The Top Ten Traditions Listed by UNESCO
Most people have heard of the Cultural Heritage Sites of UNESCO that are protected for having historical, cultural, natural, or scientific significance and value to humanity. Sites in Spain include the Alhambra, Burgos Cathedral, the Caves of Altamira, Doñana National Park, and many more. In fact, Spain boasts 49 sites in total – 43 cultural sites, 4 natural sites and 2 mixed (cultural and natural).
The World Heritage Sites were listed in an attempt to preserve and protect ancient sites and natural areas of beauty and ecological importance that were in danger of destruction.
In 2001, UNESCO added another list - the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, that aims to include the less tangible elements of a culture. This list focuses on a country or region’s folklore, traditions, language, spiritual beliefs, social practices, ancient knowledge and skills, and more.
The increase in globalisation is leading to a decline in many cultures and traditions that will be lost for future generations if they are not protected. The Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity strives to recognise and celebrate human’s capacity for creative expression and innovation. It maintains a connection to our past and commemorates the diversity of culture around the world. It promotes intercultural understanding and creates economic benefits for local communities in the form of tourism and production.
Spain, so far, has about 20 elements on the list of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural History of Humanity. Among them are the Fallas of Valencia, Flamenco and even its Mediterranean food. Some of the lesser-known ones are just as interesting for their representation of so many aspects of Spanish history and culture.
Here are 10 of Spain’s top ten traditions listed by UNESCO.
Tamboradas – the Drum Parades
Beating an object as a means of expressing emotion is one of the oldest actions in our human development. It’s been used to accompany dancing, communicate over long distances, call people to war, celebrate seasonal events, receive or evict spirits in religious ceremonies, and to create moods and deeper consciousness.
Drums have not evolved a lot since we started hitting a rock with a stick, and later over stretched animal skins. It’s primeval, primitive and the beat resonates in our soul, awakening the deepest ancestral memories.
The tamboradas have been part of Spain’s cultural history for centuries and are generally classified into categories such as recreational, devout, civil, and religious. During Easter Holy Week, thousands of drums, like hailstones on a tin roof, are beaten in time non-stop for several hours.
The tamboradas are a combination of traditional drums made of wood and goat skin, and newer, smaller drums made of aluminium and plastics. It is physically demanding work as many of the bass drums (bombos) can weigh up to 20kg and require specialised equipment to carry them. Even the smallest snare drum can feel weighty on the neck by that second hour.
Other reasons for being included in the Intangible Cultural Heritage list, are for their contribution to a feeling of collective unity. There are also economic benefits for the community; drums and costumes are made by hand by local artisans, with the knowledge passed down from generation to generation.
Each group or brotherhood practices this ritual throughout the year, teaching the younger members of the community. As well as children’s tamboradas, there are drum roll and embroidery workshops and competitions that encourage that sense of community spirit.
The streets and town squares become deafening echo chambers during the tamboradas, where your whole body reverberates with the tempo. The trick is to not to close yourself off to the sound; be receptive and let the power of the thunderous noise flood over you.
HERE'S a video that gives some idea of what to expect if you ever find yourself in the middle of a tamborada.
January 20. Lasts 24 hours. Participants dress as cooks and soldiers.
· Semana Santa in Hellin in Albacete, Calanda in Teruel and Mula in Murcia, are a few of the towns famous for their drum parades during Easter.
The Whistling Language of La Gomera
The Spanish island of La Gomera is part of the volcanic archipelago of the Canary Islands off the coast of western Africa. The island’s rocky mountainous terrain made it difficult for the indigenous inhabitants to communicate over long distances. But the deep ravines and towering cliffs provided the perfect environment for high-pitched whistles to bounce and echo. The small round island spans only 22km in diameter and the 'silbo gomero' became a widely used language among the communities.
When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the unique language was quickly adopted by the new colonists. It was the most effective way to communicate from up to 5km away before the invention of the telephone and still continues to be the most reliable.
With the introduction of mobile phones at the turn of the 21st century, it was feared that the language would die out. Which is why, in 1999, it became a compulsory subject taught to school children from an early age. Today, about 20,000 people know the silbo language and it has been part of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list since 2009.
The whistle is phoneme-based, imitating the Spanish phonology, with two notes for vowels and 4 notes for consonants. To fill in the gaps and avoid confusion, varying the pitch, length and rhythm makes the message clear for the listener. And of course, context helps. It takes many years to learn the language well and trying to learn it as an adult often results in slobbery fingers and a blue face.
