacred sculpture of the Virgin Mary that was found hidden in a tree trunk. This happened somewhere in the 15th century and ever since, people from all over Spain have come to El Rocío to worship her. Over the years, the Romería has evolved into a combination of a pilgrimage and a giant party.

Antonio admits he can’t really explain what the Romería means to him personally. However, the fact that he has called his youngest daughter ‘Rocío’ already shows that this pilgrimage is connected to the most important parts of his life. His other daughter, Laura González Tejero, also grew up with the Romería, joining the yearly pilgrimage from an early age. “Tradition plays a big part in our culture and also family is really important. Although I know the other brotherhood members only from church meetings, it feels like we’re one big family,” she explains. For the languages student, this connection is what makes the pilgrimage so special. “I wouldn’t want to miss the Romería for the world!” she exclaims.

Praying – and partying – with passion

Sunday morning 9am: while the chaplains prepare themselves in the church, thousands of people occupy the plaza. The church is too small for all the brotherhoods, so an alternative altar has been constructed outside. Palm trees instead of pillars. After a mass of over two hours, in which the final prayer sounds like one voice out of thousands of mouths, the brotherhoods return in a procession to their houses in the village. Antonio Gonzáles leads the way for Alcalá la Real, carrying the 25 kilos heavy simpecado. We’ve been adopted by the group and are allowed to accompany them to their house, where all the members gather for a prayer.

Spaniards party with the same passion as they pray. After a communal lunch on the courtyard, consisting of a giant paella, it’s time to dance the Flamenco. The family members clap, sing and dance, accompanied by guitar music. The women’s skirts twirl around with the movements of their legs, which are perfectly in sync with their hand gestures. In El Rocío it’s impossible to separate religion and party. “If the only thing we could do here was praying all day long, I wouldn’t have come,” explains Antonio with a laugh, clapping his hands to the rhythm of the Sevillana.

At the Romería, it’s impossible to separate religion and party – picture by Marijke Verschuren

Dancing is an important part of the Romería. From the 82-years-old ‘madre de la familia’ down to little Guillermo, who’s almost five, all members know the Andalusian songs and the Sevillana steps. “That’s because the children first come to El Rocío when they’re still in their mother’s womb,” states Amalia Jimenez Galan, who, although she currently lives in Barcelona, still travels all the way to Andalucia to join the people of her birth village Alcalá la Real in the pilgrimage. “The first time, I didn’t know where to look. I could hardly believe my eyes. The emotions I felt when seeing the Virgin, but also the entire spectacle of dance and music; it was all so intense.”

A sense of belonging

Not only dancing is learned at a young age, also the horse riding. Children so small they’re barely able to touch the stirrups with their feet are galloping through the sandy streets where horses have right of way. Most striking, however, isn’t the riding ability of the Spanish youngsters. It’s the atmosphere: fierce Andalusian stallions pass each other at close quarters without kicking or biting. It seems also the festival visitors are influenced by the peaceful ambiance. In most cases, nearly a million people celebrating together with music, fireworks and rebujitos (sherry mixed with 7-up) would cause trouble. Here it stays one big party where everybody respects each other.

Andalusian stallions have right of way in the sandy streets – picture by Marijke Verschuren

Antonio Pérez Vela is one of Hermandad Alcalá la Real’s founders. It’s his 32th time in El Rocío. “I’m working most of the year to organise this event. It’s a lot of work, but worth it; together, you form a family with everyone who has been to the Romería. It’s completely different from being a member of, for example, a tennis club. The unity we feel, that’s what makes our brotherhood to a special group. After our first journey to El Rocío, I fell in love with this place. I can’t imagine living without the Romería.” He pauses, as if searching for words to convey the intensity of his feelings. “It’s a sense of belonging. Here, I’m like a drop of water in the ocean.”

Miracle enough

The journey in the early hours of Pentecost Monday, where the Virgen del Rocío is carried through town by the members of the Hermandad Matriz de Almonte, is the highlight of the Romería. Babies are held high up in the air and people squeeze in tight to get closer to the Virgin. Each brotherhood receives the honour to transport La Paloma Blanca through a part of town. After seeing with my own eyes how much it means for the spectators to touch the glass case that holds the statue, it’s clear that their belief in the saint and the miracles she performs is enormous.

When thanking the members of the brotherhood for their hospitality, they invite us to join them on the pilgrimage next year. This causes me to remember the words of our receptionist on the first day of the festival. Me, walking a pilgrimage? That would definitely be a miracle! Hermandad Alcalá la Real’s founder Antonio Pérez Vela, however, has his own ideas about the work of the saint. “Miracles like curing the ill and making dreams come true? To be honest, I don’t think these things truly happen,” he admits. “But what the Virgin does, is make us all come here, to El Rocío. Every year, nearly a million people get together, all with good intentions. In these individualistic times, that’s miracle enough.”

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