The Virgen Comes to Almonte

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La Paloma Blanca

Our town Almonte has worked itself into a fever pitch preparing for the arrival of the Virgen of El Rocio,  La Paloma Blanca, the White Dove how she is called among many other names. And so the decorations include millions of white paper flowers strung over the streets and around poles, at windows and archways. The Virgin herself is a small, 12th century statue of Mary and the baby Jesus, but here in El Rocio she is the Virgin of the Dew (= Rocio), or the Mother of the Marshes (of the Doñana National Park). A small nugget of useless information: her statuary vestment was designed by no other than Yves Saint Laurent in 1985.

This is a very important occasion which only occurs every seven years and of which the Almonteñas are very proud of.  For nine months the much loved statue will reside in the church in Almonte until she is returned to her home in El Rocio.

As with all religious or historical festivities the Spanish put in an enormous amount of work and effort to make this a fiesta to remember.

The whole way along which the Virgen is carried is sumptuously festooned, archways and domes are constructed and decorated by hand with rosemary sprigs and palm fronds, white crepe paper and gold lamé.

But the hardest part is the midnight pilgrimage from the shrine in El Rocio to the church in Almonte.  The Virgin is carried in her sedan on the shoulders of the parishioners on a 15 km long fairly rough camino, with no lighting and any amount of dust.

The plan was apparently to leave El Rocio at 20.00 in the evening on the 19th of August, but excitement and sheer exuberance eroded the patience of the participants and so they started moving at half past four in the afternoon.  That meant the main road between Matalascanas and Almonte and further to Sevilla was closed;  which meant a detour of two hours for us, as I saw fit to spend a few hours at the beach on that very day, knowing full well that the next day that this road would be a no-go because of the returning traffic from El Rocio and Almonte. So we had to divert along a camino that cuts across the National Park from Mazagon to Almonte. A scenic but rather rough drive with about a hundred speed bumps scattered along the way.

To us this fanatical veneration of a statue seems strange, particular when most people we ask answer that they are not really religious. The Spanish just like a reason to arrange a fiesta and then be in the midst of it, seen and be seen, they love being part of a crowd.  This of course is another reason why Spain is the party destination per se.

Of course having a holy statue also helps to generate income from visitors and a lot of new shops have sprung up selling everything from holy pictures, to plates, t-shirts, bags, medals and other religious paraphernalia. A few new bars and restaurants have opened and every building got a makeover.

For some reason, the virgin seems to be particular poplar with the gay community. We frequently have gay couples staying that plan to go to the shrine in El Rocio. Mind you, there is also a fiesta with food, drink and marihuana to be had in El Rocio. So one goes with the other I presume.

[see also the blog describing the Pentecost pilgrimage:   http://christophotto.com/andalucia-the-miracles-of-el-rocio  and more  http://www.andalucia.com/festival/rocio.htm ]

We were told that up to a million visitors were expected, so we thought we could make a killing. Initially I had my rooms booked out for those three days, only to have all of the reservations cancelled in advance. So I raised the price for the last-minute bookers, only to end up with a nearly empty house. I can only assume that people decided to save the money as they would not have needed a bed being on the camino all night and then afterwards, tanked up on coffee, headed home or to a nearby couch in a friends house. Our experience with renting our rooms now is that up to a certain price people are willing to pay, beyond that they will just find other accommodation, even though we are on the lower price bracket. Of course other providers in El Rocio or Matalascañas are flexible and adjust their prices downwards to attract guests, and if I am not on the ball, I miss out.

Saying that, having the house a few days to ourselves is a welcome break and gives my head peace. It’s not easy for a rather introvert person like myself to continuously welcome strangers into our home, worse when they also want to use my very own sacrosanct kitchen, even if it is only to make coffee, constantly. After all, I want to supplement our income by providing home-cooked meals and hearty breakfasts to our guests.

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