The El Rocío Pilgrimage in Huelva
The annual El Rocío pilgrimage attracts nearly a million people from across Spain and beyond. In Andalucía every town and village has its own pilgrimage for its patron saint, or other famous local figure, but the El Rocío is in a league of its own.
This tradition with hundreds of horses and carriages and fancy dress dates back to the 13th century, when it is said that a hunter from the village of Villamanrique (or Almonte) found a statue of the Virgin Mary in the growth of a tree trunk in the Doñana park. In tribute a chapel was built in its place.
The tradition grew locally, then the 19th century, people travelled from all over Huelva, Cadiz and Seville, on a journey taking up to four days. Over the next century, the cult of the Virgin del Rocío became more widespread and popular. Nowadays people travel from all over the world to experience this colourful event. For a few days in late May or early June, Catholic hermandades (brotherhoods) and thousands of others flock from all over Andalucía, Spain, and beyond to the town to pay tribute to the Virgin del Roció, displayed in her own church.
The El Rocio pilgrimage takes place over the weekend before Pentecost Monday, the seventh weekend after Easter Sunday – this year it is to take place from the 21st to the 24th of May. People start arriving from the week before.
The pilgrimage can be seen for miles following the sides of the major roads, a long train of colourful horses and carriages / floats. Hundreds of people can be seen wearing traditional Andalucían clothing – men donning broad-brimmed hats and Western-style leather chaps etc and women in flamenco dresses.
Some still make the journey the traditional way on horseback, or in gypsy style covered trailers decorated with flowers.
Before the 1950s the El Rocío had only a few houses, and visitors camped in their trailers. Today, each of the 90 or so brotherhoods have houses with stables, as well as its own chapel. The brotherhood with friends and families, (and their horses) reside here during the pilgrimage weekend.
There are parties, open-air masses, horse racing and competitions between the hermandades with singing and dancing that goes on throughout the day and night.