Nick Butcher on Fiestas and Foods of Spain.
 San Isidro



San Isidro

Seven weeks after the Resurrection, and a month after the famous fair at Seville finishes, the Church celebrates Pentecost or Whit Sunday. This is the cue for the famous 'romería' or pilgrimage to the little village of El Rocío alongside the marshland of the Doñana national park. But here in Nerja we can get an earlier taste of what an Andalusian 'romería' involves on the 15th May, the day of San Isidro, Saint Isidore, the patron saint of all those who work the land.

Things get under way on this day at the church on the Balcón de Europa with a 'Misa rociera', a Rocío-style Mass, which means it will be accompanied by local people in flamenco dress singing typical folk music. Symbolic offerings of food are made, and then the image of San Isidro is carried out of the church and set upon an ox-cart, whereupon it sets off at a leisurely pace eastwards out of town, preceeded by an escort of elegantly-attired horseriders, their mounts a bundle of nervous energy. In their wake there forms an impressive and colourful spectacle: first will be the die-hard San Isidro devotees who will go on foot all the way just behind the saint. They have to tread carefully to avoid the abundant quantites of fresh manure the oxen provide at regular intervals along the route.

Behind the walkers will be a long line of all manner of decorated carts mostly drawn by tractors and containing groups of friends or local clubs and associations, all getting into the spirit of the occasion with 'sevillana' music blaring from speakers or being sung, and plenty of food and drink being consumed to help with the mood.
The destination is the saint's shrine, close by the caves, with its own little garden of roses and rosemary bushes. It used to be on a hill-top to the west of Nerja called Los Cancharrales, and in fact the shrine is still there, but access was awkward, facilities were limited and it was decided to move the festival to the caves.

On arrival there the saint is unloaded and placed back on his altar, a song or two is sung in his honour, maybe a dance performed, and then people just get on with the business of eating, drinking and having fun, perhaps breaking off to watch some of the feats of horsemanship that are on display. Quite a lot of people will have already warmed up for the occasion by going up the night before to the 'verbena', the open-air party that's a comparatively recent addition to the festivities. You need some serious stamina and/or a young person's constitution to take in both unscathed.

The 'romería' itself is not nearly as old as you might think - it was only in the late sixties that it was established - but has grown enormously in scale and popularity, even if it can't quite match Madrid's celebrations of San Isidro that last several days. He's been their patron since the early thirteenth century, not long after the man died. He'd been famous in his lifetime for his piety, a whole string of miracles and for sharing with the poor and needy what little food he and his wife (Santa María de la Cabeza) had. Two of his miracles are particularly famous. On one occasion a young boy fell into a well, apparently beyond rescue until the prayers of Isidro made the waters in the well rise enough to return the boy to safety. Some sources claim that the child was Isidro's own son, Illán, who subsequently died very young, which seems an especially cruel blow for the parents considering the miracle required to save him in the first place.

The other miracle explains why he became the patron saint of peasants and farm workers. Isidro was a humble ploughman, and before getting down to work each day he would stop to pray at the local church. Sometimes this made him a little late, provoking some snide remarks from his fellow workers about his idleness, and a report to their master. He wanted to see for himself, so he hid amongst the undergrowth on the road from the church to the fields, and watched. Sure enough, he caught Isidro late for work again, and scolded him soundly. His anger turned to astonishment, however, when they arrived at the field Isidro was meant to be ploughing. There they found two oxen were doing the work quite happily by themselves, obviously guided by an angelic hand or two. There's not much arguing with that.

Any doubt that he was a saint was removed when it was found that, forty years after his death, his body lay uncorrupted in its grave. It is now to be found on the main altar of the Real Colegiata de San Isidro in Madrid.

You can listen to the episode below.