El Rocio - Vuelta a Iberia - CycleBlaze

November 10, 2019

El Rocio

Today’s ride

A super-fast ride that merits a super-fast narrative.   We left Huelva for El Rocio at just before eleven, waiting for the day to warm up a bit.  It’s a fairly flat ride with only one minor climb.  We rode the entire way on the highway - efficient, but not too interesting.  What was interesting was the wind, which was significant and mostly in our favor.  With no real reason to stop and with fast riding conditions, we arrived in El Rocio at about two.  Probably our fastest outing of the tour.

Not many pics, but look at the video.  It’s more interesting anyway.

At San Juan del Puerto, looking back west toward Huelva.
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At the base of the day’s climb, looking ahead toward Lucena del Puerto.
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Plastic Ocean
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Palm trees to the horizon, and beyond. They continue far past the crest of the ridge.
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Southward bound, blowin’ in the wind.
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Video sound track: El Patio, by Abel Sanchez (the musician we heard last month in Caceres)

El Rocio

We arrive in El Rocio in time for lunch, so we table our planned roadside feast of bread and cold cuts in favor of the first bar restaurant we came across.  It doesn’t look the most attractive at first, with both the road in front of it and its parking lot surfaced in dirt and fine sand.  The menu looks fair enough though and it is full of diners.  And, two men are smoking their smokes and sipping their beers astride their horses roped up to the hitching post in front of the bar.  Obviously a place worth a good look.

We lean our bikes against the hitching post, on the opposite side of and at a healthy distance from the horses.  We don’t want to return to them to find our panniers have been gnawed to pieces.

We have an excellent lunch - Rachael enjoys her fish order, and I find my meal - a breakfast-like plate of lomo, prosciutto, green peppers and fries - to be just my kind of meal.  Our only complaint is that our server mixes up our drink order, somehow misinterpreting our request for water and a beer as two beers.  Awkward, since one member of Team Anderson detests beer; but we’re flexible and manage somehow.

I like a restaurant where you can just ride up to the hitching post and order your beer without dismounting. I should try that with my mount too some time.
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Jen GrumbyYes! Would be great to see you lined up next to these guys, sans cigarette of course.
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1 month ago
Beers downed, the dudes ride off. Smokin’!
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Jen GrumbyIf it weren't for the cigarette hanging out of his mouth, he'd look pretty cool.
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1 month ago
Rachael’s lunch looks awesome. It left me wishing I’d ordered that myself.
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After lunch, we head into the village to check into our hotel.  We’ve never seen a place like El Rocio, and are torn between feeling fascinated and frustrated.  All of its streets (and I do mean all) are the same dirt/sand surface we were bemused by at the restaurant.  It’s not the easy, beginner kind of sand either - it’s built up in drifts that make biking precarious.  We’re constantly struggling to keep momentum and avoid spilling over, and keep getting off to push through the worst patches.

And we struggle with directions, getting frustrated with Google Maps on our phone, with our GPS, with the situation and with each other.  We alternately bike and push most of the way to our hotel without spotting it, give up and turn around and backtrack all the way back to the main drag before realizing we were right the first time and just gave out too soon.

By the time we finally reach our hotel we’ve given up trying to pedal through the sand and are mostly walking, and I’m laughing a bit hysterically at the absurdity and novelty of the situation.

This can’t really be right, can it?
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So this is one thing that makes El Rocio unique - its dirty, sandy streets.  It feels like we’re on the set of an old western.  Quite amazing.

All of El Rocio’s streets look more or less like this. Note that many of the structures have hitching posts in front of them.
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Another example.
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And one more, so you’ll get a good feel for the place. This is a large intersection, more or less a plaza.
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So the roads are one thing.  The horses are another.  There are horses and ponies everywhere - at the restaurant, walking down the middle of the street with the cars, pulling carts filled with tourists.  Later, in reading more about this place, I learn that the horses explain the streets - they’re deliberately left as dirt for the benefit of the horses - the dirt and sand are easier on their hooves than pavement.  I’ve never seen a town that prioritizes horses over automobiles.

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I took this shot for the photo of the kid and pony, not noticing until later that I had also picked up a handstand act.
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What a tiny pony! I dragged Rachael into the photo to give it scale. It looks like she’s about two and a half ponies tall. I hope you enjoy this shot, because it didn’t come cheap - the owner charged a euro for photo privileges.
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Jen GrumbyGreat shot and definitely worth a euro!

Next time, maybe you can bargain .. tell them they can take a photo of your GBO in exchange for a pony photo. Clearly a win for the guy that walks away with a photo of the most well-traveled bottle opener in the world.
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1 month ago
Scott AndersonTo Jen GrumbyWhat a great idea! I didn’t think of it at the time, and was mostly fixed on having to give a 20 euro bill for a one euro charge.

You do have the best ideas. We’re going to have to stow you along in one of the panniers too, I think. You can be the team concept person.
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1 month ago
Jen GrumbyI'm in! Where's the next tour?

