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Protected cultural traditions in France

Arts, crafts, festivals and activities

In common with many countries, France’s identity is framed by its rich cultural heritage. The gorgeous landscapes, majestic coastline, ancient towns and mighty rivers all play a part. But the cultural aspects, from the large-scale and ubiquitous to the micro-niche traditions create personality and mystique.

These cultural aspects range from unique gastronomy to stunning craft-work and include rural traditions, outdoor activities and local festivities. Many of these are recognised and protected by UNESCO under its Intangible Cultural Heritage initiative. Many more are not included, sometimes controversially – the absence of the Tour de France from the UNESCO list is a cause of widespread consternation among patriotic French.

We list here just a few, some from the UNESCO list. Most can be experienced during a Belle France holiday (depending on when and where you travel of course).

Alpinism

Requiring supreme fitness as well as technical and intellectual rigour, Alpinism is the art of scaling high mountains. Special techniques are deployed and tools like ice axes and crampons are essential kit. More intangibly, this is a traditional activity immersed in local knowledge and understanding of the natural surroundings and its associated weather patterns.

True Alpinists value the aesthetics of their activity: a fluid climbing style, appreciation of the majestic landscape and respect for nature are all prized. As is a sense of community and team spirit, allowing the practice and its principles to be passed on successfully.

Perfumery

Strictly speaking this is the art and science of cultivating plants for perfume, processing the basic materials to create the components parts of a perfume, and the ultimate art of creating a unique perfume.

The Pays de Grasse in Provence, inland from Nice, is the epicentre of perfume production in France. The Association du Patrimoine Vivant du Pays de Grasse (Living Heritage Association of the Region of Grasse) nurtures the skills involved. Essential knowledge includes growing conditions, cultivation, soil composition, climate, plant physiology and plant husbandry. Subsequent skills include essential oil extraction methods and hydraulic distillation, as well as memory, creativity and artistic flair when creating the final product.

Dry stone walling

Dry stone walling is a time honoured traditional technique of construction. The stacking of stones on top of another, without mortar, was widespread throughout rural areas. Whilst apparently a simple technique, the skill is remarkable to ensure a stable, long lasting end result. Selection of the best stone for each step in the process, and its placement, are key.

Dry stone structures have shaped the landscape, particularly in more remote areas of France, and the craft is revered as a rural tradition. Dry stone structures symbolise a perfect harmony between man and nature – a structure is created literally from the surrounding soil and, over time, gradually returns to it.

Carnival of Granville

This celebration takes place over four days in the pretty seaside Normandy town on the west side of the peninsular. Attracting 100,000 participants, it builds up to Shrove Tuesday, commencing with the mayor offering the keys to King Carnival (a figure made of papier mâché and card). There follows a procession with elaborate floats and marching bands, the organisation of which takes most of the year.

Logistics are intricate, and all communities and all districts are involved. Various parties and celebrations are held for different age groups, culminating with a confetti battle in the main square and a final evening of fancy dress and frivolities.

Falconry

Falconry was originally a means of catching food but over time became entwined with noble pursuits, and associated codes of honour and tradition. Today it is all about conservation, cultural heritage and community.

Falcons, as well as other raptors like hawks and eagles, are trained to develop a deep bond with their handler. For many the art of falconry is a direct link to the past, when catching prey was a noble pursuit and respect for the quarry was part of the code.

Fest-Noz

Part of the rich tradition of Breton folk dancing, the Fest-Noz is imbued with cultural and linguistic value. Dancers, musicians and other performers delight the crowds but it is the Breton identity that takes centre stage. Fiercely proud of their Celtic roots, the Bretons are a hardy, independent people with a strong, clearly defined sense of self. The Fest-Noz was recognised by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2012.

Equestrianism

The Cadre Noir in Saumur in the Loire Valley is the epitome of French horse riding traditions. It is based at the National Riding School which celebrates a harmonious rapport between rider and steed, where the rider’s authority is achieved without use of force. The lightness of touch in training these remarkable animals was recognised by UNESCO in 2011.

French Gastronomy

French cuisine needs no introduction. But the cultural ‘baggage’ that surrounds it is what elevates it further, especially in the eyes of UNESCO. Gastronomy itself is one thing but add a layer of tradition, social etiquette and customs, a generous dash of togetherness, a soupçon of culinary appreciation and you have something very special.

Starting with an aperitif, continuing through the classic four course menu (starter, main, cheese, dessert) and ending with post-prandial liqueurs or brandies, and you have the quintessential experience. It goes without saying the culinary preparation has to be exquisite, using local ingredients in season, pairing fine food with just the right wine and presented at a table which has been beautifully prepared.

Such gastronomy is passed down through the generations, often in a totally informal manner and it has been celebrated by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2010.


The humble baguette is protected under French law. It has to be made from four ingredients: wheat flour, water, yeast and salt. But many, including President Macron have called for it to be recognised by UNESCO, along with pizza twirling in Naples, Croatian gingerbread and Belgian beer.

Alençon lace making

Alençon in Normandy is renowned for its tradition of lace making. With an apprenticeship taking at least seven years, the workmanship is intricate and requires several hours to produce a square centimetre. Once Alençon lace makers produced ornate lace for the French royal court but after the French Revolution the technique and its practitioners were eclipsed by the advent of mechanised substitutes.

Aubusson tapestry

Dating back to the 16th century the skills of the weavers of Aubusson and its surrounds have been passed down through the generations. The process is intricate and time consuming but the resulting pieces – wall hangings, carpets, furniture – are rich and sumptuous.

In the hands of an expert, the horizontal or low-warp loom can produce fabric which is considered the pinnacle of the craft throughout the world. The techniques was recognised by UNESCO in 2009.

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