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.

Romeria and Puppy Love

Puppy Love

Drops, our little terrier-mix, thanked us for taking care of her with a clutch of puppies. We kept two of them, Bonnie and Clyde. So we now have four dogs in total and that is enough.

As cute as their antics are, the animal instinct drives the mother to give them lessons in survival hunting and they turned suddenly on our two white hens. Ordinarily the hens forage around the dogs, happily clucking away and even eating out of the same bowls. One hen did not survive the attack, the other is rather ruffled looking, missing all feathers on her back, but is feeding away. So we are down to three eggs a day. With guests enjoying the odd fry-up, we need a bigger supply of fresh farm eggs and so are buying three more hens. The red breed seems to be more resilient as we still have the two original hens, Ruby and Rita.

Jack

Another addition to the family is Jack, our tiny kitten. He is only four weeks old and is the sole surviver of a batch. The others apparently got under the hooves of horses or were molested by dogs, so it was decided to farm him out. He now lives on the upper terrace until he is a bit bigger and able to stand his ground. I am however keen to give him some playmates….

Romeria 2019

As every year, The Romeria, the biggest religious pilgrimage in Andalucia, has taken place in El Rocio, only 15 kms from us [ http://www.andalucia.com/festival/pilgrimages.htm ]. The town itself is solely built on the sandy soils, with no paved roads, which is just as well as there are as many horses as people in this cowboy-feel like town, and every house has rails to tie your horse up at the front door and stables at the back. You can even drink your beer or eat on horseback with extra high planks to put your glass or plate down. [ http://www.andalucia.com/festival/rocio.htm ]

The Romeria is a colourful spectacle, with up to one million (1,000 000) poeple taking place and decending upon this small dusty town. The devotion to the ‘Virgin de El Rocio’ is amazing, but real religious fervour is rare and it#s all about the to-be-seen. Around nine months later apparently a lot of babies are born, not always conceived by husband and wife. The Spanish just like to celebrate and socialise, any reason is good enough. For us it means that Almonte closes down for nearly two weeks around pentecost, with no work or orders being taken three weeks in advance of the big festival. We just have to get used to that.

We originally thought to rent out the whole finca, but we have been adviced against it, as damage might occur and countless number of people would invade the house in an inebriated state. So we rented our rooms as usual, upping the price and …. ended up with only one full day booked and one room free. Who would have thought? Well, anybody that really has some business or involvement in the Romeria is of course in El Rocio, be it in one of the houses the various ‘Hermandades’ own, or other houses for rent, pensions, hotels, camping place or part of the gipsy bowtop caravans. Because from all towns of Andalucia families and groups diverge in several daylong pilgrimages towards El Rocio, on foot, on horse back, in carriages, carts or wagons, trailers and tractors. And all are decked out with flowers, pretty curtains, the ladies in flamenco dresses, flowers in hair or on top of their heads. The caballeros look very fetching in tight riding outfits, smart straw hats and bolero jackets.

We usually keep away from crowds and religious events, but this year I went with our German friends Claudia and Gerd to have a look on the Saturday evening. There was a lull in the celebrations and only when we left at nine in the evening, the streets started to fill up again. The real event, the blessing of the ox drawn carts with a flower-bedecked image of the Virgin in the main square, takes place around midday and is televised. So we watch from the cool of our sitting room on Canal Sur, the Andalucian regional TV station, how this religious cult unfolds.

End of 2018 – Beginning of 2019

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The Garden in Winter

I have been gearing up to get an early start on growing veg and bought seed packets. These indicate sowing times, but for what region in Spain? The climate varies widely so I also ask the shopkeeper and watched the plants on sale for a clue. We bought some strawberry plants that are doing really well, the first strawberries are already blushing in the warm midday sun. However, I sowed tomatoes and put them under the cold-frame until they were big enough for planting out. Everything went ok until the frost eventually killed them. And honestly, they were struggling through the cold nights. The spinach is doing well and even the pepper plants are still alive and producing. The cauliflower and broccoli are growing well and last year’s broccoli is also still producing. Last year’s fennel has come back and looks pretty even if it doesn’t have big bulbs, the leaves are tasty.

 

January and February are the main winter months, even as day light and sunshine hours are increasing. The frosty nights hamper real growth. I tried to buy a fleece to cover tender plants but all they have here is protection against the sun, heavy shading fabric. So I will need to look online.

My other experiment is a home-made weed-killer from strong vinegar (Mercadona has an 8% cleaning vinegar), salt and washing up liquid. I sprayed that onto the ‘non-welcome’ plants in the stone circle and within 2 hours the leaves were dead! Success! I am not sure how long this will last as I doubt it kills the roots, but even though, it still helps.

The garden is now also fenced against scratching hens and digging dogs. We are now proud owners of a giant Mastin, Sofie, and a tiny terrier stray, Drops. She dropped by one day, all skin and bones and wary but devoured all food that we gave her and disappeared again. About a week later she was back, doing the same and stayed for the day, to Sofie’s delight. Sofie, being only a little over a year old, wants to play and run around, but Drops did not have the energy. She was gone again but eventually came back to our delight. She has got stronger, more confident in herself, found her bark and now plays with Sofie. I never was a dog person but she stole my heart and is very happy to see me. She seems also more obedient than Sofie, who still has the habit of trying to get out the gate and disappear for a few hours at a time. It is impossible to catch her as she knows full well she will be tied up, at least for a day.

We still have plenty of guests, from Germany to Sweden to Switzerland and Canada. Some bring motorbikes, some bikes, some dogs and some both.

