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Unbelievable as it may seem, nearly a whole month has elapsed since Christmas Day. With New Year’s celebrations three weeks behind us, and Dia del Reyes more than a fortnight ago, the pueblo was burning for a fiesta.
If San Sebastián isn’t already the patron saint of stalwart soaks he ought to be. For, if nothing else, the annual booze-fuelled pilgrimage Conileños hold in his name serves as a lasting tribute to drunkenness.
Not long after dawn, on a Sunday towards of the end of January each year, caravans decorated with colourful paper flowers gather at the new market place on the fringes of Conil. Sound systems blasting out Spanish hip-hop full volume compete with each other. If the objective of the earsplitting hip-hop hotchpotch is to break the will of Sunday morning dozers the effort gets ten out of ten. I almost fell out of bed thinking Armageddon was upon us. Still, on Romería day it pays to get up early, as freshly-baked bread sells out quickly. I hurried down to Cristobal’s on calle Fredrico García Lorca for a loaf. They still had stacks.
Around eight o’ clock a plaster effigy of San Sebastián is borne on shoulders out of the small chapel in Plaza de Santa Catalina to be mounted on a heavily ornamented cart drawn by a pair of oxen. Comprising another decorated cart drawn by oxen, an open carriage hitched to a pair of mules, and a retinue of horsemen, a small procession makes its way to the market place where the caravans await. I came out of Cristobal’s just in time to catch them pass by.
According to legend, in 288AD Saint Sebastian was tied to a tree and pierced with arrows for his beliefs, during a purge of Christians by Diocletian, Roman emperor at the time. In a stroke of luck Saint Irene of Rome happened by. She untied him and healed his wounds. Sebastian’s luck didn’t hold out long though. After deciding to tell Diocletian he shouldn’t go around piercing Christians with arrows he was clubbed to death for his trouble, going on to become a prominent martyr to followers of the Catholic and Orthodox faiths.
In order to mark his martyrdom it is mostly the young of Conil that meander an interestingly crooked path along the fairly straight country road leading to El Colorado, a distance of around five miles. By the time they get half way, many of the dedicants begin to exhibit signs associated with martyring themselves to the cause of excessive libation, rather than devotion to San Sebastián. Stumbling off into undergrowth to seek relief they emerge pasty-faced, or zipping up their flies. As none of the pilgrims seems in a hurry to arrive at their destination, the journey takes a good part of the morning and afternoon. For the most devoted it can take more than six hours. Some never get there at all. Overcome by emotion, weakness and a surfeit of refreshment, there are pilgrims that stray from the path of righteousness, while more than a few fall by the wayside.
To encourage the hundreds of intrepid wayfarers trailing caravans many families set up barbecues and picnics in the pine forest straddling the last leg. Along with tasty vittles they offer fizzy beverages fortified with spirits to help them on their way. Or stop them in their tracks, whatever the case may be. At pilgrims’ end temporary bars have been set up by the forest to refresh arrivals even further, along with those that have learned to pay homage the easy way, travelling to El Colorado by bus or car.
There’s always enough time to party down in the pueblo.
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