The Torches of the Pyrenees

This fire-fuelled Unesco festival is all about strengthening community ties. 

Torches of the Pyrenees - Eldvarm

What is it?

The summer solstice fire festivals of the Pyrenees, or baixades de les falles, are an ancient tradition awarded Intangible Cultural Heritage status by Unesco in 2015 for their focus on reinforcing social ties and promoting the intergenerational transmission of knowledge. Beginning in mid-June and running until mid-July, they bridge Catalan, French and Spanish communities in 63 different municipalities across the Pyrenees region. Most events fall on 23 June, or Saint John’s Eve.  

What happens? 

Typically, on the night of the summer solstice, participants (fallaires) carry flaming torches (also called falles, haros, halhes and brandons) from the mountains down into the villages below. The descent is a rite of passage for the young, signifying the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The procession continues into the village’s main square, where a big bonfire is lit, and locals celebrate with music and feasting. Many variations exist: in some municipalities a tree trunk is set alight, and youngsters dance around it, while another tradition includes marking a cross on the door of the local cemetery. One constant is that the festival stresses the regeneration of social ties and folkloric rituals. Roles are assigned to specific people: in some versions, the most recently married man leads the procession, while often young unmarried women await the torchbearers with wine and pastries. In the morning, people collect embers from the bonfire to protect their homes and gardens.  

Origins?

The falles hark back to ancient rituals which are thought to have predated the Saint John bonfire night tradition with which they now overlap. Deeply linked to the ancient worldview of the mountain villages in the region, they originally revolved around the cycles of the sun and the land: lighting fires on the summer solstice, when the sun is at its zenith, was seen as a chance to purify the land, protect locals from evil spirits, and give thank for the success of the harvest. By the middle of the twentieth century the tradition seemed to be lost, but happily it was revived in Andorra la Vella in the 1980s. In recent years it has experienced a renaissance: the group Associació Fallaires d’Andorra la Vella was founded in 2013 to spread word about the falles, spearheading the successful bid for Unesco status.

Torches of the Pyrenees - Eldvarm


Fascinating facts?

The Flama del Canigó (Canigou Flame) ritual, celebrating the survival of Catalan culture, makes use of an eternal flame which is kept at the Perpignan Castellet. On 22 June, it is carried to the top of the Canigó peak and, at daybreak, the flame is shared amongst volunteers, who take it via foot, car, bicycle and even rowing boat to different villages in Catalonia to light the Saint John’s Eve bonfires.

How do I go?

Many of the regional bodies that host the falles have dedicated websites offering information on how to visit. Launched to compensate for the festival’s suspension owing to the coronavirus, the Prometheus Museum is a virtual site that includes details of all 63 participating villages, as well as the wider history of the festival. Set to be fully active by 2022, it will feature a huge range of material relating to local variants of the festival and is actively gathering testimonials from participants.  

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