Pilgrimage of El Rocio
ThePilgrimage of El Rocio (Romería del Rocío) is a popular manifestation of devotion to the Virgin of El Rocío, which is kept at the chapel with the same name in the Andalusian town of Almonte, in Huelva. It takes place every year on the weekend corresponding to Whitsun.
In the recent times, the Pilgrimage of El Rocio has managed to attract around a million visitors. It is a very lively and colourful event that depicts the characteristic joie de vivre of the Andalusian people, which can be specially felt in the moments when the pilgrimage stops and the pilgrims use the pause to cool down, have a drink and sing and dance, which adds an extra of celebration to the joyfulness of the event.
The first written record of devotional activity in Almonte dates back to the first half of the XIV century, but it wasn't until the mid-XVII century that the first fraternity was founded. Today, more than 100 fraternities participate in the activities of the pilgrimage. There can also be found associations devoted to the Virgin of El Rocío in such different countries as Argentina, Brazil, Puerto Rico or Australia.
There is a big controversy around this festivity in the late years, for a number of reasons. The most important claim is about the devastating environmental impact that such a quantity of people has on the ecosystem of Doñana, a protected natural reserve (and National Park) which is crossed by motor vehicles, littered and sonically polluted, which is a great threat for the protected species living in the park. Ecologists also complain about the mistreatment that some animals receive during the pilgrimage (only in 2009, 23 horses died by cause of exhaustion, starvation and abuse).
The Pîlgrimage of El Rocio itself really starts on Saturday (or many days in advance, depending on the distance they must travel to Almonte), for thousands of pilgrims from Andalusia and other parts of Spain start the trip there by any means of transportation (on foot, on horseback, on carriages, or on other vehicles), and generally sleeping outdoors. In this sense, this pilgrimage can remind to the pilgrimage to Santiago, and to many pilgrims is the most important part of the way.
Then, the proper pilgrimage starts on Sunday at noon, after a Mass is held and each fraternity travels in group to the Rocio chapel, for which they have to cross a part of the National Park of Doñana. The duration of the pilgrimage can vary, depending on the speed of the pilgrims and fraternities.
When they arrive to the chapel, normally around midnight, there is a Rosary after which, one by one, each fraternity offers their Immaculate Conception Emblem to the Virgin (who also receives the name of "White Dove"). The last one in doing so is the oldest of all, the Almonte fraternity, and immediately after their offering happens what is called the "jumping of the fence", the moment in which the rocieros take the image of the Virgin outside the chapel and parade it around the small village of El Rocío.