El Rocio is a small town in Huelva Province on the edge of the Donana National Park famous only for its annual romeria.
On Whit Sunday, the town of El Rocio will be packed with pilgrims who have traveled there from all over southern Andalucia. Some will have arrived on horseback, some by ox cart, most will arrive hot and tired on foot having spent an entire week on the journey. Not that they can expect much rest when they arrive, for the normally placid village with a population of just over a hundred will have exploded into a metropolis of over a million and the festival lasts for 24 hours, non stop. The goal of every pilgrim is to touch the Virgin Mary who is paraded around the huge sandy square for over 12 hours. Many pilgrims will belong to a particular hermandades, ‘brotherhood’, of which there are around a hundred in Andalucia, each representing part of a town or city or an entire village. Each brotherhood has its own sacred ox cart called a Simpecado that will lead the pilgrims to El Rocio.
Legend has it that a statue of the Virgin Mary was found in a hollow tree trunk in the Guadalquiver marshes by a hunter in the 15th Century. At first only the local villages of Villamanrique and Almonte revered her until the 19th and early 20th Centuries when her fame spread to Seville and then throughout Andalucia. Some pilgrims arrive in a more conventional manner from Madrid, Barcelona and the Canary Islands. However they arrive there are some traditions that have to be kept even though they are barely 100 years old. To reach El Rocio it is necessary to cross the Guadiamar river. The ford is called the Quema and is near the village of Villamanrique where the hunter lived. At the ford flower petals are scattered on the pilgrims and those there for the first time are baptized in the river.
At Villamanrique itself an even more curious tradition is upheld. In front of the church, oxen, pulling their Simpecado, achieve the ox equivalent of a gallop. The aim is to see how far up the church steps the cart will go. Six steps is considered worthy. The carts have to be manhandled backwards down off the steps by the pilgrims and locals.
On arrival at El Rocio each brotherhood has to present itself to the Almonte ‘Mother Brotherhood’. There is a huge candlelit procession of Simpecado followed by a pontifical mass. The priest tries to prolong the mass as long as possible with the singing of hymns but at dawn the men from Almonte become impatient and climb into the Virgin’s sanctuary to bring her out of the church. The church bells ring, there are fireworks cracking and bands playing and it does not get any quieter until late afternoon on the Monday when everybody starts to head back home and El Rocio once again becomes a sleepy, sandy, peaceful village until next year.
The village has a style all of its own. Every building, apart from the church, has a hitching rail, none of the roads are surfaced except with compacted sand. Even the building style is faintly reminiscent of an American western town, not quite Tabernas but this is after all a living village not a film set. There are a few cafes, three souvenir shops, one hotel, one discotheque and one restaurant. At weekends visitors outnumber the locals, El Rocio has a resident population of about 700, but during the week you are likely to be the only person disturbing the tranquility. It is apparent that El Rocio has far more houses and public buildings than are required for its small population. Many of the larger buildings are dedicated to a particular hermandades so remain closed all year until the Romeria. Most of the houses are similarly unoccupied year round having been built by families for use during the Romeria.
The largest building by far is the church, the Ermita de Nuestra Senora de El Rocio. It is huge, far larger than many town churches and still way too small to house all the pilgrims, estimated at over a million, that arrive each year.
Outnumbering both are the waders on the wetlands that border the village, the reason many visitors arrive at El Rocio for it is right on the edge of the protected area of the Doñana.
On one day in early March the marismas, not 100 metres from the car park, hosted hundreds of Glossy Ibis, twenty or more Spoonbills, Flamingos, White Storks, Snipe and Herons. There was a representative of each of the Egret species, cattle, great white and little, moving around the feet of the particular breed of wild horses that live in the Doñana on the drier parts of the marismas.
From the car park there is a walk around the edge of the wetlands that also takes you half way around the village itself. You will notice that the back rooms of the hotel offer a fine view over the marismas, they must be in great demand.