We had heard from a few people on our travels, that El Rocio was worth a visit. Once we were ready to move on from Jerez, we looked at the map and saw that El Rocio was well within our grasp. It is a small town in the Donana Parque Nacional, but it is a town with a difference! With its wide sandy streets and hitching posts in front of every house, it resembles a wild west film set.
The largely empty buildings belong to 115 hermandades (brotherhoods), whose pilgrims converge on the town every Pentecost (Whitsunday) weekend for the Romería del Rocío, Spain’s largest religious festival. Around one million people converge on the town, many on horseback or in brightly decorated carriages in multi-coloured caravans that wind across the Andalusian countryside.
On the weekend that we happened to be there, a more muted festival was taking place. There were huge numbers of people, many on horseback and in carriages, and dressed in western style clothing. The shops were open to sell western style clothing and souvenirs and were hubs of activity. The constant movement of horses and carriages was creating sand storms and our shoes and clothes were full of dust and sand. We rinsed the worst effects down with ice cream and beer!
In the houses along the streets, families and friends were eating, drinking and partying. Old friends were greeting each other cheerily and the atmosphere was uplifting.
On the Sunday, the different brotherhoods attended services at the Ermita de Nuestra Senora (The Church of Our Lady). After each service the congregation processed from the church accompanied by drums and music, and carrying banners and ornate staffs. It was not as colourful as the Romerio in Spring, but was a spectacle nonetheless.
We sneaked into the church at the end of service to see how it compared with the more formal places we usually visit. We were not disappointed as it is a beautiful place.
We could not help wondering how our churches at home would love to see such a turn out as this. We were not so sure about the horses and carriages parked outside!
This town is set in a national park and has a large lake complete with flamingoes and a variety of other birds. It also has some seriously mature olive trees left from the days when the area sported numerous olive groves. There are plenty of green areas around the town contrasting with the sandy streets. There are no paved areas at all and just a simple boardwalk along the townside of the lake.
The simplicity and uniqueness was an absolute delight. I read locally that we think of this place as being modelled on the Wild West whereas, in fact, it was settlers from here that took the lifestyle and architecture to the New World.