“You possibly can’t put on that flamenco costume for the El Rocío pilgrimage, Bonita,” Maria Cárdenas, our Airbnb host, mentioned with fun. “You’ll die within the warmth.”

She pinched the thick pink cloth between her thumb and held it as much as my face like a specimen. “You see? Heavy tight clothes like this are made for the festivals on the bullring in Seville metropolis,” she defined. “You want light-weight stretchy polyester for pilgrimages — for using, strolling, dancing, siestas within the grass.”

The El Rocío pilgrimage is a high-octane non secular spectacle — a multiday annual fiesta, held in Andalusia, the southernmost area in Spain — of flamenco clothes, caravans and non secular fervor that appears to develop ever stronger, regardless of the ever-waning affect of the Catholic Church.

Members can spend months in preparation: planning menus, hiring tractors, arranging for caravans. It additionally requires the number of a costume that allows the wearer to alleviate herself behind a bush whereas exuding all of the magnificence of Goya’s Duchess of Alba.

Having studied for a yr in Seville in 2012, Kevin, my collaborator, has lengthy dreamed of returning to doc the pilgrimage of El Rocío, which was canceled for 2 consecutive years throughout the pandemic. My connection to Spain is newer: I moved to Mallorca final yr after deciding that life is simply too brief to not stay on a Mediterranean island. Kevin and I usually work collectively on journey assignments, and when he advised me about El Rocío, it was a simple sure, as a result of one of the simplest ways to get to know a brand new nation is to social gathering with it.

Though we have been documenting the 2022 pilgrimage (this yr’s can be held on the finish of Could), we have been additionally collaborating in a celebration. Andalusia — famed for flamenco dancing, cowboy tradition and pilgrimages — has a definite and seductive identification that folks within the south of Spain are rightly happy with.

The El Rocío pilgrimage is arguably essentially the most potent visible illustration of Andalusian tradition, and it’s this, as a lot as non secular zeal, that propels lots of of hundreds of pilgrims towards the shrine of the Virgin within the village of El Rocío. Some journey on foot, others atop elaborately adorned caravans. Many are on horseback: stiff-backed and spiffily attired riders in wide-brimmed hats, high-waisted paseo trousers and cropped guayabera jackets.

On our first day, Kevin and I wandered by means of Doñana Nationwide Park, some 40 minutes south of central Seville, foraging for the pilgrims we have been assured could be there. Finally we heard the faint tinkle of cowbells, the clap of horses’ hooves, creaking caravan wheels, the strains of flamenco guitar, voices singing in unison. Inside minutes, the dusty highway had remodeled right into a pageant. Caravans rolled previous. Pilgrims pressed bottles of Cruzcampo beer and slices of cured Ibérico ham into our arms. The singing reached a crescendo.

In Spain, Catholicism is taken severely. However so is beer, ham and cheese — even at 10 a.m.

Many Andalusian cities, cities and villages developed their very own pilgrimages — generally known as romerías, so named as a result of pilgrims historically walked to Rome — devoted to their specific patron saints. However the four-day stroll to El Rocío has achieved cult standing.

Based on legend, a statue of the Virgin Mary was found in a tree trunk many lots of of years in the past, within the marshes of the Guadalquivir River. For a few centuries, devotion to this shrine was confined to the encircling cities of Almonte and Villamanrique de la Condesa. However by the twentieth century, in celebration of Pentecost, hermandades (brotherhoods) of pilgrims have been strolling as much as 4 days to get to the world — from the world surrounding Seville and Huelva, and ultimately past Andalusia, from Madrid, Barcelona and the Balearic and Canary Islands. At night time, the hermandades would camp within the forest, dine collectively at lengthy tables and dance flamenco round campfires till the truth of the subsequent day’s 15-mile hike couldn’t be ignored.

Kevin and I share an obsession with worldwide festivals. His impulse is to seize portraits, mine is to hear and study. However wherever we go, Kevin and I are likely to fixate on the faces.

At El Rocío, no faces have been closed to outsiders. We have been invited into caravans; advised to take a seat and eat stew and sliced watermelon; dragged into flamenco dances; and instructed to take a siesta after lunch within the grass — in any other case we’d “by no means survive till Sunday,” one participant advised us. Nobody we encountered was reluctant to be interviewed or photographed. Everybody appeared to just accept that El Rocío is a spectacle. Our amazement and curiosity was obtained as an indication of respect.

We joined the caravans within the muddy waters at Quema, a ford within the Guadiamar River, a tributary of the Guadalquivir. Within the city of Villamanrique de la Condesa, each restaurant and bar was spilling over with spectators. (El Rocío is televised like a sporting occasion all through Spain.)

By Friday night time, the primary of the hermandades arrived in El Rocío, a tiny city that jogged my memory of Western film units I’ve seen in California and Arizona. Its character is solely formed by the pilgrimage; the extra distinguished hermandades — like Huelva, with its 10,000 pilgrims — personal enormous boardinghouses on the fringe of city, with convent-like rooms and huge communal eating and dancing areas. The smaller hermandades simply search for short-term leases. Even with our newbie’s Spanish, we have been ushered inside a whitewashed home and given beer, chunks of manchego cheese and slices of cured ham. It struck me that the majority Spanish culinary staples are primarily pilgrim meals: managed decay changed into a delicacy.

In El Rocío, we discovered non secular fervor within the streets, within the Churro shacks, within the hermandades themselves. However there was additionally fervor for fervor itself. I’m the Irish daughter of a Presbyterian pastor, raised on no-frills non secular celebrations; tea and a scone is as decadent as Presbyterian celebrations get. In El Rocío, I discovered myself intoxicated by the pageantry and rituals, and by the concept that a pilgrimage can and must also be a supply of revelry.

Friday night time melted into Saturday morning, and Kevin and I discovered ourselves chatting with two younger buddies from Madrid — of their 30s, like us. Younger folks used to wish to escape from non secular traditions, they advised us. However El Rocío gives them an escape, they mentioned, from the stresses of contemporary life.

“I really like El Rocío, as a result of it’s the one time of the yr that my entire household will get collectively — no excuses,” mentioned Carmen Mora, 32, who works for a journey tech start-up. “It’s wholesome to overlook about metropolis life for per week — my metropolis garments, the expertise, my job, the stress.”

“It’s good for the spirit to be immersed in custom,” she added.

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