Sunday 10 July means an early start for Algorfa, and even if you’re not going down to the to the village to follow the procession to the Ermita, you’ll probably be awoken by the fire crackers and rockets, calling the village to the Romeria. What’s a Romeria, I hear you ask? It’s a short pilgrimage, often from a town or village to a rural or mountain retreat. In Algorfa, we take the Virgen to her spiritual home in La Ermita Chapel from the church in the square. Then follows a Mass and celebrations, before she returns to the town in the evening.
Should you be tempted to use the excuse that this is Spain and nothing ever happens on time to sneak a few extra minutes of shut eye, think again. At our first Romeria 7 years ago, we had to do a bit of a sprint to catch up with the procession. It seems the Virgen doesn’t like to be kept hanging about when she’s off on her travels. If you are late, and therefore at the back of the procession, it’s a moving sight to see all the staffs waving in the air in front of you.
Most of Algorfa turns out to escort the Virgen home. Don’t be surprised to see the odd horse and cart and other animals. In the early days of Romerias, everyone turned out with carts pulled by bulls, oxen and horses, and there’s a nod to that tradition still in Algorfa. Most of the pilgrims carry long bamboo staffs, about 9 feet long, at a guess, and wear blue neckerchiefs and Panama hats.
At the front, the Costaleros proudly carried the statue of the Virgen, and there were several rest periods as they set down the heavy paso to take a well-earned rest. It’s an honour to take on the responsibility of safely transporting the representation of Algorfa’s patron saint to the Ermita, and the Costaleros have a great social life too. These frequent breaks allow you time to move up and down the procession, taking photos, but remember this is a religious ceremony, so be respectful and quiet as you grab your souvenir shots.
On arrival at La Ermita, the Virgen is parked reverently, ready for the Mass in her honour. The term ‘Romeria’ originates from the days when all good Catholics made pilgrimages to Rome. In Spain, the pilgrims are called Romeros, but these days they are local celebrations, such as patronal saints’ days. Algorfa Romeria also gives thanks for the harvest, since the area is agricultural, and it used to be one of the largest in the area, although it was moved to September for many years. July is the height of the growing season and the workers couldn’t be spared, but these days, with more automated procedures and the Spanish love of ‘domingo de disfrute,’ (Sunday of enjoyment) the Romeria is back where it belongs in the calendar.
Even if you are not religious, be prepared for the service to get to you. There’s an atmosphere of reverence, combined with the Spanish default setting of enjoying every moment of every occasion. When it’s time to take the Virgen into the chapel, the Costaleros sway with her as the musicians and choir sing, and the whole crowd claps. I got very tearful – those who know me know that’s not unusual – but this was one of the most moving moments I’ve ever been privileged to share.
While the choir sings, the sardines are cooked by the men of the village. Everyone gets a breakfast of sardines with lemon and bread, echoes of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, with beer to wash it all down. It’s fascinating to watch the men, laying the sardines out between two large grids, placing them on the barbecues, then expertly turning them, mostly in complete co-ordination. Spain is still a macho society, but when it comes to the big events, the men take over the cooking, allowing the ladies to relax and with their friends and family – at least until it’s time to serve the food!
On the way back to the village, we talked about what we’d just experienced, and two things came to mind that clearly highlight the cultural difference between the Brits and the Spanish. If they did anything like this in England, the sardines and beer wouldn’t be free. More likely they’d hike up the price like they do with the strawberries at Wimbledon. Health and Safety would have a fit about the open fires, and the men were lifting heavy weights without the benefit of oven gloves and safety goggles. Breakfast would probably be cancelled!
I noticed at my first Romeria that there were very few foreigners there. Algorfa is very big on integration, and there were plenty of sardines for everyone. Maybe people feel it’s just for the Spanish, but it’s a great experience, and even if you don’t understand Spanish, you can appreciate the atmosphere and expect a typical Algorfa welcome. So why not set the alarm early on Sunday and head for the Romeria? Even if you don’t like sardines, it’s worth going for the experience.