So there we were, bombing across the Bay of Algeciras in a Zodiac with six strapping frogmen. Me and my mate Chris Gamble, looking for a virgin!
Spain’s coming down with them but the one in Algeciras plays very hard to get.
For 364 days of the year, she lives on the sea bed. Once a year, she’s brought up from her watery grotto and paid homage to on the beach.
Tens of thousands turn up to touch her and be healed or forgiven in their swimsuits, in scenes reminiscent of Lourdes.
If you thought religion and bikinis didn’t mix, you haven’t seen the Romería Marinera de la Virgen de la Palma.
I’ts been held every August 15 for the last 38 – that’s Assumption Day in Spain, marking the Virgin Mary’s ascension into heaven. In Algeciras she has a somewhat longer journey.
As virgins go, she’s no glamour puss: a small, brown statue made of mould-resistant marmolina, un-gilded and un-crowned. Strands of seaweed are her robes, barnacles her jewellery. Without her halo clipped on, she looks no more iconic than a weather-beaten garden gnome.
But to her devoted followers she’s the most beautiful virgin in all Spain, as well as the only sub-aquatic version.
For her dutiful escort – the six scuba divers who bring her up from the ocean depths and parade her on a floral throne to an altar on the beach – it’s a sacred mission.
Spiced with the thrill of the chase!
This virgin’s no pushover. Raising a 100 kilo statue from 15 metres below sea level requires ropes, oxygen tanks, a winch and an air bag. Putting her back, 24 hours later, is every bit as challenging.
For 13 years, this weighty responsibility has rested on the broad shoulders of Roberto Anillo. The jefe of El Estrecho Dive Club visits the virgin every month to scrape off her algae, as part of his solemn duty. Bringing her up into the daylight will be his finest hour.
It takes all of that to find her, although Roberto has plotted her position with GPS coordinates. They daren’t put out a marker buoy in case she’s stolen. That might be what happened in 1999 when Our Lady vanished and they had to make another one.
You could cut the air of expectation with a knife. It’s been like that since we met up for breakfast at the sports fishing club, Sociedad Federada de Pesca Deportiva El Mero. These guys invented the Romería in 1975, principally as a tourist attraction although, like the Miracle of Lourdes, there’s a story behind it. The waterborne escort they provide is some flotilla!
Roberto and his team, sweating in Neoprene suits, are relieved to reach her approximate location. They shrug on tanks and six black seal-shaped heads disappear below water. Five minutes later, six heads resurface, some distance away. Finally the cry goes up: “Aquí está!”
A white airbag breaks the surface of the water, like Neptune blowing bubble gum, and the virgin arises to a cacophony of hooting horns. It’s all hands on deck to manhandle her into her portal of palms on the flotilla’s lead yacht.
We speed in noisy procession through the Port of Algeciras, anchoring some way off Rinconcillo Beach where a huge crowd of worshippers are gathered. Madonna herself would be gratified by the head count.
The flotilla is lassoed together to make a floating bridge and everyone’s clambering from one boat to the next to pay their respects. “Go and touch her, she can perform miracles,” says a lady who’s a relative of Roberto’s. Half of these boat people are ‘family’.
It will take a miracle to reach her across half a dozen bobbing boats, plus we’ve been out for three hours now and Zodiacs don’t have ‘heads’. But my prayers are answered. Obeisance over, there’s a party starting in the water and I’m in with both feet!
It’s high noon and the crowd on the shoreline’s still patiently waiting but this is Spain. The fiesta comes first! Everyone’s cracking open cans of Cruzcampo and lifting lids on cool boxes. There’s Serrano ham and manchego cheese, gambas, smoked salmon, tuna salad and umpteen barras of bread.
It’s like the miracle of the loaves and fishes! Where did it all come from?
At 13.30 precisely, the mood changes. Battle stations! We’re packing away provisions, gathering up belongings and speeding towards the shore. “Be careful with the camera,” I call to Chris, who’s filming it all, as a huge wave crashes into the boat and we scramble over the side. Mercifully the water’s only waist-high. Then everyone’s running up the beach to be swallowed into the crowd. I’m following one of the diver’s red T-shirts. It’s all I can see as we pelt through the melée to get to the virgin before she reaches dry land – the red T-shirt is a throne bearer!
The congregation wading into the shallows and pushing forward all the way from the back of the beach represents every generation – from paunchy men and skimpy-thonged chicas to young mums with babes in arms and little old ladies with their skirts hiked up.
Suddenly, like the miracle of the Red Sea, the throng parts, forming a guard of honour as the virgin is carried aloft.
Everyone’s splashing and cheering and singing and reaching out hands. Most people have tears in their eyes and some are actually weeping…
The queue to touch, kiss and pose for pictures with the virgin is long and relentless.
This public outpouring of emotion is an eye-opener to a non-church-going guiri like me.
The sun is searingly hot but even the very old and wheelchair-bound are resolute. They’ll still be here for evening Mass, and fireworks at midnight.
Algeciras Town Hall is petitioning to declare the fiesta of Special Touristic Interest, hopeful of a subsidy to defray costs. According to the official press release, the 38th Romería Marinera attracted 38,000 visitors.
I don’t believe in miracles, as a rule.
But if a sea-ravaged plaster Madonna can attract a pop star-sized crowd, that seems pretty miraculous to me!
Thanks to Chris Gamble for videoing the virgin being lifted out of the water and taken on her beach pilgrimage. If you’d like to see the underwater bit, click here.
Like all good folk legends, the Miracle of the Virgen de la Palma has its base in truth. The statue you can see in Algeciras parish church today really is an Italian alabaster sculpture dating from the 18th century…
Algeciras was dedicated to this particular virgin in 1344, to mark the reconquest of the city from the Moors on Palm Sunday. However the church built in her name was trashed in 1368 when the Moors returned and destroyed the city. Work on a new church didn’t start until 1723 and the townsfolk were left without a virgin.
Around this time, an Italian merchant ship carrying an alabaster virgin amongst its cargo took refuge from a storm in Algeciras Bay. Each time it put to sea, the waves rose higher. Eventually, the townsfolk took the casket containing the virgin off the vessel and, in that instant, the storm abated. To this day, the people of Algeciras believe that the statue was sent to them by God.
The Virgin took her rightful place in the new church and lived happily ever after. In 1975, El Mero sports fishing club added a pinch of salt and turned the legend into a tourist event, commissioning sculptor Nacho Falgueras to make a water-resistant stand-in.
Over the years, this holy beach picnic has captured the imagination of increasing numbers of visitors. Proof, yet again, that even when it comes to serious stuff, like religion, the Spanish know how to get the party started!