Romería de El Rocío: The biggest pilgrimage in Spain
Pilgrimages are often solemn occasions where devotees reflect on their faith and show their devotion through sacrifices. But Romería de El Rocío is an entirely different affair with dancing, drinking and merriment.
What goes on during Romería de El Rocío?
The Romería de El Rocío is an annual pilgrimage and celebration that happens on the second day of Pentecost or 50 days after Easter. This year, celebrations will culminate on 8–9 June. The festivities are centred in the village of El Rocío, 17 kilometres from Almonte village in the province of Huelva, Andalucía.
The star of the Romería de El Rocío is the Virgin of El Rocío, a small, wooden statue of the Virgin and Child clothed in Baroque style. The Virgin is housed in the Hermitage of El Rocío, a 13th century building said to have been built by King Alfonso X of Castile or Alfonso the Wise.
Scholarly studies say that the statue was made in the 13th century and the garments were added in the 17th century. The Virgin of El Rocío is considered a holy image because of the miracles linked to it. Legends say that it once saved Almonte village from a plague.
Through the years, many devoted Catholics have come to know about the miraculous icon in El Rocío, which led to the growth in number of those who worship the Virgin. Brotherhoods (hermandades) dedicated to the Virgin started to appear in the 17th century, and its membership reached beyond the borders of Andalucía.
Today, around 90 hermandades in and out of Andalucía travel to El Rocío in time for the Pentecostal celebrations.
How is it celebrated?
Days before Romería de El Rocío, devotees travel to the village of El Rocío in any of the following traditional ways: on foot, by horseback or by wagon. The most common roads taken by the pilgrims are:
- Sanlúcar route for those coming from Cadiz
- Los Llanos route, the oldest route that runs from Almonte village
- Moguer route for those from Huelva
- Seville route, the most popular for hermandades from the rest of Spain and abroad
The pilgrims must make their way to the village in high spirits: partying, drinking and sharing of food are common among pilgrims who pitch makeshift camps on the side of the road at night. The devotees wear traditional Andalusian costume or flamenco attire and dance (baile), sing cantos and recite coplas until the break of dawn. Many say this is the most important part of the pilgrimage.
Once the pilgrims reach El Rocío they pitch camps and wait for the arrival of other devotees. More than 1 million make it to the village every year just to honour the Virgin of El Rocío.
The celebrations begin formally on the Saturday with a procession of pennants or simpecado that represent each hermandades. The simpecados carry an emblem of the Immaculate Concepcion and walk before the Virgin of El Rocío while church bells ring.
On Sunday, a high mass is held followed by praying of the rosary by candlelight. Fervent prayers reach a spontaneous climax in the early hours of Monday in an event called the salto de la verja or leap over the railings, when devotees from Almonte jump the altar railings, take the icon from the shrine and parade it around the village.
During the parade, the hermandades struggle with each other to carry the float that holds the Virgin icon. The parade itself must pass by the hermandades buildings around the village before making its way back to the hermitage in the afternoon.
After the Virgin of El Rocío is returned to the hermitage, the pilgrims start preparations for their journey home.