Get to Know 2019’s ‘European Capitals of Culture’

Plovdiv, Bulgaria, and Matera, Italy, have histories that stretch back thousands of years

The view in Matera, Italy. Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images

Since 1985, the European Commission has been selecting “Capitals of Culture” to promote cities’ development, afford them an opportunity to attract tourists and highlight the diversity and richness of the continent. A number of major cities have claimed the title—Athens, Florence, Copenhagen, Stockholm—but in recent years, less high-profile locations have also made the list. For its 2019 Capitals of Culture, the commission chose two deeply historic cities that are rising in popularity as tourist destinations: Plovdiv, Bulgaria and Matera, Italy.

To be deemed a “European Capital of Culture,” a city is required to come up with a cultural program that “must have a strong European dimension, promote the participation and active involvement of the city's inhabitants and contribute to the long-term development of the city and its surrounding region,” according to the website of the commission. The programming in Plovdiv and Matera will fit into two themes— “Together” and “Open Future,” respectively—and encompass a range of exhibitions, festivals, performances and other cultural events.

According to the Associated Press, Plovdiv is the oldest city in Bulgaria and is also one of the oldest continually inhabited city in Europe. Among the historic civilizations that made their home in Plovdiv, known by a roster of different names over the centuries, are the Thracians (a group of tribes that occupied part of the Balkan Peninsula), the Macedonians, the Romans and the Turks. Each of the city’s successive inhabitants left their mark; modern visitors to Plovdiv can tour a Roman theater and stadium, a medieval gate and a 15th-century Turkish mosque.

Today, Plovdiv is home to “Turkish, Roma, Armenian, Greek and Jewish minorities, all of which have quite a strong influence on the city's vibrant cultural life,” according to the AP. And with the help of its new title, which the city celebrated with a public party last weekend night, Plovdiv hopes to show that it is a diverse, cosmopolitan destination.

On deck for the city’s planned programs, Deutsche Welle reports, are an art parade focused on “green living,” a theatrical project that will showcase works by people of different backgrounds and an exhibition series in Plovdiv’s abandoned tobacco industry building.

The location made the New York Times’ 52 Places to Go in 2019 list, which predicts that the city, often overlooked in favor of the country’s capital, Sofia, is “ready to shine.”

Importantly, Ivan Totev, the mayor of the city, tells DW, the renewed focus on cultural programming has also resulted in more funds being allocated to schools in Plovdiv’s Roma community. The largest ethnic minority in Europe, Roma are often persecuted in Bulgaria and other parts of the continent.

"When we made the application [for title of European Capital of Culture] we revealed our problems, detailed them in our agenda and now we want to tackle them, with the help of this year of culture," Totev tells DW.

Like its sister Capital of Culture, Matera also has a history that stretches back thousands of years. Located on a rocky outcrop, the city is home the “Sassi”: a district dotted with some 1,500 caves, which were first occupied in the Paleolithic era. In a 2014 article for Smithsonian Magazine, Tony Perrottet reported that peasants and artisans took up residence in the caves during classical and medieval times. “[T]he town has always been an isolated, forgotten part of Basilicata, among the least populated, least visited and least understood regions of Italy,” Perrottet wrote.

In 1945, the Italian writer Carlo Levi published a book about the year he spent in Basilicata, exiled there by Italy’s Fascist government. He wrote about the terrible poverty that had struck this forgotten region, including the Sassi, where impoverished residents lived in squalor. The residents were subsequently evacuated—sometimes against their will—and moved to new homes. But later generations returned to the Sassi and ushered in a revival of the site. Today, Sassi’s glammed up caves have become coveted attractions for travelers to Italy.

According to the European Commission, Matera’s plans for its year as the Capital of Culture include “‘Ars Excavandi,’ a contemporary look at the history and culture of subterranean architecture; ‘Re-reading Renaissance,’ a journey through the artistic past of Basilicata and Apulia; and ‘Poetry of Primes,’ an exhibition on the central role of mathematics in the work of artists throughout the ages.”

Though Plovdiv and Matera will only hold their titles for a year, Tibor Navracsics, the European Commissioner for education, culture, youth and sport, says the initiative can have lasting implications.

"The programs for Plovdiv and Matera show how these cities envisage both their own future and that of Europe,” he explains, “whilst celebrating their extraordinary centuries-old heritage.”

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