For the past ten years, Valencia has been our home base, but we had never managed to experience the Romería del Cristo de la Salud, held on the Albufera Lake, just south of the city. This unique boat procession is held annually on August 4th, but before explaining it, we’d like to introduce you to the Albufera.
The word “Albufera” comes from the Arabic “al-buhayra”, which translates as “small sea” [wikipedia]. Today the lake is protected as a natural reserve, and is most well-known as the birthplace of paella; it was here that the special “bomba” rice needed for paella was first planted and harvested. Over the years, the cultivating of rice managed to shrink the lake to nearly half of its original size; rice is still grown here, but it’s done in a sustainable way. The Albufera is also an important migration spot for birds during the winter months.
Romería del Cristo de la Salud en El Palmar
Now back to the actual event. This is a pilgrimage which takes place entirely on the water, and if you don’t have a boat, you can’t take part. So, a week earlier, I had tried to book a spot on one of the rental boats which takes tourists out. I wrote every operator in the town El Palmar and the surrounding area, but without any luck. A few told us that, although they were fully booked, we could try to show up at the pier in El Palmar, and arrange something directly with the operators. It was no sure thing, they cautioned, but with luck we might be able to get one of the boats.
A risky approach, considering the tedious bus ride from the city center to El Palmar. This bus is always packed with beach-goers and takes forever, considering the relatively short distance. But we decided to give it a go; we’ve always wanted to see this procession, and maybe we were feeling lucky.
We arrived two hours before the start of the procession, and hustled straight to the pier, where we talked to every boat operator we could find. But no dice. Eventually, we gave up hope, and tried to reconcile ourselves to the idea of watching the procession from land. Next year, we promised ourselves, we’d start planning a month or two in advance. We walked back into town, dejected, and spotted a lady leaving an office of one of the boat tour companies. So we ran over and chatted her up… and our experience was saved in the last minute! She made a phone call, and secured us spots in a boat.
We waited at a bar for 7pm to roll around, enjoying a cold beer while the town prepared for its festivities. The Romería is basically a religious mass held on boats in the middle of the lake. They carry a Jesus statue from the town church to the pier, and then bring it into the middle of the lake. It’s a big deal among the farmers south of Valencia, and the entire court of the Fallas commission even participates, all dressed up in beautiful dresses and hair arrangements, fanning themselves like crazy in the late afternoon heat.
Right before the procession began, we rushed over to our boat and set off into the water, trailing the other boats and finally catching a refreshing breeze. The mood of everyone was festive, and almost felt like a school field trip. What an amazing sight to see so many boats out on the lake at the same time! It reminded us slightly of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.
Then the mass was held, the boats all joined together to form one big floating church. We’re not religious but it was quite an experience to be in such beautiful nature with so many pilgrims. The moment the mass finished, a marching band started playing, not really marching so much, considering they were in boats, but you get the point. With the music following us we headed back to El Palmar. It was a wonderful day out, with tons of Valencian traditions and folklore, set in a spectacular location. If you’re planning on participating at this procession in the future, leave a comment and we happily share the contact of the boat company.