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Andalucia: The miracles of El Rocío


Every year at Whitsun, more than one million people set out on a pilgrimage lasting for days – on horseback and on foot – to the little Andalusian pilgrimage village El Rocío. During this period they exchange their normal life with one in an archaic world. Like nomads they  sleep in the open air and sing Andalusian songs about hardship, love and death. It’s a journey with a lot of sacrifices, yet full of surreal mystery, real madness, tradition, miracles, dancing and singing. Everything comes together on this walk: faith, love, happiness, hope, simply life as a whole.

The wind is blowing hard over the banks of the Guadalquivir River this early morning, it is even able to draw out the voices coming from a bar. This sharp wind forces the white grains of sand playfully into wavy lines, to the left, to the right, to the left and again to the left to finally unload its load into the water masses of the river where the grains are disappearing slowly onto the river bed.

However, now the voices coming from a nearby beach bar are audible again. They belong to a group of people brought together by chance only a short time ago. The slim twenty-seven-year old Suzana with long black hair sitting beside her mother Pepi and lost in devotion is listening to the words of Padre Quevedo reporting the miraculous recovery of his little niece formerly suffering from cancer. „It was planned to replace the left half of the girl’s face by a prosthesis,“ explains the clergyman, „but a doctor was touched by the weeping of the girl’s mother. In the end all that was necessary was an hour long operation without any bone extraction at all.“

Suzana’s mother isn’t able to hide her tears any longer and reveals that six years ago a brain tumour was diagnosed with Suzana, too. Only a few days after this terrible news Suzana had to undergo a very dangerous operation at the back of her head just where all nerves come together and where the danger of paraplegia is immensely high. The two women are changing short familiar looks and the mother takes a deep breath and describes how Suzana’s hair was cropped short. Pepi reports that during the entire eight hour long operation she never released her gold medal of the Saint of El Rocío, which she squeezed so firmly that in the end blood dropped from her hands.
Suzana tries to hold back her tears. „That’s why I am here,“ she states self-confidently, „that’s why I go on pilgrimage to El Rocia every year since this operation to express my gratitude to the Saint that she saved my life.“ Even the purposeful, courageous Adelina who helps this year to organize the pilgrimage starts to weep now. „Listen, this is the miracle of El Rocío“, comments Padre Quevedo, „without knowing each other we are sitting round a table crying together.“

Meanwhile quite a hustle and bustle has developed at the ferry terminal, since many brotherhoods from all over Spain are arriving one by one, here in the city of Sanlucar de Barrameda. Colourfully decorated oxen carts, many groups of hundred of horsemen in their national costumes and carters transporting ham and sausages, sherry bottles, oat and straw, they all are waiting here to continue their journey. Though there are many ways to reach their place of pilgrimage El Rocío, one third of the pilgrims – mainly those coming from the southern part of Spain – choose the southwestern path and cross over the River of Guadalquivir here in Sanlucar.

Their eyes still showing traces of pain caused by the sad memories, Suzana and Pepi start dancing with the rhythm of the castanets and the guitars, together with all the others who found some space here on the open ferry boat. Dressed in their flamenco outfits and costumes they are performing pirouettes while hammering with their heels on the boat planks to the music. Under the burning sun surrounded by water, the dance increases into ecstasies. Old and young, fat and slim, poor and rich unite in the grip of music.

Historians put the yearly pilgrimage at Whitsun down to the fertility rites of the Phoenicians who with their settlement in this region created the legendary Tartessos Empire here along the Andalusian coast at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River. The scientists believe that the ancient worshipping of honoured goddesses never came to an end but still exists even though in a renewed form of expression. An historical review of El Rocío easily turns up numerous legends. According to the most important legend, a hunter from Almonte found a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary in the swamplands of the Guadalquivir River. On his way to bring his find to town, he became tired and stopped to rest. Upon awaking, he noticed that the statue had disappeared during when he was asleep. However, the finally hunter rediscovered the lost statue, exactly in the same place where he had found it before. Ever since this miracle, the villagers used to pilgrim to their holy statue in the swamps, until in 1280 King Alfonso X. ordered the construction of a chapel for the Virgin Mary. About 500 years later, at Whitsun in 1772, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, a man of high influence, initiated a festival in honour of the Virgin in order to make the chapel known.
The metal ramps of the ferry crashes with full force into the sand, making the boat shake heavily with the rebound. The ferry driver quickly releases the loading ramp to the sand. The tamporilero takes the lead in the group, drumming and whistling, he gives the signal to set off. Other ferries are landing carrying additional coaches, oxen carts, horsemen and pilgrims to the foot of the National Park Coro de Donana where the hard part of the long walk is going to start.

In the beginning the pilgrims walk through pine woods, occasionally interrupted by juniper trees or rosemary bushes impregnating the hot air with their aromatic fragrance. The swirling dust finds entrance into every pore. Adeline having announced a vow not to speak during the three days walk, gives a sign with her hands to the others. Francis, having accompanied the brotherhood of Sanlucar de Barrameda for many years, comes running up announcing that the yoke of oxen which carries the silver cart bearing the holy standard of the Virgin of El Rocío, is stuck fast in the middle of the path. Since no other vehicle is allowed to overtake the cart transporting the mobile altar, the caravan comes to a stop. Many pilgrims come running up and with joined forces they finally succeed in freeing the yoke. „We better assist and help to push alternately from now on,“ recommends Francis and the crowd nods comprehensively.

