by Chris Leadbeater, The Telegraph, April 13, 2018
It is a question that can, perhaps, be placed alongside the old philosophical chestnut about a tree falling unwitnessed in a forest, and whether it is therefore deemed to have made a sound in its tumbling. Can you give protected-heritage status to something that is neither a landmark nor a historical structure; to something which is experienced as an ethereal concept rather than as a physical thing, and which, often, you cannot touch?
The official answer, of course, is: Yes you can. Unesco says so. As well as giving its safeguarding stamp of approval to undoubted icons of the world from the Pyramids to Machu Picchu, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation also keeps a list of items of what it calls "Intangible Cultural Heritage". Newly into its second decade, having been established in 2008, this roll call of greatness - but, many might also say, nicheness - covers everything from summer festivals in Spain and Andorra to specific types of textile weaving in Bangladesh and masked drum-dances in Bhutan.
To this treasure trove may soon be added - Denmark hopes - the on-trend slice of the zeitgeist that is hygge. What is that again? It is the very idea of warm snuggliness, of comfortable fuzziness - which the Danes, with their thick winter sweaters, log fires of aromatic wood and general niceness, are so aware of, they have a specific word for it.
Intangible? Most certainly. Of cultural heritage? Well, that is the crux of the debate.
This week, Denmark has applied to Unesco to have hygge listed among the (to use the institution's own definition) "practices and expressions [which] help demonstrate the diversity of this heritage and raise awareness about its importance". The most southerly segment of Scandinavia is entirely serious about this - arguing that hygge's "value as a remedy to modern anxieties [should be] officially recognised".
It has supported its application with wise words from the likes of Meik Wiking, the founder of the Copenhagen-based think tank The Happiness Research Institute - who argues that "with increasing societal pressures and the growing importance of wellbeing, hygge’s emphasis on togetherness and equality can have real and tangible benefits, not only to the Danish people but to anyone that practises this uniquely Danish social ritual."
Is this the latest outburst of silliness in these sometimes odd days of the early 21st century - or a fair and justified claim for recognition of a thought process with a discernible feelgood factor? Unesco has not yet responded to Denmark's claim to intangible cultural significance, and until it does, the Danes will have to curl up into their sense of hygge - and wait.
But the key talking-point here is not whether feeling happy and generally at ease in a cosy context is something you can rubberstamp and, if so, whether it is explicitly Danish. It is more that the Intangible Cultural Heritage exists in the first place, and whether it does any good.
Even the most inquisitive of travellers, determined to delve into the mysteries of the planet in every waking second of their life, would struggle to argue that some of the ideas inscribed on the Intangibles list are not, well, a little obscure. Take, for example, Mongolian "knuckle-bone shooting" (a dominos-style game where teams try to knock a pile of sheep knuckle-bones into a target area by flicking small marble tablets in its direction), or the making of "kimchi" - a side-dish of salted and fermented vegetables widely eaten in North Korea.
Other inclusions raise an eyebrow in that you may well ask whether they meet the defining criteria. What, you might say, is an Ecuadorian toquilla straw hat if not tangible - even if it is the weaving which creates it, rather than the traditonal headgear itself, which is saluted by Unesco.
Others still could perhaps be red-flagged on questions of authenticity. Anyone who has visited Marrakech on a fearsomely hot day and run the gauntlet of the hawkers and "snake-charmers" on the main square may struggle to recognise "The Cultural Space of Jemaa el-Fna Square" applauded by Unesco. They might also suggest that the UN institution's giddy description of the plaza as a place which "represents a unique concentration of popular Moroccan cultural traditions performed through musical, religious and artistic expressions" should be replaced with two rather pithier, although less complimentary, words. Tourist Trap.
But then, the list does not exist for the entertainment of travellers (at least, not in the sense that the granting of World Heritage status to an Indian temple or a Mayan citadel is a guarantee of a rise in visitor numbers). And if a board game played on the steppes of the Far East is so niche that nobody outside of Mongolia has really heard of it then that, surely, is the point of including it on a list of traditions which should be preserved.
