Pilgrimage to El Rocio

I never told my wife that while driving I was hoping the car would break down so we would be forced to put off the idea, but the good old BMW kept going smoothly westward in the direction of Gibralter.

At one point on the way Fernando, who was navigating, asked me to fork off to the right through the Ruta de Los Toros where the famous corrida bulls are raised.  As we drove on, some silhouetted figures of bulls began appearing in the faint light of the moon, some lying down and others standing behind their fences looking towards us with defiant eyes. The sight of those bulls against the dark horizon was one not easily forgettable. The atmosphere was strange and mysterious and the setting against the hilly horizon was awesome. It was frightening and poetic and somehow unreal. I felt a heavy weight over my heart, but the thrill of this rare experience was so immense that I heard myself saying ‘ thank God the car didn’t break down’.
We had a couple of hours sleep when we finally arrived in San Lucar .

  In the morning we were taken to a barge where we had to stand with Fernando, Lola and Comico among carriages, horses and mules for the crossing of Guadalquivir River. The crossing was quick and smooth. There was a 4X4 waiting to take us through the dunes to the camp where we were to spend two nights before proceeding to the Rocio. The ride through the Parque National de Donana was rough and dusty but the dunes were quite picturesque. There were funny moments when we had to pull the vehicles out of the loose sand rather than sitting comfortably inside them.  The scenery kept on changing every few minutes as horsemen, carriages and hikers brushed shoulders with us while exhausted traveling  rocieros lay down resting alongside the road (8).
Our 4X4
Parque National de Donana

The camp where we were to spend the next two days was in a charming wooded area. The reddish hue of twilight was seeping through the branches as we were looking for some space to pitch our little tent. There was a faint sound of a flute coming from beyond, sending what seemed like a sweet invitation to a spiritual indulgence. We were tired after that daylong bumpy and dusty ride but that flute was persisting.

As we approached the source of this sound a surrealistic setup revealed itself. Little groups were sitting in a wide semicircle on the ground with little bonfires providing the only source of light in that open place.  At the far end of the semicircle was someone playing the flute with a little bonfire all for himself. We sat where we found some space and quickly gathered weeds and built our little bonfire.

Sitting down on the ground was never a favorite resting position for me. I wasn’t sure I could take it for any length of time. But as time went by my discomfort slowly melted away and I found myself part of that dreamy atmosphere. The moon was almost full, and the people around looked serene and friendly and that flute was penetrating deeper and deeper into my soul and I felt elevated and at peace with myself. 

All this and I still didn’t understand whether this was a religious ritual or one typical Andalusian folkloric passe-temps.  As I learnt later, the whole Rocio affair was originally a pagan festive occasion until one day in the 13th Century, the story goes, someone found in that place a statue depicting the Virgin, and that’s when the Church adopted the occasion as a Christian ritual while the lighter pagan part of the ritual was made to blend perfectly with the Catholic rites.

El Rosario

This ritual, known as El Rosario (Rosary), was one of the many spiritual rites and an integral part of the Rocio pilgrimage.  When it was all over, we walked silently to our little tent with a strange feeling, a feeling of blissful tranquility and elevation. The sound of that flute in the silence of night and the sight of the bon fire embers are still so vivid in our minds.

Camping was never one of my favorite activities either. I woke up in the morning with stiff muscles and aching bones and so did my wife. We pulled down our tent and managed to get a ride with another couple that had the same idea and headed towards Almonte, the final destination our journey. Another daylong drive but at least we were promised comfortable beds to sleep on that night.