Like a drop of water into the sea…

It’s a combination of a pilgrimage and a giant party that attracts hundreds of thousands of people. Every year at Pentecost, the Romería del Rocío takes place in the village of El Rocío in Spain, just over a hundred kilometres east of the Algarve. The goal of this religious festival is the honouring of the Virgin Mary. But also for non-religious people the event is worth a watch. Enjoy the Algarve joined one of the brotherhoods to experience the essence of the Romería.

Pictures by Marijke Verschuren

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine May 2016

“The Virgin of El Rocío performs miracles,” says Macarena Robles, a serious expression on her face. “When my little cousin was seriously ill, her mother walked 15 kilometres from Almonte to El Rocío to ask the Virgin to cure her daughter. She did that every day for a month. A few days later, the girl was completely healthy again.” I hear her story and nod politely, but doubt whether the recovery was really the work of the saint. The 31-years-old receptionist from Almonte feels my scepticism and smiles. “You just wait,” she says. “The Romería is special. You’ll notice it for yourself: a lot of people plan to visit only once, but somehow they keep coming back.”

The sandy streets of El Rocío are deserted for the biggest part of the year. But with Pentecost, the Western-style village in the south of Spain, about 120 kilometres from the eastern end of the Algarve, fills up with hundreds of thousands of people. The majority of them believers, they all come for the Romería del Rocío, one of the most famous pilgrimages in the world. On first sight, the event looks like a carnival parade in cowboy style, with covered wagons and decorated carts. Women in colourful Flamenco dresses parade through the streets, a big bright flower in their hair. Men on horseback are dressed immaculately in suits, their backs straight, cigarette in one hand, mobile phone in the other. Buses full of tourists arrive from all over the country, their costumes and leather boots brought along in giant plastic bags. But behind the dressing up and the fun fair stalls selling phone cases and plastic toys, there’s a different world, one that stays hidden from most of the tourists. That’s the world of the brotherhoods, the hermandades.

Currently there are over 112 hermandades, coming from towns all across Spain and one even from Brussels (Belgium). For most of the members, the pilgrimage starts in their hometown, from which they commence their walk to the Andalusian village. On the way, the group sings, dances, prays and gets into contact with other brotherhoods. But being part of a brotherhood involves more than just organising a yearly trip to El Rocío. The Hermandad Matriz de Almonte, organisers of the festival, determines which organisations are allowed to take part in the pilgrimage. They only nominate a few new groups per year. “You can’t get together with some friends and call yourself a brotherhood, just because you want to take part in the pilgrimage,” explains Fali Camacho, daughter of the Hermano Mayor of the Hermandad Matriz de Almonte. “The participating religious organisations have to prove their dedication. We make sure they do voluntary work, have a positive attitude and help those who need it most.”

On the Saturday before Pentecost, all brotherhoods present themselves before Maria. They drive in a row in front of the church, their carriages pulled by cows or mules and decorated with the simpecado (a representation of Maria that stays with the brotherhood for their entire journey, literal translation: ‘without sin’). While we’re wondering out loud about this 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.”

“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 troubles, 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 and pouring drinks. Antonio isn’t really sure how to explain what the Romería means to him. 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.

Antonio’s other daughter, Laura González Tejero (23), has joined the yearly pilgrimage since she was a kid. “Tradition plays a big part in our culture and also family is really important. Although I know the other members of the brotherhood only from church meetings, it feels like we’re one big family,” she says. For the translation & interpretation student this get-together and the contact with members of other brotherhoods is what makes the pilgrimage to the highlight of the year. “Although I don’t consider myself a very religious person, I wouldn’t want to miss the Romería for the world!”

Sunday morning 9am, too early for most of the tourists. While the chaplains prepare themselves in church, thousands of people slowly 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. There aren’t enough seats for everyone, but because the temperatures aren’t that high, this year nobody faints. After a mass of over two hours, 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. He’s followed by baton carriers and other brotherhood members. Despite our non-religiousness we’ve been adopted by the group and are allowed to walk with them to the house, where the members gather for a prayer.

Spaniards pray and celebrate in the same passionate way. 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 in the rhythm of the Sevillana.

Singing and 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 by heart. “The children know these dances because they first come to El Rocío while they’re still in their mother’s womb,” states Amalia Jimenez Galan (69), 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 and ears. The emotions and the feelings I felt when seeing the Virgin, but also the entire spectacle of dance and music; it was all so intense.”

Not only dancing is learned at a young age, also horse riding. Children so small that they’re barely able to touch the stirrups with their feet gallop through the sandy streets where horses have right of way. Most spectacular, however, is the atmosphere: fierce Andalusian stallions pass each other at close quarters without kicking or biting. Also the festival visitors seem to be influenced by the peaceful ambiance. In most cases, the combination of hundreds of thousands of people with music, fireworks and rebujitos (sherry mixed with 7-up) would cause instant trouble. Here it stays one big party where everybody respects each other and accidental collisions are instantly followed by an excuse.

Antonio Pérez Vela (62) is one of the founders of Hermandad Alcalá la Real. It’s his 32nd time in El Rocío. “I spend most of the year preparing this event. It’s a lot of work, but worth it; together, everyone who has been to the Romería forms a family. It’s completely different from being a member of, for example, a tennis club; the emotions and unity that we feel, they make our brotherhood to a special group. After our first journey to El Rocío we fell in love with this place. Here I feel like a drop of water in the ocean, it’s where I belong. I can’t imagine living without the Romería.”

Feeling emotions when witnessing the processions isn’t just for members of the brotherhoods. Piet Bakker from Bergen op Zoom (The Netherlands) travels to Spain just for the Romería. He’s been making this Pentecost trip for 15 years now. “I’m drawn by it. I’ve already brought so many people along to this happening. The feeling, the warmth, the efforts that people undertake in order to be here. One year I found myself crying in the middle of the church,” the Dutchman admits while concentrating on the procession.

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 for most of the pilgrims. Babies are held high up in the air and people squeeze in tight to get closer to the Virgin. After seeing with my own eyes how much it means for them to touch 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 the pilgrimage next year. This makes me remember the words of Macarena Robles on the first day of the festival. Me walking a pilgrimage? That would certainly be a miracle by the Virgen del Rocío! Hermandad Alcalá la Real’s founder Antonio Pérez Vela has his own ideas about the work of the saint. “Miracles like curing the ill and making dreams come true, I don’t really believe that,” he says. “But what the Virgin does is make us all come to El Rocío. Every year all these people get together with good intentions. And in these individualistic times, for me that’s a miracle enough.”


See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine May 2016

Posted in Features.