It was 25 years ago this spring that Athens assumed the mantle of being Europe’s first ever “Capital of Culture,” and so kick-started a program that has developed into a mainstay of the European culture and travel calendar. Since then, cities from Bruges to Bologna, Stockholm to Sibiu, have basked in the limelight for a season and enjoyed the boost to tourism that “culture capital” status invariably brings.
Over forty European cities or urban regions have done a stint as Capital of Culture, with the city of Luxembourg (perhaps a little improbably) being the only place to have twice enjoyed the accolade. The second time round, Luxembourg shared the award with partner towns in its international hinterland.
Reaching beyond the EU
Usually only cities in the European Union are accorded the cherished status, but there have been a few exceptions. Reykjavík, Bergen, and Stavanger have all been featured. But EU magnanimity does has its limits and there has until now been no serious talk of giving a Russian city the title, which is a pity as the European part of the Russian Federation surely has a dozen cities which could easily cut a dash in the European cultural arena: Saint Petersburg and Kazan are just two obvious examples.
2010: Istanbul, Pecs, and Essen
Yet 2010 does see a bold EU move, with the cultural hand of friendship extended across the EU’s eastern boundary to embrace Europe’s largest city as a capital of culture: Istanbul. There are a trio of designated cities for 2010 : The two others are Essen in the industrial Ruhrgebiet of western Germany and Pécs in southern Hungary.
Pécs happens to be quite a gem, a fabulously sunny city full of hillside gardens, vineyards, and terracotta roofs. Whether Essen can compete with beautiful Pécs and exotic Istanbul in the culture stakes is an interesting question.
The city that missed out: Görlitz
Essen pipped another German city into the final trio, and we rather think that its rival, a city on the Polish border called Görlitz, might have been the better choice. But the selection of Essen does mean of course that canny Cheapos who head to Görlitz this summer won’t need to fight the crowds that will surely flock to Essen. Perhaps the judges thought, like us, that Görlitz is just too fine a spot to worry about titles.
If you do make it to Görlitz in 2010, it would be a chance to try one of our favorite hostelries. The Hotel Börse has an enviable location on the main square. Rooms in the main building are from €70, including breakfast. For those on a budget, the amiable host Georg Rittmannsperger can also offer rooms in the baroque townhouses opposite the hotel. Rates there are from €50 a room, and that includes breakfast in the Börse.