Flamenco and Fervor: Inside Spain’s El Rocío Pilgrimage

“Pilgrimage to El Rocio, you can’t wear that flamenco dress to Bonita,” said Airbnb host María Cardenas with a laugh. “You’ll die from the heat.”

She picked up a thick piece of red fabric between her thumbs and held it over my face like a specimen. “You see? Thick, tight dresses like this are made for a festival in the bullring in the city of Seville,” she explained. Pilgrimages, such as napping, require lightweight, stretchy polyester.”

The pilgrimage to El Rocio is an annual multi-day fiesta of flamenco dresses, caravans and religious fervor in Andalusia, the southernmost part of Spain, and a vibrant religious spectacle. undiminished influence of the Catholic Church.

Participants can spend months preparing, planning menus, hiring tractors and arranging caravans. You should also choose a dress that exudes all Goya’s elegance while allowing the wearer to lounge behind the bush. Duchess of Alba.

After studying in Seville for a year in 2012, my collaborator Kevin had long dreamed of returning to document the pilgrimage to El Rocio. The connection with Spain is more recent. I moved to Mallorca last year after deciding that life was too short to live on a Mediterranean island. Kevin and I work together regularly on our travel business. When he mentioned El Rocio, he simply said yes. Because the best way to get to know a new country is to party in it.

I was documenting the 2022 pilgrimage (which will take place at the end of May this year), but I was also participating in the celebration. Famous for its flamenco dancing, cowboy culture and pilgrimages, Andalusia has a unique and enchanting identity that the people of Southern Spain are proud of.

The El Rocio pilgrimage is arguably the most powerful visual expression of Andalusian culture, and it is the religious fervor that drives hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to the shrine of the Virgin Mary in the village of El Rocio. as much as Some travel on foot, others in elaborately decorated caravans. Many people ride horses. A stiff-backed, fashionably dressed rider in a wide-brimmed hat, high-waisted paseo pants, and a cropped guayabera jacket.

On our first day, Kevin and I wandered through the Doñana National Park, about 40 minutes south of central Seville, looking for pilgrims we knew were there. Then came the faint sound of cowbells, the clapping of horse hooves, the creaking of caravan wheels, the strain of flamenco guitars, and the singing in unison. In just a few minutes, the dusty road turned into a festival. A caravan passed by. Pilgrim Cruzcampo pressed a bottle of his beer and a slice of Iberian ham into our hands. The singing reached a crescendo.

Catholicism is taken seriously in Spain. But so are beer, ham and cheese. Same at 10am.

Many Andalusian cities, towns and villages have developed their own pilgrimages, called Romerias, named for the way pilgrims traditionally walked to Rome, and dedicated them to a particular patron saint. But El He his four-day walk to Rossio has achieved cult status.

According to legend, hundreds of years ago a statue of the Virgin Mary was found in a tree trunk in the swamps of the Guadalquivir River. For centuries, devotion to this shrine was confined to the surrounding towns of Almonte and Villamanrique de la Condesa. By the 20th century, however, Hermandades (Brotherhoods) of pilgrims traveled from the areas around Seville and Huelva, and eventually from Madrid, Barcelona, ​​and Balearic across Andalusia, to celebrate Pentecost. It took up to 4 days on foot to reach the area. Canary Islands. At night, the herd camped in the woods, ate together at long tables, danced flamenco around the campfire, and the next day he couldn’t ignore the reality of the 15-mile hike.

Kevin and I share an obsession with international festivals. His urge is to take portraits and mine is to listen and learn. But Kevin and I tend to obsess over faces wherever we go.

At El Rocío, there were no closed faces to outsiders. We were invited to a caravan. We were told to sit down and have some stew and sliced ​​watermelon. I was drawn into flamenco dancing. After lunch we were instructed to take a nap on the lawn. Otherwise, “I won’t live until Sunday,” said one participant. The person we met wasn’t afraid to be interviewed or photographed. Everyone seemed to agree that El Rocio was a spectacle. Our surprise and curiosity were taken as a sign of respect.

We joined the caravan in the muddy waters of Quema, a ford of the Guadalquimar River, a tributary of the Guadalquivir River. In the town of Villamanrique de la Condesa, all the restaurants and bars were full of onlookers. (El Rocío is broadcast like a sporting event all over Spain.)

By Friday night, the first Hermandads arrived at El Rocio. This small town reminded me of the western movie sets I’ve seen in California and Arizona. Its character is completely formed by pilgrimage. More famous Hermandades like Huelva, with 10,000 pilgrims, own huge boarding houses on the outskirts of town, with monastery-like rooms and extensive communal dining and dancing areas. Small Helmandad just look for short term rentals. Even with novice Spanish, we were shown inside a whitewashed house and fed beer, chunks of Manchego cheese, and slices of prosciutto. I realized it was food. Controlled spoilage turned into a delicacy.

In El Rocio, religious fervor was visible in the streets, in the churro huts, and in the Hermandad itself. But there was also enthusiasm in the enthusiasm itself. I am the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and I grew up in a no-frills religious feast. Tea and scones are as decadent as any Presbyterian celebration. In El Rocio, I was intoxicated with pomp and ceremony, with the idea that the pilgrimage can and should be a source of revelry.

Friday night melted into Saturday morning, and Kevin and I were chatting with two young friends from Madrid who were in their 30s just like us. Young people wanted to escape religious traditions, they told us.

“I love El Rocio because it’s the one time a year when the whole family gets together. No excuses,” said Carmen Mora, 32, who works for a travel tech startup. She said, “It’s healthy for her to forget city life for a week. City clothes, technology, work, pressure.”

“It’s good that the spirit is steeped in tradition,” she added.

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