Castillo San Marcos

Castillo San Marcos
13th-century castle, El Puerto de Santa Maria. That WAS our house to the left and behind the tree!

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Croquet Match, Spanish Edition

Alice playing croquet with flamingos and hedgehogs

Todd and I attended St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.  That’s where we met more than 30 years ago (how could that be??) and started an intense and somewhat volatile relationship that has managed to weather many storms. 

Todd and Steph cerca 1988

Todd and Steph, Christmas 2015, nearly 30 years later
It is funny that Todd is in the Navy, coming from St. John’s.  The NAV is full of former midshipmen who attended the Naval Academy, right across the street in Annapolis.  When they learn that Todd went to St. John’s, they can’t believe that a Johnnie would do something like join the Navy. 

Who is this Johnnie and what is he doing?

How did a nice wild Johnnie turn out to be a straightlaced Naval Officer?

Maybe that’s because their closest experiences with St. John’s is either through meeting the wild girls who are not subject to the Naval Academy’s strict regulations (I know of a Johnnie who regularly seduced middies and kept a part of their uniform as a souvenir—rumor has it that over time she collected the entire uniform, bit by bit), or attending the annual Croquet Match between St. John’s and USNA. 

Middies in formation.  Those uniforms ARE tempting!
Why croquet?  Back in 1982, a freshman named Kevin Heyburn was at some sort of function, chatting with the commandant of the Naval Academy.  “You guys might be smart,” the commandant was rumored to have said.  “But we can beat you in any sport, easy.”  “What about croquet?” asked Kevin.  And the challenge was on.

St. John's back campus...oh, such memories...
Croquet is hilarious.  You have these silly awkward wooden clubs, which you can use like in golf, or swing between your legs for better aim (my preference).  You have to knock a wooden ball about the size of a grapefruit through little wire wickets.  The best is that if you hit another player’s ball, you can put your ball right next to theirs, step hard on your ball, give it a good whack, and send your opponent’s ball flying down the field far away from where they want to be. 

Silence please...we need to concentrate here....
So when we landed here in Spain up at the Rota Naval Base, a number of the sailors happened to have attended the Naval Academy, including CO Greg Pekari, Mike Carsley (of Mike and Ana—he was smart to marry an española), and the XO of the hospital Todd Wagner.  I realized that they had been secretly yearning to play St. John’s in croquet and hand down a resounding defeat—after all, in the 34 matchups between USNA and St. John’s, Navy has won just 7 times. 

This year's St. John's team and 2016 champions....again....
It just so happens that for whatever reason, the Spanish like croquet, too.  Costa Ballena Golf Club has a lovely croquet field, complete with a bar and spectator seats, so we booked June 11th and announced the 1st annual Cádiz Croquet Cup Championship:  USNA vs. St. John’s.  Since there were only Todd and me, I claimed the entire Spanish Navy for our side.  

St.John's/Spain on the left, Navy on the right

Todd was the bullrilla for the Spanish St. John's side
We were joined by my brother David Ressman, who had attended St. John’s for a year in Santa Fe before transferring to the University of Chicago.  He and my sister-in-law Jennifer happened to be visiting us just in time to play in the Cádiz Cup Championship.

Watching the game.  Where are Jennifer and David??
The day dawned sunny and warm, and the St. John’s side had a clear advantage, as the Navy players had attended a fancy banquet the night before (hangovers don’t help swing clubs).   With 10 players on each side, 5 games of 4 players (2 from each side) were organized, with a time limit of 30 minutes, and game on!

Gorgeous weather, perfect field, a bar, and spectators.  What more could you ask for?
Todd and I crushed Navy in the first game, 12 to 8, even though I dug my mallet into the turf several times trying to send my opponent flying.  Mati and Ignacio strategized and bickered, but hung in there with a tie 12-12 score.  

Navy looking worried
David and Jennifer sent several balls out-of-bounds, and turned in a respectable 11-12 near-win.  Javier and Maribel won the “best-dressed” award for our side, perfectly turned out in whites and panama hats, and beat Navy by two points, 12 to 10. 

Best-dressed by far
So when Manu and Nuria, who have never played this crazy game, were up to play last, Manu whispered to me, “All we need are 8 wickets.  Then we’ve won!   And sure enough, with enough luck and missed shots, Manu and Nuria hung in there to clinch the title, 57 to 55.  St. John’s wins the first Cádiz Cup!! 

Ole ole y ole!
Then the next challenge was issued:  Seeing that all Johnnies were departing (David the following week, and Todd and I in September), the USNA officially challenged the Spanish Navy to a rematch next year, and Ignacio (Capitán de la Armada Española) solemnly accepted the challenge.  Hmmm…we may just have to fly in next year to play….

