EL ROCÍO, Spain (AP) – After a two-year hiatus enforced by the pandemic, tens of thousands of pilgrims – many in tiered flamenco dresses, crisp riding suits and wide-brimmed Cordoba hats – descended on the tiny Spanish village of El Rocío to take part in the colorful and ancient festival of La Romería del Rocío, or the Rocío Virgins’ Pilgrimage.
For several days, throngs of people – entire families or groups of friends – meander along various country lanes and roads, many on foot, others on horseback or in ornately decorated horse-drawn carriages or caravans, raising clouds on dust in the sun-kissed countryside of southern Andalucia.
The pilgrimage organized by dozens of “brotherhoods” is a real explosion of color and exuberance. A heady mix of religion and riotous celebration, the style of dress, food, drink and song are as much a part of the festival as the devotion to the Virgin. Pilgrims eat out in the countryside and often camp there as well.
The pilgrimage attracts young and old alike and the overriding feeling this year was the joy of once again being able to celebrate a pilgrimage iconic to Andalusian culture.
“The Rocío is something that cannot be explained. You have to come here and feel it,” said 15-year-old Antonio Carlos Martín Duque, who was riding a horse.
Antonio Molina Sánchez, 47, from the nearby city of Huelva, described his family’s joy at making the pilgrimage after two years of cancellation. “For a family like ours that lives for it – a ‘Rociera’ family – it’s joy.”
Despite this, the shadow of the COVID virus lingered. “We’re scared; we have masks in our bags (but) often the emotions don’t make you think, and you walk into the crowd without realizing it,” he said. “We hope that with three vaccines and the protection are sure of the maiden.”
After several days of travel, pilgrims arrive at the tiny, whitewashed hamlet of El Rocío, whose name means morning dew and whose sole reason for existence is the Sanctuary of the Virgin.
There, on the eve of each Pentecost or Whit Monday, they take a huge ornate float bearing the effigy of the Virgin known as Blanca Paloma (White Dove) and parade it through the city, visiting the main confraternities at each of their major gathering places that line the entrance to the city. Thousands of people throng the boulevards to witness the parade, with its side contests and impromptu parties.
This year’s procession was interrupted by several hours after the carriage developed a structural problem, forcing officials to return the Virgin to her chapel or shrine.
The roots of the Romería del Rocío pilgrimage go back centuries when, according to legend, a statue of the Virgin Mary was found in a hollowed-out tree trunk near the town of Almonte, to which the village of Rocío belongs.