The caravan continues its way through the desert. However it suddenly it comes to a standstill. The oxen pulling the silver altar are completely exhausted. And while a farm worker is supplying the animals with water, a young boy emerges from behind starting fervently one of those songs of joy called Sevillanas Rocieras, songs to the honour of the Holy Virgin, his clear juvenile voice casting its spell over the listeners. Proud, young gentlemen with sideburns riding thoroughbred horses – their sweethearts on side-saddle – gallop into the scene seizing their guitars. In the end, the boy closes his eyes, stretches his right hand towards the sky and lengthens the last sound as ardently as a tenor in a tragic opera. The crowd answers with an appreciating olé-cry. Women in their grandiose skirts and high boots spontaneously start to sing and to clap. And then an old pilgrim emerges and takes the lead of the songs of joy until the dominating voice of the Padre is calling: „Viva the Virgin of El Rocío, viva the brotherhood of Sanlucar,“ followed by the echo of the whole crowd.

And here in the middle of the desert landscape at 45° C, one of the most surreal choreographics imaginable – surmounting every spectacle fashioned by the hand of man – takes its course. These people are singing about their sufferings and their love with all their heart and with all their soul and they are dancing almost ready to drop. Sherry and ham are offered. Then the caravan consisting of horsemen, covered wagons, and pedestrians, will continue the walk as the first settlers once did, here near the frontier between Europe and Africa in the Wild West of Andalusia.

Even after the innumerable hours of this endless walk the distant dune summit still seems to be far away. Every step means an increase of sand in the boots. And the feet are suffering from hurting blisters. Francis, Adelina, Pepi, Suzana, and all the other pilgrims feel that they are departing from their destination with every step, instead of approaching it. The burning heat beats mercilessly on  the unprotected faces and leaves its mark. However, the men and women do not give up. They push the silver cart to the rhythm of its singing bells through the dune-sand. This walk is only interrupted by a few breaks, consisting of masses, dancing and songs until the pilgrims – tired and happy – reach their camp for the night, while the moon has already risen.

Gentlemen wearing richly decorated leather trousers are leading their horses to the drinking troughs. Tables and banks are clattering, camping stoves are established. Some women are cutting tomatoes, onions, and garlic. Others are roasting joints on the spit. Shrimps and utmost deliciously smelling tapas are served. The pilgrims are onto a good thing, as if living in a fairyland.  Here, after this strenuous walk, is the beginning of a joyful celebration to honour the Virgin, so that she does not get bored. The people are dancing, smoking cigars and drinking sherry far into the night, until even the last reveller takes to his sleeping place under the open sky.

Only at the end of the third day does the caravan leave the National Park and finally reaches the little pilgrimage village El Rocío where a triumphal welcome reception is waiting for the caravan from Sanlucar. The police escorts the heroes and the heroines who have won the hard fight against themselves. They find a warm welcome and are acclaimed by all parties. One after the other, more than hundred brotherhoods will arrive in El Rocío where the big finale will take place.

There is a scent of sand and dust in the lanes of the village. All human senses are activated. This situation full of anachronism gives the blissful feeling of being on a miraculous voyage back into the past. As in the Wild West of old, all roads are covered with sand. And instead of noisy engines there is only the sound of hoof beats caused by the passing horses and the bells of numerous carriages, the only means of transport beside the possibility of the walk with Shanks’s pony. Tethered horses are waiting in front of magnificent whitewashed, richly decorated mostly twin storey Andalusian houses. Their owners appear wearing Traje Corto and leather hats. Nowhere in the world there is such an enormous gathering of horses. During the pilgrimage their number is said to attain more than fifty thousand.

On the evening of Whitsun, the hot stuffy air inside the pilgrimage church might be cut with a knife. The pilgrims have been waiting here for hours pressed close together. A big woman who has fainted is lifted above the heads of the crowd into the open. And then the camera of a photographer is thrown through the air since the young men from Almonte don’t like any witnesses of this archaic ceremony which is just beginning. Some young men are trying to hinder each other by force from climbing over the iron railing to reach the Virgin. They are clutching at their opponents’ legs, are kicking and lashing out heavily. Everybody tries to be the bravest and the quickest fighter. And soon the first guys bathed in sweat reach the statue and together they lift the silver baldachin weighing one and a half tons bearing the holy statue over the railing. They are assisted by waiting friends from Almonte, who carry the heavy burden into the open.

Hardly on the street, the silver sedan starts tilting, which presents a serious danger to the surrounding crowd of people. But luckily the sedan-bearers succeed in stabilizing their burden. The crowd is shrieking and the clergymen lift two old ladies, who with their last strength climb up to the Virgin. Now they have reached the platform of the litter. Again and again the young men force their way with the holy statue towards the clergymen who are carried on the shoulders of two strong men walking beside the standard of the relative brotherhood. The clergymen stretch their arms towards the sky every time the statue is approaches them. The atmosphere reaches its climax and the crowd is beside itself when it’s the turn of Padre Quevedo to call his greetings of honour to the Virgin.
Following an old tradition – fanatic parents have their infants handed over the crowd’s heads. A direct contact with the statue is to protect the little children. The infant who just landed on the cloak of the Virgin is crying for fear and the last miracle before the long way back is the fact that the little creature has not fallen from the sedan.