Every year, endless processions of pilgrims make their way to Almonte, a village in the province of Huelva, some 50 kms. from Seville.
Pilgrims literally come from all over Spain and even other countries, all making their way to the shrine of the Madonna del RocÃo. As they get nearer to Almonte, by the DoÃ±ana Park, the small groups of travellers join in to form larger groups.
Some pilgrims travel on foot, others on horseback, in colourfully decorated horse drawn caravans, on bikes or whatever method they might choose.
By the Wednesday before Pentecost Sunday, the procession of people and swaying floats, decorated with tons of flowers, make their way in approaching the final destination, the Church of the Virgin del RocÃo.
Both men and women wear their traditional costumes. Every night, after the daily journey, they form camp and rest before setting off the next day again. There are some campsites defined for the purpose andÂ… yes! ItÂ’s fiesta time. They drink, sing and dance to the sound of flamenco guitars and tambourines.
The fiesta reaches its climax in the course of Pentecost Sunday night and Monday morning, when, after all the festivity and as dawn breaks, the Â“Blanca PalomaÂ” (The Madonna del RocÃo) is carried out from its sanctuary, dressed in an elegantly decorated baroque coat and is marched through the streets and to the fields as the crowds chant: Â“Â¡Que viva la Blanca Paloma!Â”
Really it is a long journey for gipsies to return to their roots but the RocÃo attracts fraternities from all over Spain, Northern and Central Europe and even towns close to CÃ¡diz, Huelva and Seville.
For the following couple of days, the scene at El Rocio resembles a makeshift camp-out, a carnival and a family reunion all at the same time. The crowds sing traditional songs and dance together in the fields. Snacks of tortilla, jamÃ³n, prawns and fried peppers are sold along with plenty of local wine and sherry. First-time pilgrims Â“baptiseÂ” themselves by dipping their hats in water and dousing themselves. Eventually the crowds will disperse and the fields of El Rocio get back to normal.
Every one and anyone are welcome to join in and it is estimated that every year over one million people converge towards the shrine.
There is no booking, you just get yourself organised, take a tent, your provisions and make your way there in any style you choose, although nowadays you can contact organisations that will organise the trip for you in style, to include hotel and restaurant meals.
I have heard of some people who have actually upped and gone on horseback and who have described the experience as one of the best they have ever had.
Of all of the Spanish religious festivals, the pilgrimage of RocÃo is the biggest and without a doubt the most colourful, emotive and lively.