For someone who is not remotely religious, the moment was almost surreal. Standing by a hillside stream in the Sierra Morena mountains of southern Spain, I was face to face with the wife of the mayor of a nearby town, and she was baptizing me.
She scooped water into her hand, asked me to lean over and dribbled it into my hair. “With this water we baptize you in the Stream of the Rooster, witness to your first journey,” the woman, Cabe Tébar Gil, said with a smile. Then, draping a small medallion on a ribbon around my neck, she declared me a pilgrim. With that, she kissed me on both cheeks and sent me on my way, with applause from the gathered crowd.
Although raised as a Roman Catholic, in Spain’s Basque Country, I had long since abandoned any connection to the church. And yet I did not need much persuading when a friend suggested that I join him for a trek — alongside thousands of other people — to the mountaintop basilica that holds the shrine of Our Lady of the Cabeza. Some 20 miles north of Andújar in the province of Jaén, the site was where, in 1227, the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a shepherd and healed his afflictions.
Peregrinations to the site began shortly thereafter and have been an annual event since the beginning of the 16th century, interrupted only by the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. Always held on the last weekend in April, it is considered the oldest romería — or religious pilgrimage — in Spain, a country that takes its holy holidays seriously even as the influence of the Catholic Church wanes.
What sealed it for me was learning that the romería and its attendant events would be nothing like the portentous, gloomy services, usually in impenetrable Latin, that I had to endure as a child. Instead, I was promised a vivid assemblage of ritual and pageantry in the manner of old Spain, full of style and accompanied by all manner of festivities, regional food, elegant parades of horses and carriages, beautiful attire and hours of music and flamenco dancing. In other words, a big party.
“It’s all about joy,” Isabel Uceda Cantero, the mayor of Lopera, a town southwest of Andújar, said over drinks the night before the romería, adding, “People here cry with joy.”
That same evening, my friend Francisco Senra — everyone calls him Fran — and I walked for blocks in Andújar through an enormous street fair, an event that always precedes the romería. People had set up elaborate picnics on tables, rows and rows of them, and offered friends and strangers whatever they had. Toasts rang through the air, and, at the slightest provocation, regal, beautifully attired flamenco dancers broke out in the middle of the street, into Sevillanas and other dance steps emblematic of Andalusia, the region of southern Spain that encompasses Jaén and seven other provinces.
Mixed with the sounds of strumming guitars and palmas — the rhythmic clapping of flamenco — was the clopping of hoofs. The horses were in festive finery and obedient to every subtle command from perfect-posture riders whose stiff-brimmed Cordobés hats complemented their high-waisted paseo trousers, short jackets — chaquetillas camperas — and tall leather boots.
During the street fair, Fran introduced me to everyone he knew, and to some he didn’t, and we were plied with refreshments, including wine, beer, and gin and tonics, and tapas. This went on for hours. “You don’t sleep during the romería,” said José Parrado, the owner of Los Naranjos, a bar and restaurant on Calle Guadalupe, who has done the pilgrimage for almost all of his 60 years. “Maybe you can rest your brain a little. Maybe.”
Despite my bilingualism, an American like me was a bit of an oddity in the streets of Andújar, since most visitors to the region — the ones with no interest in religious pilgrimages — tend to flock to more glamorous places like Granada, Seville and the Costa del Sol. But I soon learned that Andújar and its surrounding area are studded with enticements for the curious.
There are medieval Moorish castles, Neolithic cave paintings in red hues, deep gorges with cascading rivers, wild orchids and ancient oak trees. Vast stretches of mountainous forest include Spain’s largest protected wilderness — named after the town of Cazorla, which traces its history back 2,000 years — as well as the Sierra de Andújar Natural Park, where the basilica of Our Lady of the Cabeza sits atop a commanding peak.
The area is home to wildlife like the endangered Iberian lynx, wolves and Spanish Imperial eagles. The province is said to produce more olive oil than all of Greece and has been in the business of fine ceramics since Roman times, when the delicate wares were exported throughout the empire. Two of Jaén’s most imposing cities, Baeza and Úbeda, filled with Renaissance palaces and churches, were declared World Heritage sites by UNESCO in 2003.
In the 19th century, I was told, the densely wooded Sierra Morena range, more than 300 miles in length from east to west, was known for the bandits who trawled for spoils among mail and gold wagons en route to the southern cities from Madrid, sharing their plunder, like Robin Hood, with the poor. The range has areas so remote that a 7-year-old boy, Marcos Rodríguez Pantoja, was said to have been lost there in the early 1950s after the death of his caretaker and was not found until 12 years later, living with wolves, dressed in animal skins and communicating in howls. Antonio F. Agenjo Fernández, one of Andújar’s historians, insists on the truth of the story, which has been told in two documentaries, a play by British playwright Kevin Lewis and in newspaper articles and television news programs that have featured Rodríguez’s halting accounts of his early life in the hills.
