On the north bank of the Guadalquivir River, there is a protected nature reserve of stark coastal beauty called the Doñana.
Without special permission, visitors are not allowed to roam about this area. In addition to the coastal grasslands, there are shrub trees and some interesting wildlife. There are many deer, but most curious are the delightfully ugly Jabali (pronounced ‘Hah – bal”), the wild boar who are allowed to roam freely.
This means that you will be traveling around the Doñana in closely monitored groups in jeeps or trucks, that access to wild areas is limited and your time is tightly managed. Everyone out of the jeep … everyone back into the jeep. No free-form exploring, which is kind of a bore for anyone with an interest in just about anything.
This said, the efforts that go in to preserving this natural landscape are laudable, and tourists are forced to maintain the ecosystem on account of not really being allowed into it.
This all changes for the procession called the Romería de El Rocío. The Romería is a pilgrimage which began in 1653, where travellers trudge across terrain which was described to me as “very hard walking”. This is due to the heat being intense, and the sand underfoot giving way underfoot. Over three days, the pilgrim walker becomes more and more weary with each step, never mind being covered in dust.
We met Vincent, a tour guide in the nature centre at the edge of the town of Sanlúcar de Barremeda, on the south bank of the river across from the Doñana. From the nature centre, you can buy tickets for the ferry and for the jeep tours that will take you into the reserve.
Vincent is a tour guide who runs an organised group of walkers on the Romería, and he recommended preparing well for this journey. Strength training and power walking would be a good start, some three months ahead at the very least, if you are a couch potato like I.
And packing wisely … it is possible to join organised groups of pilgrims where your luggage will be carried on an accompanying lorry. However, carrying only hardy essentials is essential as your things are going to be thrown all over the place. And religious festival or no, it is likely that things will be lost or coveted in the festival-like free-for-all. The wise packer will carry as little as possible, but not forget things like adequate sun protection cream, insect repellent and covering for face and eyes in case the sand is picked up by the wind.
It is possible to do the pilgrimage starting from the pier at Sanlúcar, and walking out to the Sanctuary and then returning by car or other transport.
What?! said Giles Abbot, a storyteller with flame red hair and mellifluous voice when I told him that I would love to go on the Romería del Rocío and that it was possible to do it in 3 or 6 days. If you go on a pilgrimage, you’re supposed to walk out … and then walk back. That’s the whole point. You go out as a seeker, and gaining the blessing or the knowledge or gift, in whatever way it comes … you walk back as a sign and symbol that you are renewed, refreshed, cleansed and all the wiser. I take his point.
While I was in Sanlúcar, visiting the castle, I asked the woman in the kiosk about the Romería. Looking at me she said, well it is very old … it has it’s root in the worship of Astarte and Venus. You know, she said. Well, I do now. Although, this interpretation is not welcomed by all. Some pilgrims feel that the ‘paganizing’ of the procession is a high-jacking of a Catholic tradition. However, with now in excess of a million pilgrims a year, and notices going out early on the world party scene websites, I think embracing one’s inner Astarte may not be a bad idea.