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Whereas English disciples of sunshine will rush to the countryside for a picnic at the merest rumour of a sunbeam, Andalusian pilgrims don’t like to picnic on damp grass. Heaven forbid they turn out for a pilgrimage should there be even the vaguest hint of a shower. That’s why the annual pilgrimage in honour of Saint Sebastian doesn’t always fall on the Sunday advertised.
If there’s a saint of drunkenness it must surely be Saint Sebastian. Regarded as the patron saint not “of” but against bubonic plague, you’d think he might’ve fallen out of fashion, due to the distinct lack of need for his services nowadays. However, despite suffering the misfortune of being executed in a hail of arrows, round these parts he’s best-known for the yearly drinkathon that bears his name.
At the edge of the pueblo of Conil a collection of covered carts and waggons, drawn by mules, horses and tractors, gathers. Decked with paper flowers worked into images of guitars, fruit or whatever takes fancy, they will form the body of a procession that will soon snake its way to neighbouring El Colorado. More traditional waggons sport palm leaves. Disco and flamenco music blares from vintage speakers. Each vehicle has its particular band of followers.
Squirting local white wine fino from goatskin pouches, and swigging from bottles the pilgrims set out towards the centre of the pueblo to join the cart, drawn by a mule or a pair of oxen, which bears the plaster effigy of Saint Sebastian. It will lead the pilgrimage. Apart from its day in the sunshine, the effigy resides in the church of Santa Catalina most of the year. Swigging and squirting, singing and dancing, the procession winds its way slowly through along the old road leading to El Colorado in the manner an aged snail, trailing empty bottles, cans and other detritus in its wake, as opposed to slime. Wealthier pilgrims ride horses with bottles poking from of saddlebags.
As the train of waggons and carts progresses, small children, too tired to walk, and teenagers, too drunk or lazy, hitch rides. It takes almost three hours for the first pilgrims to reach the forest lining the approach to El Colorado. Two sheets to the wind, and many showing signs of a totter, they’re greeted by the delicious scent of burning pine. Having driven out earlier, mums, dads, uncles, aunts, grannies and grandads have set up picnic tables and chairs. Barbecues sizzle tuna, prawns, lamb, pork, rabbit; deep pans bubble with bean stews. Bowls of salad and hunks of bread stand by. And fino, always more fino. Now joined by bottles of beer, red wine and spirits.
Families with up to ten children or more aren’t uncommon in this part of the world. Most congregate in and around the the forest for the romería. Witnesses to the debauchery staggering before them, they egg the participants on, as if taking part amounted to a rite of passage into adulthood. Most will recall their first romería. Past neighbours, new friends, and complete strangers, are invited to join the picnics in, as they meander by, powered by the ocean of alcohol consumed. Glasses of fino, barbecued ribs, chicken stew, it’s hard to refuse the hospitality, and almost impossible to stay sober.
Asking about the origins of the romeria produces a variety of compelling answers. Some say that it has its roots in the old gypsy traditions, others that it began comparatively recently – only 15 or 20 years ago. A tipsy, old pilgrim once told me Saint Sebastian was gay. Didn’t quite see the relevance. The only openly camp things I’ve seen over the years are the open campfires. Everyone is there for a reason. Most are there to get sozzled.
The first waggons reach their destination at around three in the afternoon, having taken five hours to complete the journey. The stragglers are still coming in two or three hours later. For those pilgrims who didn’t get quite enough to eat and drink on the way, bars serving yet more alcohol and food have been erected in El Colorado.
Their pilgrimming days largely over, many of the pueblo’s fishermen have taken the easy way to El Colorado, by car or van. Never missing an excuse to party they prop up bars, knocking back glass after glass of fino, as though fearful it might run out. No way. If you’re lucky, or unlucky, depending on your point of view, you might catch a sozzled old bard singing flamenco to his fellows. The poor sod can hardly be heard for all the deafening loudspeakers blasting hip-hop and rap.
Few pilgrims bother to see who wins the prize for best decorated waggon. Both filled with alcohol and drained of sense, they wouldn’t remember, anyhow. That’s not the point for the pilgrims. For those still able, there’s lots more serious eating and drinking to be done.
For those sated by food and drink, there are novelty straw hats hanging from stalls piled with cheap jewellery, sweets, candies, toys and knick-knacks to buy. Gypsies stalk the site with bunches of balloons. All the fun of the fairground, without the cost of the rides. There are no rides. In the unlikely event of drunken pilgrims breaking out into pillage, knots of guardia civil stand idly by. Meanwhile, those that have completed the challenge stagger round congratulating each other for hours. Many more congratulations will pass before boarding the bus back to Conil. So good you do them twice. Or three times, in some cases.
Though on the wane, family traditions are still strong in Andalucia, where parties and fiestas form a large part of life. The generations gather together many times during the year, the romería being just one. And as with most Conil traditions, celebrations go on till midnight and beyond.
But there’s always a price to pay for a real good pilgrimage. Come Monday morning, classrooms and workplaces are noticeably thinner, as devout pilgrims nurse blistered feet, bruised ribs, scratched arms and sore heads.
Now that’s what I call a real pilgrimage.
Copyright © 2011 Bryan Hemming
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