On Whit Sunday, the town of El Rocio will be packed with pilgrims who have traveled there from all over southern Andalucia
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.