El Rocío is just about as deserted a place as you could wish to find for most of the year. Its wide, sandy streets are lined with impressively large houses complete with verandahs but they are usually uninhabited except at the time of the pilgrimage. It’s the pilgrimage which brings El Rocío to life, the Romería Del Rocío, is Spain’s biggest festival.
El Rocío, in the middle of the Parque Nacional de Doñana, near the town of Almonte has a permanent population of about 700 people but for the weekend before Pentecost Monday as many as a million people can throng the streets. This is one of the few times of the year when the A49 Seville to Huelva road is jammed with traffic all its length.
The traditional pilgrimage can be traced back to the 15th century when a hunter from the local village of Villamanrique discovered a statue of the Virgin Mary, La Virgen El Rocío, in a tree trunk near the park. The wooden figure of the virgin, which is believed by its devotees to help cure infertility, mental disorders and other diseases, is kept in the enormous church, the Sanctuario de Nuestra Señora de El Rocío which is usually simply referred to as the Ermita. The church itself was destroyed by the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 but completely rebuilt fifty years ago.
The devotions were originally very parochial affairs but, over the centuries, they became more widespread firstly as people started to return home to Andalucía and then as more and more pilgrims came with them. Since 1758 the event has taken place on the fiftieth day after Easter Sunday.
Those impressively large houses in the village mentioned earlier are actually bases of the 95 brotherhoods, hermandades, who are the senior members of each romería. The pilgrims, known here as Rocieros, arrive with horses, wagons and elaborate flower decked carriages designed to transport the silver and gold Madonnas to the Ermita on the Saturday morning.
Most of the female pilgrims will be wearing bright flamenco-style dresses with their male counterparts having the short riding type jackets, traje corto, and wide-brimmed boleros.
In 2013 the Romeria is on 20th May.