To hear how it sounds and learn more about the whistle, check out THIS video.
The Castells of Catalunya
The castells, or human towers, are thought to have originated from Valencian folkloric dances that gradually evolved into the spectacular living structures reminiscent of a chain of army ants.
It seems a stretch (pardon the pun) to go from a folk dance to a tower made of humans climbing over heads and shoulders 15 meters from the ground. But in Catalunya, the castells have become emblematic of Catalan history and cultural identity. These death-defying live towers are an engineering feat of nimble bodies made up of men on the lower levels and usually women or light men on the higher levels. The tallest castells consist of 10 “floors” of people and, unsurprisingly, require a lot of preparation.
For a ten-floor castell, you need 1000 people; 900 at the base, arms outstretched in a tight-knitted lock. The people at the base level are known as the pinya who act as a support structure and safety net. Once the pinya is formed, the rest of the tower is built as fast as is safely possible. The smallest, usually a child (called the enxaneta), climbs his or her way up to the top of the tiers and then raises their hand. This signals the end of the construction, and disassembly happens immediately after.
Interestingly, women were only included in this male-dominated activity as late as the 1980s. Their participation allowed for much taller towers than was previously possible owing to their lighter weight.
Every two years, the best castell teams gather in Tarragona to compete in making the tallest and most complex human towers. In 2010 the castells were inscribed on the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage for their unique representation of the Catalan culture. They have become a metaphor for the courage, equilibrium, organisation, and strength of nation building. A collective force and united community spirit that aims for the sky.
And there have only been 4 recorded mortalities.
Festival of the Courtyards in Cordoba
Many ancient Mediterranean civilisations have left their mark on Spanish culture. The Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans who settled in Spain shared a similar architectural inclination, designing houses with a central courtyard, or patio. The courtyards are a communal area for family and friends, and where the kitchen, toilets and washing areas are usually found.
The whitewashed walls, wells, fountains, marble or ceramic tiled flooring all help to provide a cooling oasis during the hot Andalusian summers. The Arabs, whose sensorial prose dripped with scents of jasmine and orange blossoms, came later and added the flowers and fruit trees that we see today in Cordoba.
During the first two weeks of May, the neighbourhoods of Cordoba have a chance to show off their beautiful city by opening their private courtyards to the public. Creating compositions with the colours and textures of the geraniums, jasmine, tuberose, roses, carnations, and citrus trees that fill the patios is a true work of art. Many patios also host demonstrations of traditional flamenco singing, dancing and guitar playing, and offer tapas and local Mantilla-Moriles wine.
The Festival of the Courtyards in Cordoba was started in 1918, and each year continues to draw hundreds of thousands of tourists. It was added to the Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2012 as an example of “sustainable communal coexistence…and promoting and encouraging teamwork”. The fiesta is an illustration of the Cordoban respect for community and cultural traditions.
Most of the courtyards are located in the oldest neighbourhoods, such as the Jewish Quarter, San Basilio, San Augustin, Santa Maria and San Lorenzo.
The Patum Festival of Berga
In 2005, the Patum Festival in the town of Berga, Catalunya, was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity after 600 years of celebration. The festival takes place from Wednesday to Sunday in June during the feast of Corpus Christi, and while it’s essentially a Catholic festival, it has its roots in paganism and the summer solstice. As do so many of the Spanish traditions.
During Corpus Christi in the Middle Ages, short simple plays were performed that explained the scriptures and taught morals to the illiterate public. Over time, the plays took on a life of their own, becoming more dramatic than instructive. The festival used to take place in many other cities and towns around Catalunya, but after so many prohibitions placed on it by civil, religious and royal powers in the 18th century, Berga has remained the only town to preserve the tradition – now known as Patum.
Today, the festival is made up of processions and theatrical presentations with dances, or “balls” of various characters and figures. They are mystical or symbolic figures who dance to the rhythm of the drums, along with the added excitement of fire or pyrotechnics.
On the eve of Corpus Christi Thursday, the Tabaler (the town crier and heralder of the festival) and the 'giants' walk the streets announcing the beginning of the fiesta. The Tabaler beats his oversized drum (the Tabal) with a pa-tum, pa-tum – the sound which has given the festival its name.
Then there are several acts which include re-enactments of battles between Christians and Arabs, and an assortment of angels, devils, giants, dwarves and fire-breathing dragons thrown into the mix. Thousands of people pack into the streets and San Pere Square to watch the dances and the bands playing folkloric music from 8pm till 3.00 in the morning.