And, away from the hair-spliting, the "Intangible Cultural Heritage" roster does contain events and moments which should be on every traveller's to-do list - and not just on Andean mountain ridges or in distant corners of the Asian landmass. I can vouch for that. A few years ago, I found myself in Valencia during the five main days (always March 15-19, building to a dizzy crescendo on the final evening) when its Las Fallas festival was in flow. Here is one of Europe's most flamboyant cultural extravaganzas. Literally - it sees the centre of the city dotted with elaborate papier-mache sculptures, some of them so beautiful and of such clever craftsmanship that it would seem a terrible shame to burn them. And yet, that is what happens on the climactic night, when the city sets fire to the lot of them, then stands back to admire the flames in a fit of pyromania that seems thrillingly strange to those who have not observed it before. That it follows a series of noisy events - not least the daily gunpowder explosions of the mascleta, which are staged in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento in daylight hours - only adds to the merry madness of it all.
Las Fallas is exactly the sort of hurrah which counts as a thing of "Intangible Cultural Heritage". It is peculiar to its location - purely a Valencian affair, held to mark the feast day of the city's patron, St Joseph, and loosely pinned to the tradition of carpenters clearing out their workshops at the end of winter (although the falles/sculptures have long replaced the scraps of wood which made up the original bonfires). And yet, for all this, it is not hugely known outside its own metropolis - remaining, effectively, a local party, staged beyond the spotlight of the better publicised tourist hotspots of Madrid and Barcelona.
There are other concepts of a similar ilk on the Unesco list, all of them worthy of a weekend or a week of your time. Whether hygge falls into the same bracket is yet to be seen - but should it do so, it will find itself in some excellent and fascinating company.
Five Unesco-listed "Intangibles" you should experience
Fermented hops can, of course, be sipped anywhere, but the Belgian strand of beer has such a hallowed reputation that it has been on the Unesco list since 2016. "Making and appreciating beer is part of the living heritage of a range of communities throughout Belgium," Unesco's blurb says. "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 Eighties, craft beer has become especially popular." It also tastes good.
How to enjoy it: Go to just about any bar or brewery in Bruges. Huisbrouwerij De Halve Maan (halvemaan.be) would be a good place to start.
This specifically Portuguese form of folk music is deemed to date to the 1820s, but its roots, obscured by the mists of time, may go back far further. It tends to involve an acoustic guitar, but also a viola baixo - a four-string acoustic bass guitar. Unesco explains further. "Fado is a performance genre incorporating music and poetry widely practised by various communities in Lisbon. It represents a Portuguese multicultural synthesis of Afro-Brazilian sung dances, local traditional genres of song and dance, musical traditions from rural areas of the country brought by successive waves of internal immigration, and the cosmopolitan urban song patterns of the 19th century."
How to enjoy it: Try Casa de Linhares, a fado club in the Alfama district of Lisbon (casadelinhares.com). You can also have dinner here, and make a night of it.
Tango (Argentina and Uruguay)
The high-tempo and much-eulogised Latin dance - a passionate and yet oddly-unsexual splicing of bodies, rhythm and music - is a fundamental part of cultural life in Argentina and Uruguay. "The music, dance and poetry of tango both embodies and encourages diversity and cultural dialogue," Unesco explains. "It is practised in the dance halls of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, spreading the spirit of its community across the globe even as it adapts to new environments and changing times."
How to enjoy it: La Catedral (lacatedralclub.com) in Buenos Aires offers classes for tourists, as well as performances by experts.
Basel Carnival (Switzerland)
Switzerland's image as a land-locked nation big on snow-capped mountains but rather short on flair and mirth is debunked by this annual riot of a festival, held in Basel every year in February or March (depending on when Easter falls in the calendar). It begins on the Monday after Ash Wednesday, and revolves around three crazy days when up to 18,000 fasnächtler - outlandishly costumed participants - run wild in the streets. "The carnival can be compared to a huge satirical magazine, where all visual or rhetorical means are used to make fun of flaws and blunders," Unesco says, describing it accurately, yet somehow making the event sound less of a madcap joy than it is. "Around 20,000 people of any age, social status, origin and political persuasion actively participate."
How to enjoy it: See basel.com/en/carnival-in-basel. The next version will start shaking its boots on March 11 2019.
Las Fallas (Spain)
See above. Valencia's fire festival never moves in the calendar, so you will have to wait 11 months for the next edition. But put mid-March 2019 in your diary.
How to enjoy it: Lots of details at the official site, fallasfromvalencia.com/en/home.