The region’s art treasures include an imposing El Greco painting, “La Oración del Huerto,” or “The Prayer in the Orchard,” which I saw during a walk through the 15th-century Church of Santa María la Mayor in Andújar. The canvas was saved from destruction during the Civil War only because it had been sent to the Prado Museum in Madrid for restoration.
The Civil War did not spare the ancient effigy of Our Lady of the Cabeza, whose 16th-century mountaintop sanctuary was reduced to rubble in 1936 when Republican forces laid siege to Franco loyalists who had taken refuge there. It was subsequently rebuilt, and a new effigy was created in 1944. The small wooden figure, wearing a crown, clad in resplendent vestments and holding a representation of the baby Jesus, is venerated as a saint — she was canonized by Pope Pius X in 1909 — and is considered by many pilgrims to be capable of healing the sick and performing other miracles.
“For those who venerate this Virgin, she’s the only one there is; she’s the mother of God,” said Manuel Andres Jiménez Crespo, an architect who lives in Andújar. “The others don’t count. For the devout, they have to believe that.”
Like several other devotees of the Virgin, Antonio Barón Martín, a 71-year-old retired agricultural field worker, imbued the statue with anthropomorphic qualities. “She’s got to have something that calls us to go to her,” he said after having just walked almost 30 miles to Andújar from Cañete de las Torres, a town in the adjoining province of Córdoba. Accompanied by 55 of his fellow townspeople, he also planned to walk the remaining 20 miles to the sanctuary, 2,250 feet above sea level.
“The Virgin helps us so that we can climb the mountain,” he said, noting that he had made the trek for 18 consecutive years “because of the passion I have for her.”
As we headed into the hills, Araceli González Rubia, a former leader of the Cofradía Matriz de la Virgen de la Cabeza, the organizing entity of the pilgrimage, struck a similar note. “We pray for those who don’t know how to, and when we get to the top, we thank her,” she said. “And when we have to go, we become sad because we have to leave her behind. I even see her as sad.”
As González Rubia spoke, thousands of people around us — I met travelers from Brazil, Panama and all over Spain — were making their way along winding, forested roads and dirt paths on foot, on horseback, in cars and aboard long wagons pulled by tractors and filled with noisy, merry pilgrims. Hundreds of horsewomen, in full festive regalia, rode sidesaddle in specially constructed wooden armchairs known as jamugas, a tradition since the 16th century.
After traveling part of the route with Fran in a sport utility vehicle, I was to ride the rest of the way in one of the wagons, known as carretas. By the time we got to the staging post, the wagon had already left, so a police officer waved at me to climb on the back of his motorcycle. Off we went, roaring past the slow wagon caravan, bouncing precariously at the edge of the mountain path as I clasped my notebook in one hand and his waist in the other. (Helmet? What helmet?)
Having reached my assigned wagon, I joined a party in progress, with a dance floor in the middle, flamenco music blaring from speakers and drinks on ice. There were at least 15 people aboard, most of them in their 20s and dancing with abandon as the wagon rattled up the mountain path.
“Anyone who tells you they’re here only to express their devotion, they’re not being truthful,” said Miguel Cano Villar, the owner of the wagon and of a restaurant in Andújar called El Puchero. “Yes, there are some, but look at these kids. They’re here to have a good time. Although there are people who go up the mountain on their knees because, perhaps, they have a sick child and they believe he’ll be cured.”
Once we got to the top of the mountain, it became clear how vast the crowd was, as many as half a million, according to the local police department. A huge tent city housed most of the pilgrims, near a village in which many of the houses, bedecked with flags and banners, were built expressly by fraternal organizations connected to the romería. My friends and I spent the night in one of those houses, eight to a room, in bunks.
The following morning, an open-air Mass next to the sanctuary preceded what I had been told would be the most dramatic moment of the weekend: a procession through the village by the effigy of Our Lady of the Cabeza, carried aloft on an elaborate platform by dozens of heaving men. As the cortège slowly wound its way through the streets amid the milling throngs, pilgrims passed their babies to a pair of priests riding on the platform to have the infants blessed by the Virgin. Disabled people in wheelchairs were lifted too, their hands reaching out to the passing holy figure — proximity as palliative.
The invocations were relentless: “Viva la Virgen de la Cabeza!”
At one point, I noticed a woman watching the procession with tears running down her face. She was praying.
“I asked the Virgin to give me faith so that I can have hope, so that I can start again,” said Victoria Borde, a 38-year-old hairdresser from La Guardia de Jaén, about 50 miles southeast of Andújar. “Sometimes bad things happen and you lose faith, even though I know that strength and belief is something we have inside.”