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Occult Spain

I was woken by a text from a Spanish friend: “If you want to see something ‘tipico’ of Sevilla, go to Plaza del Salvador in one hour, and take your camera”.  It was only 8.20, and after a late night, I was tempted to ignore it and stay in bed.  I’m very glad I wrestled that urge to the ground and got my lazy ass to the centre… On the way, I saw hints that something was going on – women in traditional bright-coloured long, flouncy-bottomed dresses and men in breeches with dashing black hats hurrying through the streets.

Gypsy caravans in front of the Alcázar

By the time I reached Plaza del Salvador, there were men with industrial hoses cleaning up whatever had been… (I didn’t move that fast – a girl needs breakfast!).  However, I followed the crowd round the next corner to be treated to an amazing sight.  A procession of gypsy type caravans – or wild west wagons – made with pretty, frilly fabrics which could have come from Laura Ashley or Cath Kidston.  These very colourful wagons were pulled by oxen (hence the following hoses..).  Ahead of the wagons, men and women in the traditional dress rode horses – the men with hand on hip, proud and erect, the women riding side-saddle (they have little option in those dresses…).


This is the annual pilgrimage of El Rocio – half party, half religious festival linked to Pentecost – when hundreds of thousands of ‘pilgrims’ spend up to 4 days travelling to a small town in Huelva Province, carrying several hundredweight of church silver with them, to pay homage to a statue of the Virgin Mary.  I saw the beginning of the pilgrimage from Seville’s churches, but they go from towns all over Andalucia and far beyond.

In Seville, many women observing the procession had taken the opportunity to bring out their own flamenco type dresses – you can’t blame them, they cost a fortune and otherwise only come out once a year at Feria (the annual Fair).  This created some strange sights – with women dressed like Carmen Miranda pushing prams and queuing at the Tabac kiosks.  Many looked beautiful, but others didn’t let middle-age spread and sag put them off squeezing into the figure-hugging candy wrappers…

After El Rocio had gone on its way, I went to see a photo exhibition about ‘Occult Spain’ (España Oculta), which they translate as ‘hidden Spain’ – but the implication for English speakers of something darker, is somewhat appropriate…

Would you risk it? Photograph by Cristina García Rodero

The photos, taken in the 1970s and 80s by Cristina García Rodero, depict centuries old traditions, superstitions and ceremonies, which are faithfully followed year after year to the current day.  In a world where so much else is changing and traditions being lost, this is impressive.  The photographs range from the picturesque (El Rocio being one example), to the grotesque: including one in which people are ‘playing’ at being crucified and another in which a child’s coffin – with a child in it – sits at the side of a road (I think the child was pretending to be dead, but no idea why…).  In one part of the country, they gather all of the babies born that year onto a mattress on the ground, and a guy who looks like Rasputin jumps over them! It’s frustrating that the photos aren’t accompanied by an explanation of these extraordinary events.

This is all so far from the Costas, the real heart and soul of Spain – so interesting, quirky, heartfelt and passionate.  Maybe the old traditions have survived so well here due to the insularity of the natives – young friends in Seville tell me that many Sevillans have never been outside of the Province, let alone the country.  Their view (despite not having travelled) is: “We live in the most beautiful city in the world, why would we want to go anywhere else?”.  Well, I’ve travelled to nearly 40 countries and lived in several – and I agree with their judgement.

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