Expat Club & UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage
Since the foundation in 2013, Expat Club visited countless destinations in Brussels, Belgium and other (surrounding) countries, either by bus, train, flight or (overnight) ferry. In fact, the flags on our destinations map keep keeps on increasing month after month, including farther places. Whether near or far, we think that all the places we visit are totally worth it. Some destinations, however, are extra special because they have been named an official UNESCO World Heritage Site. We have written an extensive blog about that that we continuously update whenever we visit a new UNESCO site. But there is more than just monuments and physical places.
Expat Club travels to a wide variety of places in Belgium, surrounding countries and other places around Europe and the world. We have already ticked off well over 50 UNESCO World Heritage Site (see here), although the real number is much higher since some sites consist of multiple actual sites. For instance, the Roman roots of the beautiful German city Trier already boasts 9 unique individual sites, such as the stunning Porta Nigra.
But there is more than World Heritage Sites. The cultural section of the United Nations also has been putting together a global list of intangible heritage. These are not physical sites, but concerns things intangible things like traditions.
What is intangible heritage? The term ‘cultural heritage’ has changed content considerably in recent decades, partially owing to the instruments developed by UNESCO. Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts (source: UNESCO website, to read more, click here).
During Expat Club’s history we also visited several places in Belgium and abroad where we were witnessed examples of UNESCO intangible heritage. Below you will a list of these places. Every time we visit a new place we will add it to overview. One thing is clear, we live in a magical world that is worth visiting. Hopefully you will have the chance to join us a next time when we visit either a UNESCO World Heritage Site, or a place of UNESCO intangible heritage.
Falconry, a living human heritage – various countries
Originally a method of obtaining food, the practice of falconry has evolved over time to be more associated with nature conservation, cultural heritage and social engagement within and amongst communities. Following their own set of traditions and ethical principles, falconers train, fly and breed birds of prey (which includes besides falcons, birds such as eagles and hawks) developing a bond with them and becoming their main source of protection. The practice, present in many countries around the world, may vary regarding certain aspects, for example the type of equipment used but the methods remain similar. Falconers regard themselves as a group and may travel weeks at a time engaging in the practice, while in the evenings recounting stories of the day together. They consider falconry as providing a connection to the past, particularly for communities for which the practice is one of their few remaining links with their natural environment and traditional culture. Knowledge and skills are transmitted in an intergenerational manner within families by formal mentoring, apprenticeship or training in clubs and schools. In some countries, a national examination must be passed in order to become a falconer. Field meets and festivals provide opportunities for communities to share knowledge, raise awareness and promote diversity (source: UNESCO website) | Expat Club has visited on several occasion the historic castle of Godfrey de Bouillon in Southeast Belgium’s Ardennes. In this 1200 year old castle, attending the falconry show is greatly appreciated by our guests. Similar shows take place in the castles of the Loire that we visit always in July.
Avalanche risk management – Austria & Switzerland
Avalanche risk management has shaped the identity of Alpine populations, as every winter they deal with the threat avalanches pose to inhabitants, tourists, means of communication and other vital infrastructure. Since the Alps are densely populated, the phenomenon of avalanches is a prime concern and a collective responsibility of the communities. For centuries, inhabitants and highlanders have developed local empirical knowledge, management and risk-avoidance strategies as well as cultural practices to guard themselves against avalanche hazards. Nowadays, modern tools such as measurement instruments and risk mapping complement traditional knowledge, which continues to be developed and adjusted on the ground by knowledge bearers. The element is entrenched in the everyday culture of the communities concerned and underscores the importance of solidarity in crisis situations. Assessing avalanche risks requires a sound knowledge of nature, especially the terrain, snow, weather conditions and past avalanches. While that knowledge was once transmitted verbally, nowadays it is the result of a dynamic process combining empirical knowledge and practical experience: knowledge is transferred from science to practice, and from the ground to research. Numerous training activities are offered, and those interested have access to a wide range of information sources such as avalanche bulletins, the media, checklists, websites, media, manuals and exhibitions (source: UNESCO website).
Expat Club trip: We visited Air Zermatt during our Stunning Switzerland trips in 2018 and 2019. We received a presentation on the company, enjoyed a comprehensive explanation of a rescue helicopter, and several of our group took a flight along the Matterhorn. Air Zermatt is actively involved in avalanche risk management and keeps a wide area on the South Swiss Alps safe.
