La Romería del Rocío

18 May 2018 0 Comments Category: Cat Gaa, Living in Spain, TNS Amigos


Spring and early summer in Andalucía is rife with fiestas, and in particular, pilgrimages to hermitages and religious sites known as romerías.

And no romeria is more famous in Spain as that of the Virgen del Rocio.

The festival of the Virgen del Rocío is one-part religious pilgrimage, one-part full-blown fair and two parts party: those devoted to the Virgen, known as the Lady Of the Marshes or the White Dove (Nuestra Señora de Las Marismas, for the hermitage’s proximity to the protected swampland of Doñana National Park, or the Blanca Paloma), make a pilgrimage from their towns to the immaculate white church outside the village of Almonte, 45 kilometers to the southwest of Seville. This can be done on foot, on horseback, or by riding in oxen-driven carrozas, a type of temporary covered wagon. Arriving on or before the Saturday of Pentecost, often sleeping and eating outdoors, the rocieros then gather in El Rocío for a series of masses, parades and the famed salta a la reja.

I love any fiesta Andalucíua has to offer and took a bus from Seville to Almonte for the celebrations. Local sevillanos say that spring and early summer have four parts: Semana Santa, Feria, El Rocío and the beach. El Rocío is a riot of color, merriment and religious fervor wrapped into one week.

A friend and I arrived just before noon on Pentecost Sunday. It was over 90º out, but the rocieros were in their typical costumes: the women in trajes de gitana or faldas rocieras, a skirt with ruffles suited for walking, and high leather boots. The male counterpart is a traje corto, with tight cropped pants made for horseback riding. Many had been walking for days – from Seville on the traditional route, from Sanlucar de la Barrameda through the Donana marshland and over the Guadalquivir River.

The whole village of El Rocío (recent census numbers put the population at 700) is like a town straight out of a Wild West film set – hitching posts set in front of modest yet large  homes, horses clopping around the sandy streets. In patches of grass, revelers sit with wine skins and typical festival food like breaded and fried pork loins, Spanish omelette and bags of crisps.

As we neared the stark white church, a beacon against the bright blue Andalusian sky, we decided to visit the village’s most famous resident before going any further. As we neared, the tamboril drums and simple flutes that characterize the sevillanas rocieras grew to a furor, and the crowd standing under the scalloped entrance of the hermitage suddenly parted. The Pentecost mass had just ended, and a parade of the simpecaos, the banners carried by the different religious groups, had begun.

The knots of people ebbed and moved as the 110 hermandades from around Spain and Europe filed before the church and moved around the village’s dusty streets. From simple to elegant, each carry a symbol of the Virgen del Rocío. The pilgrimage dates back to the 17th Century, with the hermandad from Almonte, el Matriz, being the oldest hermandad; it is believed to have been founded in 1640. Legend claims that a simple carving of the Virgin Mary was found by a local farmer in these parts, stored in a tree trunk for safe keeping. As she worked miracles, Rocio gained widespread fame, leading to her pilgrimage and devout group of followers.

Following the banner come women in two straight lines on either side of the simpecao, carrying long silver staffs topped with images of their brotherhood’s virgen. Their necks were emblazoned with the same silhouette in the form of heavy pendants on the end of multi-colored rope cords.

The festival at the Aldea is characterized by religious devotion, of course, but there’s much more to it. Once the hermandades arrive to El Rocío through the various routes from the East, West and South, they settle into houses that look like a giant corral or hotel around a central patio, with room for the carrozas and horses behind. Gines, Olivares, Villamanrique and Triana have enormous patios, and outsiders can peek in, or at the very least, head out back to see the carrozas and livestock. People sing, dance and pray for up to one week during the pilgrimage and the celebration in these houses.

You can’t let the day pass by without visiting the Virgin herself. The temple is simple, white-washed, save the golden retablao and a few frescoes in the corners of the nave. Cola de batas, the boundy ruffles of the traje rociero, poke out under confessional booths, and the romeros prayed to the Virgen Mother, who is kept safely behind a cast iron gate, called a reja. After praying the rosary that night at midnight, she would “jump over” the reja and be paraded around the village on the shoulders of revelers, called the salta a la reja. This is the culmination of the week’s events, and it signals the abandonment of the recinto and the camino back home the following day.

The Fiesta del Rocío 2018 will fall on the days leading up to May 20th – a full 50 days after Resurrection Sunday. If you go, be sure to wear shoes suitable for walking and standing, as well as cash – not all restaurants will accept electronic payment. There is limited parking, so public transportation is preferred.

Whitsunday mass begins at 10am, followed by the procession immediately afterwards. The Virgen del Rocio will take to the streets once more the following day. Don’t miss the haunting salve sung by choirs as sh re-enters the church, where she’ll rest for another year.


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