Friday, January 31, 2014

Here we go a wandering

Years ago I spent a very rainy January in Seville trying to learn some Spanish. I had a horrible time with the language and I stayed in an unheated house where my rain sodden shoes soon grew a nice green mould.

A song that I heard everywhere at the time was called “Me pongo mi sombrero.” I asked around and I was told the song style was called a Sevillana. I knew very little about Spain then and this song sounded authentically Spanish to me. A repeating song pattern that conjured up images of twirling frocks and clicking fingers. One of the teachers told me that the song was about the Romería de El Rocio. I nodded sagely even though I didn't know what she was talking about.

I know what a romería is now. It's a journey or pilgrimage usually to a religious shrine where the participants then make some act of devotion. More generically it can just be a local fiesta with a religious celebration at its centre based on one of the little chapels dotted round the countryside, the ermitas, which are usually the home to some religious carving. The root of the word romería comes from the original destination of the pilgrims – Rome.

Romerias take place all over Spain. I saw one in La Palma in Murcia where the statues were carried in a cart but the Ascension Day romería in Pinoso where the Virgin rides the 5km from Pinoso to Caballusa on willing shoulders is more typical.

In Alicante la Romería a la Santa Faz is one of the biggest in Spain attracting around 300,000 people. The city shuts for the day as everyone heads for the monastery in the little village of Santa Faz where the nuns keep a cloth which, it is said, was used to wipe Jesus's face as he walked to the cross. The essential accessory for the pilgrimage is a walking staff topped of with rosemary, romero in Spanish. I wonder if there's a link?

But if Santa Faz is big then the Romeria de El Rocio is enormous. On the key days over the Pentecost or Whitsun weekend there are usually around a million people in the village of El Rocio in Huelva province.

The majority of the people that make the journey are members of one of the ninety or so brotherhoods that exist solely for this event. They set out the Saturday before Whit travelling one of the several routes that eventually converge on El Rocio before midnight on the Saturday of Pentecost weekend. The journey which is traditionally done on foot, in brightly coloured wagons and on horseback is a rowdy affair reminiscent of Chaucer's Canterbury tales and, apparently, with just as much sex.

The climax of the weekend takes place in the very early hours of Monday morning. Watching it on the telly it looks like a pitched battle. The Almonte brotherhood, which claims the Virgen del Rocio as their own, barge their way into the chapel, grab the statue and carry her on a float around the village. The other brotherhoods fight their way to the front for the honour of carrying the statue whilst babies are passed over heads from hand to hand to touch the holy statue. Somehow, amidst the chaos the statue is carried, unharmed, around the village. It's a miracle.

And that was the basis of my song. The chap sets out from Seville wearing his hat and medal which mark him as a member of one of the brotherhoods. He goes to El Rocio, does his stuff goes home and takes off his hat. Epic.

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