Classical horsemanship at the Spanish Riding School Vienna – Austria
This is the traditional art and practice of breeding, keeping, training and riding Lipizzaner horses. The School’s various social practices and culturally-shaped rituals and ceremonies are based on the long-lasting relationship between breeders, grooms, craftspeople, riders and horses. Grooms, the foals’ first point of contact, transmit basic knowledge of horse husbandry to cadets. Breeders tend to the horses and pair up stallions and mares to meet the demands of the School. Experienced riders and young cadets are responsible for the colts resulting in a special relationship between rider and horse. A cadet’s early years are spent learning proper horse care, maintenance and the correct handling and use of equipment. Experienced riders pass on knowledge to cadets through mentoring. Women now have an important role in this traditionally male domain, being equally admitted to all positions. Veterinary surgeons ensure the health of each horse while saddlers, blacksmiths, hatters, tailors and shoemakers are responsible for producing and maintaining the facilities. The tradition also gives communities within the School a strong sense of identity and ensures the safeguarding of techniques and craftsmanship in many fields related to horse husbandry (source: UNESCO website).
Expat Club trip: We visited Vienna for Christmas in 2019. Some in our group attended the morning show on Sunday and were enthousiast about these beautiful horses.
The Ommegang of Brussels
Ommegang of Brussels, an annual historical procession and popular festival takes place annually over two evenings in July in the historic centre of Brussels. The celebration begins with a crossbow competition and a ceremony in Sablon Church. In the surrounding streets, various groups form a large procession. The procession follows a 1.5 km route through the city to the Grand-Place, where the groups join the Magistrate of Brussels and bearers of various forms of living heritage. Together, they march around and some groups partake in an organic performance that has evolved since 1930. Having originated as a religious event in 1348, the tradition declined in the 18th century and the modern Ommegang was then recreated in 1928-1930 based on descriptions of the procession Charles V attended in 1549. Nowadays, the tradition has evolved into a festive, local heritage event. Among the participants are various groups of volunteers who meet and prepare their roles together, encouraging younger members to get involved. These groups have become club associations which, during the Ommegang in early July, meet and socialize with other groups. Children attend with their parents, and many people have been involved for forty or fifty years. The viability of the practice is constantly monitored, and the association overseeing the Ommegang is continuously engaged in preparing and promoting the next event (source: UNESCO website).
Beer culture in Belgium
Making and appreciating beer is part of the living heritage of a range of communities throughout Belgium. It plays a role in daily life, as well as festive occasions. Almost 1,500 types of beer are produced in the country using different fermentation methods. Since the 80s, craft beer has become especially popular. There are certain regions, which are known for their particular varieties while some Trappist communities have also been involved in beer production giving profits to charity. In addition, beer is used for cooking including in the creation of products like beer-washed cheese and, as in the case of wine, can be paired with foods to compliment flavours. Several organizations of brewers exist who work with communities on a broad level to advocate responsible beer consumption. Sustainable practice has also become part of the culture with recyclable packaging encouraged and new technologies to reduce water usage in production processes. Besides being transmitted in the home and social circles, knowledge and skills are also passed down by master brewers who run classes in breweries, specialized university courses that target those involved in the field and hospitality in general, public training programmes for entrepreneurs and small test breweries for amateur brewers (source: UNESCO website).
Safeguarding carillon culture: preservation, transmission & awareness-raising
The art of making music with bells (carillon) is performed by carillonneurs, traditionally during market and festive days. The programme to safeguard carillon culture exists in seventy-six cities and villages of Belgium and in thirty countries worldwide. The primary objectives are to preserve the components of historic carillon culture (practices, repertoire, instruments, music, oral and written history), and to ensure the continuity and sustainable development of carillon music as a living heritage that fosters cultural identity and social cohesion. Safeguarding efforts have also focused on preserving and restoring historic carillons with many formerly silent carillons now once more active. Transmission is secured by a number of educational initiatives, of which the Mechelen carillon school is the most important. Efforts have also been undertaken to revitalize the carillon, including promotion of new arrangements, compositions and genres of music. The programme combines respect for tradition with a willingness to innovate, constantly seeking new ways to safeguard carillon culture in contemporary society. It also promotes proven best practices, as well as a deep respect for local players in the field, building on cooperation among actors (source: UNESCO website).