USNA looking good and ready for a rematch

Monday, May 30, 2016

La Romería de El Rocío

La ermita (The Hermitage) de El Rocío, destination of pilgrims from all over Europe

For years now I’ve heard about La Romería de El Rocío.  When I was first asked if I knew about it, I said, sure, I’ve been to the restaurant Romerijo.  No, laughed Carmen, the romería!  Like El Rocío!  She made a sign for drinking lots and dancing. 

Custom bar in our 4x4

The Romería de El Rocío is probably the most famous pilgrimage in Spain, after the Camino del Santiago.  But you can walk El Camino anytime you want.  El Rocío is special, since from our side (El Puerto, Jerez, Sanlúcar, Chipiona, Arcos) you are allowed special passage through Spain’s largest and most vigorously protected national park, El Parque Nacional Doñana.  You aren’t even allowed to WALK  in Doñana; if you want to visit, you have to take either a boat or a 4x4-drive tour.

The coast of Doñana National Park, the largest in Spain

But once a year, the road through El Coto de Doñana is opened, and thousands of pilgrims stream through on their way to the Hermitage of  El Rocío.  The park resounds with the sound of laughing and clapping, sevillanas rocieras, the whinnies and brays of horses and mules, and the low roar of motorized tractors and four-wheel-drives that replace much of the horse-and oxpower that was used in bygone days.

The mules often have special designed shaved into their coats

The Romería de El Rocío can be traced back to the fourteenth century, when the Hermitage of Santa Maria de las Rocinas was first mentioned, but the pilgrimage didn’t really get going until mid-seventeenth century, when the towns of Almonte, Villamanrique de la Condesa, and Pilas send their brotherhoods to pay their respects to the Virgen, who at this point began to be known as Santa María de El Rocío.   

Our route through the Coto of Doñana National Park

Shortly thereafter they were joined by brotherhoods from La Palma de Condenado, Moguer, and Sanlúcar de Barrameda.  By the beginning of the 19th century, brotherhoods from El Puerto de Santa María and Rota joined in, and now there are more than a hundred hermandades that arrive each year to be presented to the Virgen. 

Loading a simpecao, a miniature version of the Virgen de El Rocio's processional float.
The hermandad brings the simpecao with them through Doñana.

We happened to choose the wettest and muddiest romería in the last 30 years.  Rain was forecast for almost the whole time.  We couldn’t back out—it was now or never—and so we packed our tent in the old Landrover owned by our friends Maria, Enrique, Antonia, Piro, Francisco, and Lola, who have been pilgrimaging every year together for the last quarter-century.   Come hell or high water, we were going to The Rocio!

Dancing the sevillanas with Antonia in front of the loaded Landrover, Enrique on drum and flute

It rained on the way to Sanlúcar, where we parked our car and made our way to the open barge to cross the Rio Guadelete on our way to La Doñana.  It rained in the boat, and my nice purple-and-yellow feria dress did not like that.  

In feria finery despite the rain.  These dresses are indestructible as well as beautiful.

My boots didn't like the wet, either, so I hemmed and hawed when getting on the barge, waiting for the beach wave surge to fall back, when a big Guardia Civil tromped through the shallows and scooped me up onto his shoulder, heaving me aboard, dry boots and all.  

My orange-jumpsuit-clad savior
Piro, Lola, and Antonia battle the weather

It rained while we walked up the sandy slopes to the road where the tractors and carts and SUVs (and I mean REAL SUVs, not those cushy modern things by Mercedes and Porsche) waited to start into the park.  There was no room in Maria’s Landrover—it was packed to the gills and then some, all the necessities for a week on the trail piled high on the roof rack.  So in the rain, Todd and I walked.

Wet but still incredibly beautiful
That is, until a nice carriola passed us by, and Todd waved to them.  The guy hanging off the stairs waved back, and called out, Run!  Run!  So we did, and jumped aboard the moving RV-like thing.  Inside was a full kitchen, a giant long table, and many people eating, drinking, singing, and even dancing sevillanas while going down the trail.  

Click here to see the inside of the carriola

The sombrero-clad pilgrim who had invited us in turned out to be Herman, the director of Todd’s gym, Club Activa.  In typical pilgrim fashion they welcomed us with homemade tortilla de patata, rebujito, fino, jamón, and plenty of singing.  I played my castanets (I still haven’t learned the words to most sevillanas) and enjoyed being out of the rain and in good company.