When people ask me how early retirement is going, I will be proud to say I've landed a gig as Team Anderson Concept Person.
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1 month ago
Scott AndersonTo Jen GrumbyUh, oh. There’s a catch. It’s an unpaid internship, and you’re expected to bike ahead and meet us at the passes with a cold beverage. Will that be a problem?
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1 month ago
Jen GrumbyNow waitaminute!! My ideas are worth their weight in Bitcoin!

Plus, my rocking chair should fit just fine on your rear rack. You won't even know I'm there.

And if Rachael agrees to wait at the top of the hill with cold beverages, I'm willing to partner with the GBO to help open them. I've been looking for a good thumb workout and that might just do the trick!
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1 month ago

And, it’s not just the town horses.  The country horses are pretty special too.  They’re Marsh Horses, a distinct breed local to this part of Andalucia.  They range freely here, and we can see hundreds of them looking from the edge of town across the marsh they’re grazing on.

What marsh, you say?  This marsh, which at the moment is bone dry from this year’s drought, and nearly as dusty as a town street.  It is also an important feature of the town, as the western extremity of Doñana National Park, the vast protected wetland at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River that is one of the most important bird refuges in Europe.  

This marsh is at times covered with thousands of flamingos and is obviously a significant attraction here, as can be seen by the massive telescopes mounted along the promenade that borders the marsh.  In fact, this is the primary reason we came to El Rocio - to see the flamingos.  We knew from the guidebooks something of its quirky old west character, but didn’t really pay much attention.  We’re here for the birds.  But no birds today - just these lovely, graceful horses.  Pretty funny.

Several of these horses graze nearby, just off the promenade. Toward the back you can see them in large numbers (but not in this photo), intermixed with a few deer.
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In a wetter season, the marsh apparently looks like this photo posted on the promenade. Another reason to come back some year, in early spring perhaps.
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El Rocio is less well known for its rag dogs, but they’re pretty special too.
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So, no birds.  We’re so glad we came though, because El Rocio is such an exceptional destination - probably the most interesting place we have stayed on this tour.  Seeing it now when it’s so dry, empty and quiet, it’s almost impossible to envision what it must be like during the El Rocio Pilgrimage, one of the most important pilgrimages in Spain.  People stream here in huge numbers from all across the country on the last weekend before Pentecost (the seventh weekend after Easter) to honor the Virgin del Rocio, a mythical thirteenth century figure.  Pilgrims stream in in huge numbers, some of them arriving after lengthy journeys on horseback or in covered wagon caravans.

This explains one of the surprising features of the town.  The place is unexpectedly large, and it’s streets are sprinkled with many fine, beautiful mansion-like structures.  These are the Hermandads (brotherhoods), belonging to communities all across the region that use their chapter house as a base for their stay - there’s a Seville Hermandad, one for Malaga, and so on.

The church of the Virgin del Rocio.
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The Virgin del Rocio
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This and a similar mural on the opposing wall are so surprising here. They’re so gauzy and have an Art Deco quality.
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One of the town’s many Hermandads.
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The Hermandad for Jerez de la Frontera.
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We had been a bit worried about what we’d find open in this town on an off season Sunday evening, so we were excited to see an attractive restaurant open just a few blocks from our hotel - Restaurante Toruno, a surprisingly elegant looking place with an array of Michelin stickers on its windows and an outdoor searing area with chairs set in the sand.  We verified they’d be open in the evening also, and made a reservation at eight (such an early hour!).

When we arrived at eight, there were two other customers having a drink, but they soon left.  We were the only customers, I think for the entire evening - I’m pretty sure they shuttered for the night after we left.  It’s a good thing we made a reservation!  It was a fine meal, starting with a delicious stuffed aubergine.  I should have taken food photos, but we already have one food photo today and the entry is too long as it is.

Afterwards, we braved the chilly evening wind and walked the marshside promenade to the church to see if it was illuminated - and it was.  And we looked up to see if the moon was full - and it was, too.  And we walked back to our room along the marsh again, with horses grazing just off the promenade, close enough that you could hear the grass rip as they tore it from the ground.  A magical day, a magical night. 

We prefer inside seating tonight. I wonder how it is eating here on a breezy day.
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No food photos, but we can show you this nice clothesline strung from the restaurant rafters, complete with swallows.
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Our nearest neighbor looks a bit like a molding orange tonight. Even with the full moon, the sky is full of stars tonight.
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Scott AndersonTo Jen GrumbyThanks, Jen. I’ve been staring at it again, trying to decide if it’s really full or not. Looks like maybe I should have waited another ten minutes or so. Or maybe it’s waning already.
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1 month ago
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Ride stats today: 39 miles, 1,000’; for the tour: 1,522 miles, 48,500’

Today's ride: 39 miles (63 km)
Total: 1,522 miles (2,449 km)

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Jen GrumbyThe souvenir I gave my mom from Spain was a Virgin del Rocío tile that I bought in Seville .. so this was really cool to see the town of El Rocío and learn a bit about it!! What a special place. And I love the idea of visiting during its quiet time.
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1 month ago
Susan CarpenterWhat an amazing town - magical indeed!
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1 month ago
Scott AndersonTo Susan CarpenterIt is amazing. For as much traveling as we’ve been blessed to do over the years, you’d think we’d grow a bit jaded. So many places though are just absolutely unique.
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1 month ago