“You can’t wear that flamenco dress for the El Rocío pilgrimage, Bonita,” Maria Cárdenas, our Airbnb host, said with a laugh. “You’ll die in the heat.”
She pinched the thick red fabric between her thumb and held it up to my face like a specimen. “You see? Heavy tight dresses like this are made for the festivals at the bullring in Seville city,” she explained. “You need lightweight stretchy polyester for pilgrimages — for riding, walking, dancing, siestas in the grass.”
The El Rocío pilgrimage is a high-octane religious spectacle — a multiday annual fiesta, held in Andalusia, the southernmost region in Spain — of flamenco dresses, caravans and religious fervor that seems to grow ever stronger, despite the ever-waning influence of the Catholic Church.
Participants can spend months in preparation: planning menus, hiring tractors, arranging for caravans. It also requires the selection of a dress that permits the wearer to relieve herself behind a bush while exuding all the elegance of Goya’s Duchess of Alba.
Having studied for a year in Seville in 2012, Kevin, my collaborator, has long dreamed of returning to document the pilgrimage of El Rocío, which was canceled for two consecutive years during the pandemic. My connection to Spain is more recent: I moved to Mallorca last year after deciding that life is too short not to live on a Mediterranean island. Kevin and I regularly work together on travel assignments, and when he told me about El Rocío, it was an easy yes, because the best way to get to know a new country is to party with it.
Although we were documenting the 2022 pilgrimage (this year’s will be held at the end of May), we were also participating in a celebration. Andalusia — famed for flamenco dancing, cowboy culture and pilgrimages — has a distinct and seductive identity that people in the south of Spain are rightly proud of.
The El Rocío pilgrimage is arguably the most potent visual representation of Andalusian culture, and it’s this, as much as religious zeal, that propels hundreds of thousands of pilgrims toward the shrine of the Virgin in the village of El Rocío. Some travel on foot, others atop elaborately decorated caravans. Many are on horseback: stiff-backed and spiffily attired riders in wide-brimmed hats, high-waisted paseo trousers and cropped guayabera jackets.
On our first day, Kevin and I wandered through Doñana National Park, some 40 minutes south of central Seville, foraging for the pilgrims we were assured would be there. Eventually we heard the faint tinkle of cowbells, the clap of horses’ hooves, creaking caravan wheels, the strains of flamenco guitar, voices singing in unison. Within minutes, the dusty road had transformed into a festival. Caravans rolled past. Pilgrims pressed bottles of Cruzcampo beer and slices of cured Ibérico ham into our hands. The singing reached a crescendo.
In Spain, Catholicism is taken seriously. But so is beer, ham and cheese — even at 10 a.m.
Many Andalusian cities, towns and villages developed their own pilgrimages — known as romerías, so named because pilgrims traditionally walked to Rome — dedicated to their particular patron saints. But the four-day walk to El Rocío has achieved cult status.
According to legend, a statue of the Virgin Mary was discovered in a tree trunk many hundreds of years ago, in the marshes of the Guadalquivir River. For a couple of centuries, devotion to this shrine was confined to the surrounding towns of Almonte and Villamanrique de la Condesa. But by the 20th century, in celebration of Pentecost, hermandades (brotherhoods) of pilgrims were walking up to four days to get to the area — from the area surrounding Seville and Huelva, and eventually beyond Andalusia, from Madrid, Barcelona and the Balearic and Canary Islands. At night, the hermandades would camp in the forest, dine together at long tables and dance flamenco around campfires until the reality of the next day’s 15-mile hike couldn’t be ignored.
Kevin and I share an obsession with international festivals. His impulse is to capture portraits, mine is to listen and learn. But wherever we go, Kevin and I tend to fixate on the faces.
At El Rocío, no faces were closed to outsiders. We were invited into caravans; told to sit and eat stew and sliced watermelon; dragged into flamenco dances; and instructed to take a siesta after lunch in the grass — otherwise we’d “never survive until Sunday,” one participant told us. No one we encountered was reluctant to be interviewed or photographed. Everyone seemed to accept that El Rocío is a spectacle. Our amazement and curiosity was received as a sign of respect.
We joined the caravans in the muddy waters at Quema, a ford in the Guadiamar River, a tributary of the Guadalquivir. In the town of Villamanrique de la Condesa, every restaurant and bar was spilling over with spectators. (El Rocío is televised like a sporting event throughout Spain.)
By Friday night, the first of the hermandades arrived in El Rocío, a tiny town that reminded me of Western movie sets I’ve seen in California and Arizona. Its character is entirely shaped by the pilgrimage; the more prominent hermandades — like Huelva, with its 10,0000 pilgrims — own huge boardinghouses at the edge of town, with convent-like rooms and vast communal dining and dancing areas. The smaller hermandades just look for short-term rentals. Even with our beginner’s Spanish, we were ushered inside a whitewashed house and given beer, chunks of manchego cheese and slices of cured ham. It struck me that most Spanish culinary staples are essentially pilgrim food: controlled decay turned into a delicacy.
In El Rocío, we found religious fervor in the streets, in the Churro shacks, in the hermandades themselves. But there was also fervor for fervor itself. I’m the Irish daughter of a Presbyterian pastor, raised on no-frills religious celebrations; tea and a scone is as decadent as Presbyterian celebrations get. In El Rocío, I found myself intoxicated by the pageantry and rituals, and by the idea that a pilgrimage can and should also be a source of revelry.
Friday night melted into Saturday morning, and Kevin and I found ourselves chatting with two young friends from Madrid — in their 30s, like us. Young people used to want to escape from religious traditions, they told us. But El Rocío offers them an escape, they said, from the stresses of modern life.
“I love El Rocío, because it’s the one time of the year that my whole family gets together — no excuses,” said Carmen Mora, 32, who works for a travel tech start-up. “It’s healthy to forget about city life for a week — my city clothes, the technology, my job, the pressure.”
“It’s good for the spirit to be immersed in tradition,” she added.