Rain, rain everywhere
Lucky for us, it stopped raining when we got to the camp site for the night.  We pitched our tent and helped bring out the ample provisions Maria, Lola, and Antonia had prepared.  Despite all the noise and hubbub, the jabali or native wild pigs came snuffling about, squealing in delight when they found abandoned tortilla or picos.   

Wild pig, here known as a jabali, scavenge for food, unafraid of us pilgrims

We sang and ate and drank throughout the evening, but it was too cold and windy to dance.   Around 11 that evening, the Hermandad de Jerez passed right by our camp, their simpecao glittering and mysterious in the lamplight, accompanied by the snorting and whinnies of the horses Jerez is famous for. 

Click here for a couple of sevillanas sung in the night by the Jerez hermandad (from 2014)

Simpecao de Jerez

We were happy not to have been flooded out during the night, and after packing up camp the next morning, we headed over to the improvised altar for mass.  To our surprise, two children, a girl and a boy, were receiving their First Communion right there in the middle of el coto de Doñana.  The priest was funny and kind, and it added a special sense of the religious to the whole experience.

Breakfast on the road in the rain

Todd and I walked back through Doñana to catch the boat back to Sanlúcar and our car.  Rain was forecast for that day and night, and we also couldn’t palm our kids off on our friends indefinitely.  This turned out to be a spectacular bonus.  Fluffy rainclouds crisscrossed the warm sun, raining only occasionally, and we saw more jabali, as well as small Spanish deer, and multitudes of birds in the peaceful coastal forest.  We had the entire Doñana to ourselves for the 90-minute walk.

All the wildlife here is protected

After sending the girls to school on Friday, Todd and I left to drive around to El Rocío, the location of the Hermitage where all the hermandades were heading.  We’d rented a room in nearby Mataslascañas, where Maria and crew were staying, close enough to enjoy the Rocío but still affordable. 

Todd found himself a hat on the trail back to Sanlúcar and became a real rociero.

Entering El Rocío, I was astounded.  There were horses everywhere, wagons, carts, covered wagons, mules, riders, women in their beautiful trajes de gitana and even huge oxen!  

Click here for a little taste of El Rocío

The oxen were probably my favorites, huge enormous beasts with intricate headdresses traveling at about 0.001 km/hr.

The streets were unpaved, their yellow sand wet and puddle-filled.  Horses were hitched to the houses lining the streets, their high facades complete with bells.  I realized suddenly that Americans had not created the image of The American West.  It had come from the Spanish!  Everywhere I looked seemed like something out of a Western, except it was more authentic, somehow more natural.  

Park your horses out front, please.
The riders sat their high-spirited horses without any sign of nervousness or fear, and the drivers wound their wagons skillfully through the crowds.  The simpecaos, surrounded by pilgrims clapping and singing and drawn by huge oxen wearing detailed headdresses, were covered with flowers and creaked by on their way to be presented to the Virgen, followed by the covered wagons in various colors.

One simpecao more beautiful than the next.  These are miniature versions of the Virgen's processional float.

We waited at the Puerto hermandad to greet the incoming pilgrims, then left for Matalascañas to meet up with our friends.  Despite having gotten up at 7 am, we laughed and sang and drank and shared stories until late. 

Todd Eastwood

The following day Todd and I headed into El Rocío again, wandering the streets, which were becoming increasingly crowded with the arrival of each new hermandad.   Suddenly I heard my name:  there were Carmen and Lourdes and Margarita, from my dance class!  

Las guapas de la casa
They’d rented a house right on the main street coming into the hermitage, and invited us to lunch.  We stood on the front porch to watch the hermandad de Jerez parade past, the site impressive.  I tried to capture the sense of color and flowers and fiesta, but it needs to be lived. 

The arrival of the hermandad de Jerez de la Frontera, and its simpecao, with singing and clapping

And you thought covered wagons came from the American West??  Here's the originals.

Flowers, flowers everywhere.  

The most stylish, expert, relaxed riders and horses ever.

Click here to see me play the castanets at El Rocío

Todd and I returned to Puerto that evening.  We’d not seen all of the Rocio—we missed the biggest days, those of visiting the Virgen and singing to her, like my friend Begoña did, and we missed her procession through the streets of El Rocio to visit each hermandad.    

Another hermandad enters the town on its way to be presented to the Virgen.

But we now had a good sense of la romería de El Rocío, with the good company and spirituality, the fiesta and fun, the hardships of the trail and the excitement of coming together in a huge gathering that is, at its heart, very religious.  ¡Viva la virgen de El Rocío!  ¡Viva la reina de las Marismas!  ¡Viva la blanca paloma!  ¡Viva la madre de Dios!

Click here to hear Begoña sing to the Virgen

La Virgen de El Rocío in her hermitage, ready for the procession