On my first day in Sanlúcar, three people mentioned El Rocío and were surprised when I hadn’t heard of it. Apparently it all started in the 13th century, when a hunter found a statue of the Virgin Mary inside a tree in the middle of open parkland. A church was built where the tree stood, a little town grew up around the church, and now the Romería of El Rocío brings together over a million pilgrims each May.
Saturday brought me there at last. I turned off the dual-carriageway directly onto a sandy path that vaguely leads towards a collection of houses. A friend of mine, also called Rocío (of course), was immensely excited to witness my reaction as we drove in. Two mules were leading a carriage up ahead. The driver pulled up to chat to a friend on horseback, riding the other way. Ugh, traffic.
“It’s like something out of the Wild West!” laughed Rocío.
Everyone I’ve spoken to has made the same comparison, but the Andaluzes can’t see just how Andaluz El Rocío is. The buildings are all whitewashed, with dark red skirting, or a yellow band around the windows and doors. They’re all only one storey so you never know if this line of houses is the last one, or if there are ten more. My little Peugeot struggles around the corners as the sandy path continues into the town and never develops into a paved road.
Rocío and I pass a little venta, with a couple of horses tied up to the railing outside. I point them out to her and she doesn’t register what’s funny about this set-up. Reservado Caballos the sign reads: Reserved for Horses. There aren’t any other signs or road markings as we make our way to our friend Clara’s house. People are too busy negotiating horses, carriages, donkeys, and barbecues to care about things like sides of the road. The poor signage is very much in keeping with the free-for-all spirit of the party, but it also means we keep having to stop at every crossroads so Rocío can check if this street is the right one. Call me old-fashioned, but I can party just as well (if not better) with adequately signposted street names.
At the party, the Bluetooth speaker was quickly shouted down and switched off. Percussion started out of nowhere, and soon the Birthday Boy’s mother was warbling old Sevillana songs to which everyone knew the words. They clapped a quick syncopated rhythm without thinking. I looked around to see who was drumming. José-Maria seemed to be playing his stool.
Voy a olvidarme de ti
Aunque me cueste la vida
Y a mí me toque sufrir
Aunque pierda esta partida
Voy a olvidarme de ti …
When the siguiriya was about to get to a particularly well-loved part, Clara and Rocío would sshhh in anticipation at the people who were chatting in the corner, then join in with the song in strong, low voices. Whenever they forgot the lyrics, they’d look to a girl with heavy eyeliner and a nose-piercing, in a one-sleeved leopard-print top. She looked each of us in the eye individually as she sang, half frowning with the sadness of the song, half smiling with the pleasure of the singing. She called on a lanky guy called Carlos to join in. Carlos took a big swig of whisky and coke, and looked to me, “I’ll sing if you sing, Blondie.” And that’s how I ended up singing The Bear Necessities to a bunch of nonplussed Sevillanos. I wrapped it up as quickly as I could. There was a brief ole! and then Carlos says, “Now, here’s a question. What the hell kind of a rhythm is that?” Not a single person had clapped along. They didn’t know how.
Carlos shunted José Maria off his stool. I hadn't realised it was a bona fide instrument; el cajón (the box). Horses and carriages continued to trundle past the house well into the early hours of the morning, often with a child passed-out on top of the horse. I noticed that one of them was in a miniature flamenco dress, complete with tiny little high heels, and confessed to a girl next to me that I had no idea how to dance, sing, or even clap flamenco.
“Oh it’s easy!” She stood up, tossed back her green hair, raised her chin, and put on a mock-serious face. “Look, you just raise your arms like this, twirl your wrists around, and strut about looking angry.” She demonstrated, and it was remarkably convincing. The table of plastic plates and empty coke bottles had been moved aside to make space for Rocío and the singing mother to dance the real deal. Their trendy boots were alright for stamping, but their skinny jeans didn’t lend themselves particularly well to dramatic swishing. The girls pretended anyway.
Centuries were summarised in an evening: Flamenco devolved into Reggaeton, devolved into unidentifiable House. Sleep. Shower. Then six of us, plus luggage, piled into my little car and headed to Las Encantadas, the finca that hosted the montería. The driveway winds through the pine forest. It softly rises and falls, and occasionally makes a scary noise against the bottom of the car. Marta, her friends, and I had all been at different parties in El Rocío. Five springer spaniels lollop over to greet us, and they’re the only ones present that I hadn’t met before. At last, I’m able to greet everyone else as a familiar face. A girl starts telling the group a story so animatedly that I completely lose track of the sense. Her boyfriend’s not listening either. He’s absent-mindedly mock bullfighting with his jacket.
Lola’s elegant mother comes in with an enormous pot of puchero chickpea stew, and stays to hear the gossip. Lola had fallen out of a carriage. Marta had spent the evening sitting in an ice-bucket. Macarena had invited a hundred strangers to her wedding. All caught up, the girls switched into Country Mode in an instant. Lola’s fifteen-year-old sister, Maria, rolled up the sleeves of her pretty blouse to replace the battery of a quad bike, while Macarena brought a battered old Jeep up to the house. Time for a paseo. One girl loved driving quads but didn’t want to ruin her hair. She tied her colourful silk scarf around her head, gave the engine a hefty rev, and sped off into the forest. The Jeep followed behind, threatening to overtake her until one sandbank proved too much for it. It shuddered to a halt. No one had thought to check the petrol.
Maria sped off to get a jerry can, and within five seconds one of the boys has picked up a long stick and started batting pinecones. They explode spectacularly. Soon we’re playing pinecone baseball. Arguments break out as nobody can decide which of the exploded pieces should count as the ‘ball’ after the pinecone has been hit. The pine forest is so big that we’ve had a couple of innings and more than a couple of mosquito bites before Maria’s back with the petrol. People chat over the rumbling engine as we take the long way home, twisting through the forest on a sandy path, passing empty shooting puestos as we go. The setting sun catches the dusty air and turns it golden. I was standing in the back with a guy called Javier. We’re the only people in the whole group who wear glasses and, for once, we’re glad of them.
Night falls quickly. Old friends kiss goodbye, and, for me, this goodbye is a real one.
“Come back soon!” says Lola.
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