Ceramics of Talavera de la Reina
The tradition of ceramic making in Talavera de la Reina in Toledo dates back to the Romans. Several centuries later the Arabs introduced new firing techniques and designs such as geometric and abstract motifs. In the 15th century, the Flemish ceramicist Jan Floris founded a pottery factory, bringing in new styles from Europe which jumpstarted the tradition that continues today.
The ceramics of Talavera are tin-glazed handmade decorative and domestic pottery that have remained unchanged for 500 years. The manufacturing, decoration and glazing processes are the same as were practiced in the 16th century, with the knowledge of the techniques passed down from generation to generation.
The ceramics of Talavera de la Reina can be found all over the world in royal palaces and museums, fountains in Cuba and Brazil, and even tiles in Paris and Tokyo. The interior of the palace-monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial in Madrid is decorated with blue, white, and yellow wall tiles from Talavera.
Spanish priests carried the tradition to Mexico in the 1500s and the colonial Mexican Talavera pottery is named after the ceramics of Talavera de la Reina. Though ‘Talavera’ is a generic term used to describe Mexican and Spanish pottery made in this style, the Mexican pottery is generally more colourful, bold and floral. Spanish Talavera ceramics tend to be more intricate and subtle, with birds, religious and hunting scenes, often in Baroque and Renaissance styles.
The Ruiz de Luna Ceramics Museum in Talavera showcases the prosperity the town enjoyed during the 16th and 17th centuries, thanks to its ceramic production. The Patio de los Artisanos in the centre of the city is also a great place to visit to see the wrought iron and ceramics production in different workshops.
The ceramics of Talavera de la Reina were inscribed in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2019.
Manual Bell Ringing
Sunday morning, the peal of the church bell breaks the silence in the sleepy village, calling its residents to Mass. The bell can be heard from the distant fields and seeps into every corner of the community. Old men seated in the village square squint up at the Town Hall clock, ignore the call to church and pause their conversation till the clanging has stopped. The warm sunshine and pleasant company hold priority over the droning priest this morning.
The bells of Spain have played such an integral part of life in a village and town. They sounded at births, deaths, marriages, feasts, Mass, fires, festivals and special occasions, and to mark the hour. They were the social media before the Internet. The awe-inspiring sound of bells has always been the symbol of the life of a village and community. If the bells didn’t ring, something must be terribly wrong.
Now, with the abandonment of so many villages around Spain, the tolling chimes have become silent and are in danger of extinction. The Valencian town of Albaida has kept the tradition of bell ringing alive every day without interruption since the 13th century. Here, the bellringers have campaigned to preserve the bells and the manual ringing for future generations - a tradition that represents the history, culture and identity of the town. Their efforts have been successful and in 2022, Manual Bell Ringing was added to the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
Since the electrification of bell towers, many bellringers believe the subtlety and richness of manual bell ringing is being lost. In Valencia, almost 80% of the bells are electrified, and the bellringers are intent on restoring the installations and wooden yokes and removing the motors. The bells are rung, usually with a rope, which takes a lot of practice. The variety of sounds depends on the techniques used as well as the skill of the bellringer, the shape of the bell and the structure of the bell tower.
Some bells date back hundreds of years and have even been given names. Each bell has its own personality, according to the bellringers, and the coded messages of the ringing differ in each town and community. These codes are passed down from older generations to the younger, often with competitions within the dedicated groups.
The growing movement of voluntary bellringers in Spain looks to ensure that the memory, history, tradition, and communication of Manual Bell Ringing will continue for many generations to come. Check out THIS video for more information.
The Running of the Wine Horses
The Running of the Wine Horses is an annual event that takes place on May 2nd in Caravaca de la Cruz, Murcia. It's part of the festival in honour of Santisima y Vera Cruz and involves parades, re-enactments, and a horse race.
The horses are the stars of the show, dressed in embroidered silk and gold thread cloaks, bells, and headgear. The tradition of breeding these magnificent animals and creating their attire has been passed down from generation to generation and is an important part of the area's history, culture, and economy. Prizes are awarded during the festival for the quality of the cloaks, as well as the race itself.
During the festival, participants dress in white shirts, black pants, and red bandanas and sashes. The race involves an exciting 8-second dash up an 80-meter hill to the castle, with four handlers guiding each horse. The horses must be kept calm and under control amidst the noise and crowds, and if the handler loses their grip at any point, they're disqualified.
