Prize turns spotlight on cultural jewels in Italy and Bulgaria

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Two previously neglected cities in Bulgaria and Italy have become the focus of intense media and tourist attention thanks to an EU culture award.

Plovdiv in southern Bulgaria and Matera in southern Italy have both been inhabited for thousands of years, but had largely fallen off the cultural map in recent times.

That has all changed now, thanks in no small part to the 2014 announcement that they would share the 2019 European Capital of Culture title.

“Just four years ago, at the time we were selected, you could count the number of tourists coming here on one hand,” Plovdiv’s deputy mayor Stefan Stoyanov told the Spanish newspaper El Pais. “This year [2018], we have had a million and we hope to double that in 2019.”

“We went from shame to glory,” Matera’s mayor Raffaello De Ruggieri recently told journalists, according to French news agency AFP. Matera has been gradually restored over recent decades, including with UNESCO World Heritage recognition in 1993 for being one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on Earth.

Both cities have had to think carefully about how to manage the influx of tourists brought by the newfound recognition. Visitors bring much-needed funds but could potentially overload infrastructure and cause friction with residents.

“We devised a strategy that might help other small towns suffering from mass tourism, too,” Paolo Verri, head of the organisation leading Matera’s European Capital of Culture programme, told the German news website Deutsche Welle. “We don’t see our visitors as tourists but as temporary residents”, he said. “We wanted to encourage a dialogue between the people who live here and the people who just visit.”

Like other cities that have been awarded the EU title since it was introduced in 1985, Plovdiv and Matera were selected by an expert panel based on cultural projects they have planned.

Plovdiv’s programme used the slogan “together”. It includes more than 300 projects in the city and surrounding region, such as festivals, exhibitions and plays, according to the EU’s implementing body, the European Commission.

Matera’s motto was “open future”, and its programme “will have a special focus on social and cultural inclusion [encompassing] a contemporary look at the history and culture of subterranean architecture [and] an exhibition on the central role of mathematics in the work of artists throughout the ages,” the Commission said.

“The programmes for Plovdiv and Matera show how these cities envisage both their own future and that of Europe, whilst celebrating their extraordinary centuries-old heritage,” said EU culture commissioner Tibor Navracsics.

“Both cities will help ensure a long-term impact of last year’s successful European Year of Cultural Heritage, which has demonstrated how culture can transform our cities and regions for the better.”

Not everything has gone to plan, according to media reports. Deutsche Welle and the Bulgarian news website The Sofia Globe both reported that some of the planned projects in Plovdiv have been delayed or dropped altogether.

But the cities’ fortunes are certainly looking up. The European Commission says that being selected as a European Capital of Culture “brings real and lasting benefits”. For example, it said that every euro of public money invested in the 2015 Belgian title-holder Mons is thought to have generated about 6 euros for the local economy.

Next year will be the turn of Galway in Ireland and Rijeka in Croatia, while from 2021 a city in a country outside the EU will be chosen every third year. This will start with Novi Sad in Serbia, which was selected alongside the Romanian city of Timisoara and Greece’s Elefsina.

Words: Craig Nicholson

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