The Pilgrimage to Rocio

There is another festival in Andalucia, Southern Spain, well known. That is the pilgrimage to Rocio. While many go to Rocio for the finale of the fiesta, to truly appreciate it, you must make the actual pilgrimage. I had two French coworkers, Jean Paul and Michel. Michel was a professional photographer in addition to being an engineer like Jean Paul and I. In fact, later Michele invited me to accompany him as his assistant on an all-expense paid trip to Greece to photograph UNESCO world heritage sites and museums for a Spanish publisher. I ended up with some of my photos published in books, calendars, etc.

But back to Rocio. Michel wanted to photograph the pilgrimage to Rocio, and invited Jean Paul and me to accompany him. While the fair in Sevilla is held two weeks after Easter, Rocio takes place 50 days after Easter. The origins of the pilgrimage go back to the beginning of the 15th century when a hunter’s dogs led him to a statue of the Virgin Mary in the hollow of a thousand-year-old olive tree. Legend has it that several times as he carried the statue towards town, he would stop to rest, fall asleep, and when he awoke the statue was gone. But each time he returned to the olive tree and found that the statue had returned to the tree. People took this as a sign that a church needed to be erected on that site, to house the Virgin of Rocio.

There is a part of Sevilla called Triana that is across the Guadalquivir River, connected to the main city by the Puente (Bridge) de Triana, also known as the Isabel II bridge. Triana is known as a center for gypsies and a vibrant flamenco culture. The hermandad (brotherhood) of Triana is one of the most famous brotherhoods that make the annual pilgrimage to Rocio. Michel picked this brotherhood for us to accompany on the camino (way) to Rocio.

As foreign photographers with nice smiles, we were welcomed by the brotherhood, and many of them shared their sherry and food with us during the Pilgrimage. There was lots of music and dancing of Sevillanas during various rest stops and the evenings before bed. There were covered wagons drawn by oxen that reminded me of the old West. The brotherhood was led by their simpecado (the banner of the brotherhood, with a prominent depiction of the Virgin of Rocio).

We arrived in the city of Rocio on Saturday, and all day various brotherhoods from all over Southern Spain arrived. That evening the various brotherhoods have a procession where each presents their simpecado to the Rocio Virgen. The copious sherry, and Spanish tendency for colorful language, led one bold member of a brotherhood to yell to another brotherhood – “we have the true Virgin here – yours is a whore.”

The culmination of the fiesta is Sunday night when many young men crowd inside the church and await the moment when some of them jump the fence surrounding the Virgin and proceed to carry the float with the Virgin of Rocio out of the church and parade around town. There is intense competition to be one of those who actually carry the Virgin, and it is considered most proper for those from Almonte to be the ones who touch the float.

It's prohibited to take photos inside the church, but I found that no one minded, well almost. One fellow told me – no photos – as I took one picture, so I moved to another part of the church, very slowly, as the crowd was pressed so tight it was difficult to go anywhere. My favorite photo however was in the church after the Virgen and crowd had left. There was one young man passed out on the floor of a confessional, legs extending into the church. I guessed that a little too much sherry provoked him into missing the high point of the fiesta.