Shrimp fishing on horseback in Oostduinkerke
Twelve households in Oostduinkerke are actively engaged in shrimp fishing: each has its own speciality, such as weaving nets or an extensive knowledge of Brabant draft horses. Twice a week, except in winter months, the strong Brabant horses walk breast-deep in the surf in Oostduinkerke, parallel to the coastline, pulling funnel-shaped nets held open by two wooden boards. A chain dragged over the sand creates vibrations, causing the shrimp to jump into the net. Shrimpers place the catch (which is later cooked and eaten) in baskets hanging at the horses’ sides. A good knowledge of the sea and the sand strip, coupled with a high level of trust and respect for one’s horse, are the shrimpers’ essential attributes. The tradition gives the community a strong sense of collective identity and plays a central role in social and cultural events, including the two-day Shrimp Festival for which the local community spends months building floats, preparing street theatre and making costumes. The shrimp parade, and a contest involving hundreds of children being initiated into shrimp catching, attract over 10,000 visitors every year. The shrimp fishers function on principles of shared cultural values and mutual dependence. Experienced shrimpers demonstrate techniques and share their knowledge of nets, tides and currents with beginners (source: UNESCO website).
Carnival of Binche
The town of Binche is situated south of Brussels in Belgium’s Hainaut province. Each year, during the three days preceding Lent, it is host to carnival festivities that mobilize the historic centre and attract throngs of foreign visitors. With roots dating back to the Middle Ages, Binche’s famed celebration ranks as one of Europe’s oldest surviving street carnivals. Since the beginning of January, an atmosphere of merry industriousness pervades the town as thousands of Binchois produce lavish costumes and participate in drum rehearsals and themed balls. On Shrove Sunday, which marks the official beginning of the carnival, Binche’s streets and cafés come alive with roving hordes of masqueraded merrymakers. The Mam’selles, men dressed in extravagant female attire, are particularly prominent on this day. The carnival culminates on Mardi Gras, when the legendary Gille characters make their appearance. After an elaborate ceremonial dressing rite, several hundred Gilles sporting red, yellow and black costumes, replete with ostrich-feather hats, wooden clogs, bells and wax masks with small spectacles, parade through the town to the beat of the drum. Pierrots, harlequins and peasants follow the processions, intermingling with costumed revellers and local brass and clarinet bands. Dancers, stirred by traditional tunes played on the viola and drum, perform an assortment of steps including the perennial favourite, fittingly called the pas de Gille. The day’s events reach a climax with the Gilles’ dancing in the Grand Place under fireworks. The carnival of Binche is a genuinely popular festival renowned for its spontaneity and the substantial financial commitment of its participants. The townspeople take great pride in the celebration and strive to preserve the precious craftsmanship and know-how associated with the carnival’s traditional costumes, accessories, dances and music (source: UNESCO website).
Expat Club trip: we visited Binche on several occasions for carnival. We may go there again on the Sunday before Mardi Gras next year.
Processional giants and dragons in Belgium and France
Traditional processions of huge effigies of giants, animals or dragons encompass an original ensemble of festive popular manifestations and ritual representations. These effigies first appeared in urban religious processions at the end of the fourteenth century in many European towns and continue to serve as emblems of identity for certain Belgian (Ath, Brussels, Dendermonde, Mechelen and Mons) and French towns (Cassel, Douai, Pézenas and Tarascon), where they remain living traditions. The giants and dragons are large-scale models measuring up to nine metres in height and weighing as much as 350 kilos. They represent mythical heroes or animals, contemporary local figures, historical, biblical or legendary characters or trades. St. George fighting the dragon is staged in Mons; Bayard, the horse from the Charlemagne legend, parades in Dendermonde; and Reuze Papa and Reuze Maman, popular family characters, parade at Cassel. The performances, often mixing secular procession and religious ceremony, vary from town to town, but always follow a precise ritual in which the giants relate to the history, legend or life of the town.
Giants and dragons enliven popular festivals where they are the main actors at least once a year, as each effigy has its specific feast day. They act out historical scenes and dance in the streets to the accompaniment of fanfares and costumed people. The crowd follows the procession, and many participants help in the preparations at different stages of the festival. The construction of a giant and its ongoing maintenance require months of work and know-how in many techniques given the range of materials used. Although these expressions are not threatened with immediate disappearance, they do suffer from a number of pressures, such as major changes to town centres and increasing tourism, leading to the detriment of the popular, spontaneous nature of the festival (source: UNESCO website).