The packed crowd parts as the horse approaches which is rather nerve-wracking. It's unclear whether the last second parting is a show of bravery against the oncoming gallop or a way to prevent the horse from bolting with its handlers still hanging on. A spooked or confused horse can change direction at any time, leaving the handlers flailing and losing limbs. The winner is the horse that makes it to the castle in the shortest amount of time with all four handlers still attached.
The race is called the Running of the Wine Horses because of a clever tactic used during a battle between the Moors and the Christians. During a siege, the Moors poisoned the town's water supply, but the Knights Templar came to the town’s rescue by tying flagons of wine to their horses and racing up the hill to the castle before the Moors could capture them.
There are re-enactments of the festival which include Moors, Christian Knights, and gigantes (giants). See HERE to watch the Running of the Wine Horses.
In 2020, the festival was inscribed into the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Lime Making, Morón de la Frontera
The production of lime was around long before the Romans, but the Romans improved on the technology by mixing it with volcanic ash and making a lime mortar. This mortar helped create some of the roads and buildings that continue to stand today. Unfortunately, with the collapse of the Roman Empire, a lot of the knowledge of lime production in Spain was lost, that is, until the Moors re-introduced it in the 8th century.
Lime is used as a natural and ecological white paint for the interiors and exteriors of houses. It protects the walls from humidity and mould allowing the walls to breathe. The Moors whitewashed their homes with a slaked lime mixture to reflect the sun, reducing heat absorption, and giving Andalusia its famous pueblos blancos (white villages) image.
Besides its uses as a paint, mortar, and sealer, lime is used in agriculture as a natural fertilizer. It improves the soil’s acidity and biological activity. It provides calcium which is an important nutrient for plants. The traditional craftsmanship of lime making in Morón de la Frontera, in Seville goes back hundreds of years, reaching its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries when the town was a major centre for its production, boasting more than 50 lime kilns.
When industrial lime took over production, kilns fell into disuse and the traditional knowledge was all but forgotten. In 2002, community members of Morón de la Frontera founded the “Asociacion Cultural de los Hornos de la Cal de Morón” (Lime Kilns of Morón de la Frontera Cultural Association). Their objective was to revive the tradition of artisanal lime making as a way to create employment opportunities for local craftspeople.
Almost 10 years later, in 2011, it was rewarded with the inclusion to the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity UNESCO list.
Today, visitors can learn more about the history and production process of lime in Morón de la Frontera at the Lime Museum. The training centre offers courses for professionals related to sustainable construction techniques, especially to do with lime.
Irrigators’ Tribunals of the Spanish Mediterranean Coast
The Irrigators' Tribunals of the Spanish Mediterranean Coast are traditional law courts that manage the water in their communities and have been in use since the time of the Moors. They are recognized under Spanish law and are democratic, transparent, and impartial in settling disputes to do with water management.
The tribunals handle disputes and hand down verdicts and sentences, such as fines, and are responsible for the peaceful functioning of the complex irrigation systems. These systems, since the times of the Moors, have irrigated the huertas, or agricultural lands of Murcia and Valencia, in particular, the rice fields. They have also supplied water to lavaderos (washing fountains) and public baths, waterwheels and mills, dye works and waste disposal.
Two main tribunals - the Council of Wise Men of the Plain of Murcia and the Water Tribunal of the Plain of Valencia - were given the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity designation in 2009. They maintain the intangible dimension of Muslim irrigation, including some Arabic vocabulary and the principles of the original water tribunals. While their main function is legal, they also have important symbolic significance, seen in the rituals used to pronounce their decisions and their frequent presence in local iconography.
The courts are a symbol of regional identity and hold special significance to local inhabitants. They have continued uninterrupted since the 9th century due to their efficiency. During the Middle Ages, King James I of Aragon guaranteed that sharing the waters of the irrigation systems in Valencia would continue. In Murcia, King Alfonso 10th of Castille also ensured that the irrigation network from the Muslim era be maintained. The model was even adopted in the Americas by the colonists in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The Council of Wise Men of the Plain of Murcia takes place every Thursday at 10 am in the Salón Real (Royal Hall) of Murcia Town Hall, while the Water Tribunal of the Plain of Valencia takes place every Thursday at midday in the Puerta de los Apóstoles door of Valencia Cathedral.
To learn more about UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage of Spain, click HERE.