People clamor for prime position around their patron, some stretching out in adulation, others lurching with despair. There are people that look ill, some noticeably sick and others just sweaty from the heat of the midday sun. People enter wearing habitos, carrying offerings of wax breasts and wax heads, and dropping small fortunes into the church’s collection box. One woman, in her attempts to touch the idol’s body with her tissue, keeps bashing the heads of an irritated group in front of her—this woman is quickly shooed away. Those who have touched the statue begin vigorously wiping their blessed tissue over their face, neck and hands; an instantaneous relief captivating each of their bodies in turn. This is done, as one of those aforementioned devotees tells me, so that the individual might take, in return for their offering, a bit of the saint’s power to heal themselves or their loved one.
At the front of the nave stand four coffins; three are open, one is closed. “The coffin can be carried with a person inside or with no one inside. If there is no one being carried, then the coffin will travel with its top on,” says 21-year-old Marta Rodríguez, the sacristan of the church, “the coffins are always rented and people pay for them what they can,” she adds. Marta is the daughter of the local undertaker and has been performing a key organizational role in the Romería for over 10 years. “I am in charge of the coffins: of making sure that they are ready, of informing those helping to carry them, usually family and/or friends, how they should be carried.” The coffins stand in deathly luxury, their soft ruched fabric and highly polished hardwood the pinnacle of superfluous comfort. To the locals these long caskets are no more unusual than the plethora of crucifixes that populate the church, but to the gawking tourists and news crews, they create a buzz of incredulity and astonishment.
The Guardian newspaper declared the Romería the second strangest festival in the world
As I make my way to leave the church I ask Marta what she thought when she first saw the Romería all those years ago, “My first thought was, what a great belief people have and that even in difficult situations they are capable of making such big promises to the Virgin,” she answers, adding, “it is not the paranormal or medieval stupidity that some tourists come to see.” Indeed, it seems that international perception of the Romería is a difficult subject to unpack. On the one hand, many, including Karina Domínguez, are “very proud” to host their curious guests, on the other, the distortion of the event by the foreign press can and has crossed the line. “The Romería is about many things: the pilgrimage to the church, attendance of the Saint’s mass, doing penance. It is a serene experience,” says Father Alfonso Paraje, “it is not a folkloric spectacular or the strange macabre procession the foreign journalists make it out to be.” Indeed, when the Guardian newspaper declared the Romería to be the second strangest festival in the world, in 2008, it seemed to bring a lot of unwanted attention.
Carlos Hernández tells me that when a team from National Geographic came to film in Santa Marta last year, instead of respecting and documenting the local customs, “they ridiculed the Romería, laughing at the traditions and even at the food.” This struck a nerve with many local residents and damaged their relationship with the visiting media outlets. Father Paraje calls it depressing: “The way that the press has reported the event has made the people of our region look ignorant, like people that, in spite of this age of great social evolution, live as if they were from the Middle Ages. And this simply isn´t true.”
I make my way out of the church and to a large white tent further up the hill. There, in what looks like a large car park, a brass band churns out a rendition of the paso doble, a song made famous for being the prelude to the much-contested bullfight. To the right of the bandstand are five large tables full of people indulging in an early lunch. These tables stretch some 30 meters in length and are surrounded on all sides by bars, food vendors and haggard waiters spilling overflowing gin and tonics on the laps of disgruntled diners. Behind these tables sit two enormous bubbling vats of evil-smelling octopus. The chef, a rather portly and severe woman, hooks each whole octopus out of the frothing water with a sharp iron rod and flings it across to her assistant. The assistant, a diffident looking man, winces and whines from the burning heat of the flesh. Then, and in spite of his grimaces and dramatic gesticulations, he skilfully snips its tentacles into neat fleshy discs. Added to these discs is a generous handful of rock salt, a prolonged glug of olive oil and three flicks of paprika—the resulting creation is pulpo a la gallega, or as it is known in Galicia, polbo á feira. Wolf it down with a bottle of albariño and you are eating the region’s most famous dish.