The night before my children arrived we celebrated New Years Eve with a bunch of really nice Spanish, that came all the way from Jaen-Ubeda direction. This was the family of our house angel Sara. The tradition is to eat 12 grapes when the clock chimes 12 times; one grape for each month of the New Year. I tried but couldn’t get them all down so quickly, so I must practice for the next time.

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January 2019

 

2019 started wonderful. My two children, Elaine and Frank, were here for the first time and needed some TLC, because they brought with them colds and sniffles. And the sunshine did them the world good.

We only had two full days together, but better than no time.

Forget Christmas –

It’s the Three Kings where it’s at. This turns out to be a bigger deal then Santa because there are three of them bringing presents and literally tonnes of sweets.

Epiphany is the coming of the three wise kings, mages or whatever they were to welcome Jesus and bring him presents of myrrh, gold and incense.  Nappies and a hot soup for Mary would have been more useful. But for the children in Spain this is when they receive their presents at home and on the streets. We were invited to come along to our neighbour farmer’s family and witness the carnival-like atmosphere in our small town of Almonte. The streets were full of people, old and young, lining up to watch the procession of tractor-drawn floats of colourful dressed-up people, throwing sweets and toys. So that’s why some came equipped with plastic bags to bring home their stash of sweets.

 

La Saca de las Yeguas – Almonte

Almonte is a small rural town, one of the famous white villages in Andalucia. But it has some very interesting and unique festivals, which are all based on customs typical for the Doñana area. The Andalucian horse plays a very important role in the life of the people here. Nearly everybody rides or owns horses, it seems. They ride through the town, cross the main road or exercise their horse in the field nearby and make them dance.

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After the festivities of Easter have died down the Romerìa is next on the calendar. The pilgrimage to El Rocio at Pentecost is a vibrant exhibition of traditional costume and religious fervour. This takes place in late May or early June, depending on the date of Easter. This is the most important date in the calendar of Almonte, as the Virgin of El Rocio, La Paloma Blanca, is carried also to Almonte every seven years, and back to her shrine in El Rocio.

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In June, on the 26th, then the running of the mares, La Saca de las Yeguas, takes place. Also a fiesta that occupies a whole week of festivities as it merges into the fiesta of the local patron saint, San Pedro. The mares and foals are herded up from the marismas, the wetlands, of the Doñana National Park, and driven by riders first into El Rocio and then into Almonte. Everybody lines the streets to see the up to 1,000 half-wild horses run by, together with the exhausted and dusty Yeguerizos, who have already spent days camping out in the marismas [see https://www.spain-holiday.com/Almonte/articles/the-saca-de-las-yeguas-almonte-huelva and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFscycRzYq8 and  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0UzIPTZl_mo ].

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In the outskirts of Almonte, in the towns special corral, the horses are being prepared for sale. They are being cleaned, their manes and tails are cut, young horses branded. These horses are of the local Marismena race, a race that is known for its strength and endurance.

 

We are very lucky in the way that our finca actually lies along the camino that the horses are guided back by the riders to their grazing grounds in the national park. They literally passed by our gates the other morning.

The wetland of El Rocio:

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CASA HALCON on booking.com

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Yes, finally the last touches are being added and we are ready to open our house and finca for guests. Time to pop the cork!

The first bookings are coming in and soon we are also live on Airbnb.

And, since temperatures are soaring, we are installing a swimming pool. A big round over-ground thingy, 17.4 m3, 1 m deep which will give us some refreshment during the hottest months here when we won’t make it to the beach.

In the meantime another fiesta in Almonte is in preparation.

But first I want to tell you about our experience with the Romeria, which takes place each year at Pentecost.

El Rocio – The Romeria at Pentecost, see  https://rove.me/to/seville/el-rocio-pilgrimage  for footage and general information.

El Rocio is a town build on sand, therefore all its streets are pure sand and predestined to be used by horses, riders and carriages.

It also is a pilgrimage town, where throughout the year the brotherhoods, ‘hermandados’, meet to prepare for the biggest of the fiestas, the Romeria, at Pentecost. Last year we were just leaving for Portugal, when the throng of carriages, waggons and riders descended upon El Rocio. This year we watched the build-up in Almonte, where children and whole families were beautifully dressed in traditional costumes and flamenco dresses. Little girls complete with flowers in their hair, lipstick and dresses. Even little boys looked like their fathers in traditional leather riding boots, cummerbund, white shirts and hats, a lovely sight.

El Rocío Pilgrimage or Romería de El Rocío in Seville - Best Time

Some of the pilgrims passed-by our entrance.

We are people that shy away from crowds. This is our excuse, for this year anyway, not to join in the festivities in El Rocio. Instead we watched the religious fervour unfold on the television. There is a whole channel devoted to going-ons in Donana, the Nature Reserve and area here which includes Almonte, Matalascanas and El Rocio and the Donana National Park. This is a very catholic celebration of the Virgin of El Rocio, La Paloma Blanca, the white dove. Every hermandado has a float, richly decorated with flowers, drawn preferably by oxen or horses or mules. There are prayers, incantations and blessings. Not really our style. And to be wedged in between nearly a million dressed-up followers in the beating sun isn’t really our idea of fun.

However, we sneaked into town at sunset on the Sunday. Therefore my photos are very dark and some were too wobbly, as catching the carriages driving by or riders and lady’s on horseback proofed too much for my limited photographic talents. On this evening, an almighty downpour drenched the town and the revellers and big puddles need to be negotiated.  The floats are proudly displayed in a separate tent beside the place for the bow-top caravans for families that do not own a house in El Rocio. It is very much a family festivity and there does not seem to be much alcohol involved.

El Rocio, circa 15 kms from our house, at night: