horseback-riding-el-ricio

This article appears in SUITCASE Volume 20: Homelands.

Penelope Chilvers, the British shoe designer inspired by the south of Spain and all things equestrian, explores the town of El Rocío in Andalusia.

The very first time I discovered the sleepy backwater of El Rocío I was on foot, taking the last arduous steps of a life-changing walk, joining thousands of pilgrims in an annual ritual known as La Romería del Rocío. Since then it has drawn me back again and again. For my most recent venture I travelled with Emma Hardy, a photographer who shares my passion for Spain and the equestrian aesthetic.

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Surrounded by Doñana National Park, El Rocío is cut off from the evolution of the urban world. It’s a protected place of extreme beauty – where umbrella pines grow elegantly out of sandy marshes and where the neigh of wild mares, calling to their foals, can be heard in the morning as the smell of resin rises on the warm breeze.

This is Spanish horse country, a land and a lifestyle that has provided a rich source of inspiration to me since I began designing footwear 14 years ago. In Spain an enchanting world surrounds the equestrian – from the stables of the noble horsemen of Seville to the provincial workshop of the guarnicionero (saddler).

The ancestral trade of working with leather was passed from the Moors to the Europeans in a practice that honours intricate design. I am humbled by the elegance of a fringed mosquetero, which hangs from the bridle’s broadband. With a toss of the horse’s head, the movement of polished leather echoes the swaying of the animal’s tail. Inspired by Spanish saddles and bridles, I have found a creative language of my own.

I am not the only one to be attracted by the rare beauty of this region. King Alfonso X of Castile made it his royal hunting ground in the 13th century thanks to its “plentitude of deer and wild boar”. Today Doñana National Park is one of the last unspoilt wildernesses of the world, home to rare animals including the Iberian lynx.

It is also home to the wild Marismeño horse, which has roamed the lowlands surrounding the backwater for half a century. This ancient breed is known for its hardy coat and strength, and was transported from the Iberian Peninsula to the New World by Columbus during the Age of Exploration. The American Mustang of today derives from the interbreeding of the Marismeño and the American Indian horse.

And yet the breed is considered by local cowboys to be inferior to Arab, Spanish or English horses. One rider tells me: “When I buy a horse, I look for the nobility and kindness of the Spanish horse, the English for speed and Arab for spirit.” However, on Pentecost Monday Marismeño mares and their new foals are corralled down the mountain by the cowboys. The horses are blessed in front of the cathedral, checked over for good health and then escorted back to their natural habitat.

On a normal day El Rocío is a sleepy, atmospheric backwater, where only horseback riders come in for refreshments. Painted signs that read “reservado caballo” (reserved for horses) denote corner bars, where “rebujitos” (sherry mixed with lemonade) and fresh mint can be sipped from the saddle.

Yet during the weekend leading up to Pentecost Monday, El Rocío throngs with as many as one million people. The traditional pilgrimage can be traced back to the 15th century, when a local huntsman retrieved a statue of the Virgin Mary from within the trunk of a tree. Today the icon stands on a splendid golden altar in the cathedral. Her devotees still come to pay homage.

The weekend also brings travelling tradesmen to the main square, who set up stalls selling equestrian gear – tweed flatcaps for winter, panama hats for summer, and flamenco dresses with seamstresses at the ready to pin and sew the frilled and flouncy hems into a form of hourglass silhouette.

On the Sunday morning of my most recent visit to El Rocío I met a couple of brothers-in-law from Seville. They had ridden 80km in two days, having camped along the way, to arrive in time for lunch with their family in El Rocío, as they do every year.

I watched the exhausted men dismount their weary horses, fling their bridles into the shady bough of an old olive tree, shake off their dusty hats and come into the cool roadside restaurant, known as Juan Camisa. Waiters served gazpacho followed by presa paleta (the most tender cut of pork loin) and plates of octopus. Lunch continued until the sun went down behind the twitching ears of the horses, until the sky turned a watermelon pink.

A long lunch, an ancient pilgrimage route, the ancestral love of horses. The rich traditions of Andalusia are passed from generation to generation in an act that moves with the grain rather than against it. In Spanish horse country I’ve found a rhythm that inspires my own work, a magic that involves embracing natural textures and imperfections. Every unique pair of my leather boots is created with a sprinkle of golden dust from the streets of El Rocío. Every piece, like a well-told story, only improves with age.

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