It was a Wednesday, a crisp and pure day -May 1rst – and the people from the village of Alcalá del Valle were slowly gathering in the main square. Men atop handsome horses, an entourage of brightly colored floats, girls and women in gypsy-inspired Flamenco dresses. A strange and indefinable energy was in the air when I watched the growing procession snaking its way past the white-washed houses: The Romeria had begun.
Translated from Spanish the word Romeria means pilgrimage or trip. In the traditional folklore of Andalucia it is intrinsically linked to the Romeria de Rocio, the self-proclaimed mother of all pilgrimages. Every year in late May up to one million people converge on a large stretch of marshland that surrounds the provincial city of Huelva in the province’s western hinterland. Here in Alcalá we only have a few thousand particpants, many of them living away from the village using this day to come home.
About 4km out of the village on the hill tops the procession nears its final destination and grinds to a halt. The Caños Santos monastery is perched on a small promontory of land that overlooks the lofty and foreboding crags of the Grazalema Mountains. From here the views are spectacular. Gleaming Pueblos Blancos like Olvera hug the slopes of distant hillsides and a network of inter-connecting castles dotted along the horizon hark back to the frontier days when this violent land stood on the cusp of two conflicting faiths and ideologies.
Gradually the swaying float – with the statue of the Holy Virgin – is steered down a narrow lane by its exhausted bearers and is led, preceded by a priest, into a chapel where it is ceremoniously blessed and laid to rest in front an impatient congregation who sit and stand in barely-repressed solemnity. Meanwhile outside, in the ruins of the ancient monastery, the dry sherry has already been uncorked and ladies in bright, patterned dresses are getting ready to dance in pairs to the bright repetitive stanzas of Sevillanas. Stalls have been set up and are serving all variety of tapas, horseman gallop in playful competition through the olive groves and up on a raised stage a musical show of soft Spanish laments provides an agreeable background hum.
But this congenial spectacle is merely a prelude, a warm up for the surprises to come. Quite spontaneously the real show gets underway some time around dusk. It’s all fairly innocuous to start with. A few gypsies congregated under an oak tree proceed to tune up their battered guitars and snap rhythmically on some castañets. Groups of families cooking paella around an open fire drift over and form a loose, impromptu audience. Quite detectably there is a whiff of something more potent in the air.
In Flamenco music, the essence comes from within, from some dark recess of the human soul. Wailing Arabic calls, gypsy rhythms, snippets of old Spanish folk songs. And as I drifted casually around the food stalls on the periphery, where bright young men and women strut around vying to be seen, I felt the music slowly creeping over me.
In the shadow of the monastery the elusive mood built up slowly, rising and falling, fast and slow, the dancer’s feet slamming down ever harder, the gypsy’s fingers driving across the guitar strings with increasing ferocity. Shouts of encouragement came from the crowd, a percussive crescendo, an impossible guitar falseta, voices crying “Ole” and then suddenly it was all over bar the long echo of the final chord and that strange feeling of warmth and vitality that lingers inside of you for days afterwards.
And next? The people are allready talking about the next Romeria, be it Setenil or Olvera, this is Andalucia, after all.