Alpinism is the art of climbing up summits and walls in high mountains, in all seasons, in rocky or icy terrain. It involves physical, technical and intellectual abilities, using appropriate techniques, equipment and highly specific tools such as axes and crampons. Alpinism is a traditional, physical practice characterized by a shared culture made up of knowledge of the high-mountain environment, the history of the practice and associated values, and specific skills. Knowledge about the natural environment, changing weather conditions, and natural hazards is also essential. Alpinism is also based on aesthetic aspects: alpinists strive for elegant climbing motions, contemplation of the landscape, and harmony with the natural environment. The practice mobilizes ethical principles based on each individual’s commitment, such as leaving no lasting traces behind, and assuming the duty to provide assistance among practitioners. Another essential part of the alpinist mindset is the sense of team spirit, as represented by the rope connecting the alpinists. Most community members belong to alpine clubs, which spread alpine practices worldwide. The clubs organize group outings, disseminate practical information and contribute to various publications, acting as a driving force for alpinist culture. Since the 20th century, alpine clubs in all three countries have cultivated relationships through frequent bilateral or trilateral meetings at various levels (source: UNESCO website).
Art of dry stone walling, knowledge and techniques
The art of dry stone walling concerns the knowhow related to making stone constructions by stacking stones upon each other, without using any other materials except sometimes dry soil. Dry stone structures are spread across most rural areas – mainly in steep terrains – both inside and outside inhabited spaces, though they are not unknown in urban areas. The stability of the structures is ensured through the careful selection and placement of the stones, and dry-stone structures have shaped numerous, diverse landscapes, forming various modes of dwelling, farming and husbandry. Such structures testify to the methods and practices used by people from prehistory to today to organize their living and working space by optimizing local natural and human resources. They play a vital role in preventing landslides, floods and avalanches, and in combating erosion and desertification of the land, enhancing biodiversity and creating adequate microclimatic conditions for agriculture. The bearers and practitioners include the rural communities where the element is deeply rooted, as well as professionals in the construction business. Dry stone structures are always made in perfect harmony with the environment and the technique exemplifies a harmonious relationship between human beings and nature. The practice is passed down primarily through practical application adapted to the particular conditions of each place (source: UNESCO website).
Expat Club trip: During our earlier mentioned Stunning Switzerland trip we travel to various places where Alpinism is practiced, including the Appenzell, Wallis and Grimsel regions. Particular in Wallis, or Vallais in French, stone walling is a familiar sight.
Traditional violin craftsmanship in Cremona
Cremonese violin craftsmanship is highly renowned for its traditional process of fashioning and restoring violins, violas, cellos and contrabasses. Violin-makers attend a specialized school, based on a close teacher-pupil relationship, before being apprenticed in a local workshop, where they continue to master and perfect their techniques – a never-ending process. Each violin-maker constructs from three to six instruments per year, shaping and assembling more than 70 pieces of wood around an inner mould by hand, according to the different acoustic response of each piece. No two violins are alike. Every part of the instrument is made with a specific wood, carefully selected and naturally well seasoned. No semi-industrial or industrial materials are used. Craftsmanship requires a high level of creativity: the craftsperson has to adapt general rules and personal knowledge to every instrument. Cremonese violin-makers are deeply convinced that sharing their knowledge is fundamental to the growth of their craftsmanship, and dialogue with musicians is deemed essential so as to understand their needs. Traditional violin-making is promoted by two violin-makers’ associations, ‘Consorzio Liutai Antonio Stradivari’ and ‘Associazione Liutaria Italiana’, and is considered fundamental to the identity of Cremona, its citizens, and plays a fundamental role in its social and cultural practices, rituals and events (source: UNESCO website).
Craft of the miller operating windmills and watermills (link)
The craft of the miller operating windmills and watermills involves the knowledge and skills necessary to operate a mill and maintain it in a good state of repair. With a declining number of people earning their livelihood from the craft, millers today also play a key role in transmitting the cultural history of the practice. There are currently approximately forty professional millers; together with volunteers, they keep the miller’s craft alive. The Guild of Volunteer Millers has around 105 instructors in the field, and 11 Master Millers are now active in the Netherlands. Mills, and therefore the miller’s craft, play a significant social and cultural role in Dutch society and have an iconic value, contributing to a sense of identity and continuity. Various safeguarding activities are undertaken, including training, support and capacity building, educational activities in schools and traineeships. Traditionally, the miller’s craft was transmitted from master to apprentice but since the establishment of the Guild of Volunteer Millers in 1972, almost 2000 volunteers have obtained a miller’s qualification; anyone interested in the craft can apply for training. The Guild offers millers support in keeping their knowledge up-to-date, for example through excursions to mills, evening theory classes, conferences and meetings.
Expat Club’s very first trip was to the Keukenhof and the world-famous UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Kinderdijk windmills. Not only this site, but also the tradition of operating these beauties are recognised by UNESCO. We organise a trip there every year.