Hot and dusty, the white village of El Rocio borders the marshy wetlands of the Parque Nacional de Donana. Low-slung terraces of white-washed houses with wooden balconies and hitching posts lie along sandy unpaved roads.
Dotted between are incongruously large and rather grandly painted buildings bearing the names of cities, towns and regions of Spain. All were shuttered up on the afternoon of our visit, and only a few hustling gypsies and the odd loose dog seemed to be in town.
Our guidebook had called it a ‘Wild West’ town but that was too obvious a label and not very imaginative.
The stone cottages and colourful buildings had more permanence to them than the wooden one-street settlements thrown up by Hollywood’s version of the days of cowboys. The afternoon’s hot wind was blowing clouds of dusty sand around us and it was uncomfortable to walk about. It seemed a strange place.
El Rocio is known throughout Spain and Europe as the place of the ‘romeria’, an annual pilgrimage to the town carried out on a grand, if sandy, scale.
The pilgrimage dates to the 13th century when a local hunter discovered a statue of Mary in a tree trunk in the Donana Park. A chapel was built and visited by local pilgrims every year, keen to see and pray before the statue which is reputed to have had miraculous powers.
By the 17th century an annual procession had become established which attracted pilgrims from beyond Andalucia.
Many of them came on horseback or in horse-drawn wagons and today’s celebrations recreate the journeys made by some of the travelling groups and religious brotherhoods over the course of a week or two to reach El Rocio.
Apparently, there is much singing, dancing, feasting and drinking along the routes of the pilgrimage, and men and women wear traditional costumes. The gaudy buildings are home to more than 90 different ‘brotherhoods’ from many regional churches which converge on the sand-strewn town.
Standing in front of the gleaming white Church of Our Lady of El Rocio and ducking to avoid yet another mini typhoon of swirling sand and dust, we tried to imagine the chaos and discomfort of travelling on foot for a week amongst packed horses and covered wagons whilst choking on constantly billowing sand and wearing a flamenco dress to boot. It sounded horrendous.
However, a million people a year now make the journey to arrive in El Rocio on the appointed day when the statue is brought out of the church on a lavishly decorated float. Tradition has it that a mass brawl takes place between the assembled men to secure the privilege of carrying the float.
We admired the delicate wooden statue of Mary covered in gold and jewels and holding a tiny child. It was on display at the altar of the church in an elaborate setting of gold-painted carvings and fronted by masses of pink and white lillies and red roses.
After the heat and dust of the streets it was a tonic to breathe in the clean, scented air and gaze upon the beautiful woodwork. Nuestra Senora Del Rocio is only on display for two weeks each year and we were lucky to see her as this year’s ‘romeria’ was in seven days’ time.
Nearby at the dark and smoky ‘votive’ chapel, local ladies sang strange melodies and kept alight with zippo lighters a tall rack of long tallow candles of devotion to the town’s miraculous statue.
Outside we spotted flamingos sieving for krill in the windy waters of the national park’s wetlands.
We stopped for a cold drink at a roadside bar. Soon a man on horseback rode up and shouted his order across us to the barman. A whisky and tonic was duly bought out whilst the rider tethered his horse’s bridle to the hitching post.
Knocking back the drink and paying at the same time, he was soon on his way, cantering down the sandy road and kicking up yet more dust in his horse’s wake. In exactly a week you wouldn’t see this place for dust… it was weird and strange, but somehow bewitching.