Under the hot sun everyone goes to El Rocio...
A tour in horse-drawn wagons allows visitors to recapture the spirit of Andalusia’s most famous pilgrimage.
Every spring around one million people converge on the shrine of El Rocio, at the edge of the Doñana national park, in the biggest romeria, or pilgrimage, in Spain. For an emotion-packed three days, the devotees of the Virgen del Rocio - Our Lady of the Dew - take part in a celebration which combines religious fervor and festive color. Many of the pilgrims make their way to the shrine on horseback or in brightly decorated carriages, in multi-coloured caravans that wind across the Andalusian countryside.
Now travelers can capture the festive spirit of the event year round, thanks to tours offered by some of the half-dozen horse riding centers based in the hamlet of El Rocio and its vicinity.
The Aires de Doñana company organize an original excursion for groups of 15 to 70, riding on horseback and in horse-drawn carriages.
Travelers are taken in four wheel drive vehicles along the Rocina river around the wildlife rich marshes of Doñana as far as the spot known as Gato.
After a picnic of tapas and wine to the accompaniment of a typical Rociero group dressed in flamenco finery and performing the traditional songs of the pilgrimage, guests ride on horseback and carriages along seven miles of the Camino de Huelva, the route followed by pilgrims setting out from the city of Huelva for the annual pilgrimage.
The tour is a unique combination of nature experience and Andalusian folk culture, and offers a view of the region which would be difficult to enjoy from a car or a bus. In all, the journey takes around six hours, ending with a full meal of regional specialities in El Rocio. This excursion is offered six days a week from September to the date of the annual Romeria in late spring. In the hotter summer months there are shorter excursions around the town of El Rocio.
They come from all over Spain. They come on horseback, in carriages and in covered wagons. They come by car, by coach and on foot. And they come in their hundreds of thousands. They are pilgrims, known as Rocieros, and every year, on the seventh Sunday after Easter, they converge on El Rocio, an isolated settlement midway between Huelva and Seville on the edge of las marismas, the water meadows and marshlands of Andalucia's Coto Do-ana national park.
Some of the Rocieros will have travelled for weeks, some only a few days, camping under the stars, huddled around campfires, filling the night with their sad songs and hand-clapping flamenco rhythms. But all have come for the same reason: to visit El Rocio's Ermita de Nuestra Senora (The Church of Our Lady) and pay homage to La Virgen dEl Rocio (the Virgin of El Rocio), also known as La Reina de las Marismas (the Queen of the Wetlands) and La Paloma Blanca (the White Dove).
With its wide sandy streets and hitching posts in front of every house, El Rocio resembles nothing so much as a Wild West film set. And when the Rocieros arrive with their horses, wagons and high-sprung carriages the image is complete. The only traffic here comes on the hoof - prancing stallions with uncut-manes and braided tails, four-in-hand harnessed mules and the teams of mighty oxen which the Rocieros use to haul their Madonnas past the scalloped entrance of the church to receive the Virgin's blessing.
The procession of the Madonnas begins on Saturday morning and lasts until late at night. The wagons that carry the Madonnas are called simpecados and are elaborately-worked in silver and gold, mobile altar pieces brought from the churches of the 95 Hermandades (brotherhoods) who revere the Virgin of El Rocio and make up the majority of the pilgrims. One by one these Hermandades make their way to the church of El Rocio, the senior members of each brotherhood riding ahead in lines four abreast, followed by their town's simpecado, attended by a surging throng of supporters, clapping, chanting and beating drums.
But this is not just a religious festival. Being Spanish, the Rocieros also come here to party. Dressed in traditional costume - traje corto for the men and traje de flamenca for the women - this is an opportunity to show off their horses and horsemanship, to call on friends, to dance flamenco, to eat, drink and be merry until the early hours of Monday morning.
The midnight hours between Sunday and Monday are the climax of the festival, the moment everyone has been waiting for, when the Virgin of El Rocio is finally carried out of the Ermita and paraded around the town, passing above the heads of a million pilgrims to call at each of the brotherhoods' houses, its candlelit passage accompanied by frantic bell-ringing, exploding fireworks and the cheers of the crowd: 'Viva la Virgen dEl Rocio', 'Viva la Reina de las Marismas', 'Viva la Paloma Blanca'.
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