10951604873?profile=RESIZE_930xCharalambos Andronos/Timişoara 2023/Janos Illesi

Annually since 1985, the cultural poobahs of the European Union have designated one or more of the continent's cities (and as of last year it's been three), as Capitals of Culture, focusing on their own cultural offerings and allowing them to organize a series of wider cultural events (many with a strong pan-European dimension) - which bring in considerable additional revenue; foster urban renewal; and raise their international profiles and images. Since the first one, Athens, (then Greek miister of culture Melina Mercouri was a driving force behind the program) most of the better known cities have already had their years in the sun, and recent ECoCs have been lesser known. That's certainly true of this year's trio, launching their year in the sun in the coming week or so. Here's a quick look:


Elefsina, Greece

Located on the Thriassian Plain just a 20-minute drive along the Saronic Gulf coast from Athens, this city of around 30,000 is now largely industrialised (home for example to the country’s biggest oil refinery) but its roots reach back to ancient Hellas. Founded in the 2nd millennium BCE, it became one of the five sacred cities of ancient Greece; was the birthplace of the 5th-century BCE tragic playwright Aeschylus; and the site of the Eleusinian Mysteries, initiations held annually for the cult of Demeter and Persephone and considered the most famous of the Hellenic world’s secret religious rites. These days Elefsina stages the venerable annual Aeschylia Festival, held from late August through September with stage productions, art exhibitions and installations, concerts, and dance events.

When the city was chosen as a 2021 ECoC – delayed till this year due to the pandemic – it was the smallest and oldest in the programme’s history, and despite not being a picture postcard little Greek city but rather on the gritty side – described as “the unpainted face of Greece: authentic, scarred, silent, dignified”. Beyond that, though, there are true historical gems to be found here, such as the ruins of the site where the Mysteries took place, along the foot of the hill of the ancient acropolis and including a key cave called the Ploutonion, as well as the nearby archaeological museum.

And with this firm cultural and historical base to build upon, Elefsina on 4 February is about to launch its Capital of Culture programme, “Mysteries of Transition”, with three overarching themes: “People/Society”, “Environment”, and Labour”. Throughout the course of 2023, more than 30 venues will host exhibitions along with performances in 17 art forms from 192 Greek and 137 international artists. One of the first exhibitions, at an old olive mill turned centre for the arts is dedicated to Greece's former culture minister Melina Mercouri – who came up with the idea of the ECoC programme in 1985 and helped bring it to fruition – as well as and her French counterpart, Jacques Lang.


Timişoara, Romania

A six-hour-40-minute drive or three hour flight from Bucharest, the country’s third largest city, in the central west has some 306,000 and traces its origins to a settlement of the Indo-European Bronze-Age Dacian people who inhabited this area in the 8th-7th centuries BCE – although as it was founded in 1315 on the site of an ancient Roman fortress and surrounding swampland. Much more recently, this was the place where the popular revolt which eventually toppled the 24-year Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu got its start in 1989.

Timişoara's attractive city centre abounds with Vienna Secession and Art Nouveau architecture dating from the Austro-Hungarian Empire period of the 18th through early 20th centuries, lending it the moniker Little Vienna.  Highlights for visitors among Romania’s largest ensemble of historical buildings include Piața Victoriei (Victory Square), Piața Libertatii (Liberty Square) and Piața Unirii (Unity Square); the Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral, built in 1946; the 220-year-old, the Austrian Baroque Roman Catholic St George’s Cathedral, the open-air Village Museum of Banat; the early-18th-century Theresa Bastion fortress; the Communism Museum about the bad old days; and in the “City of Parks”, various appealing examples including Parcul Central,  Parcul Regina Maria (Queen Mary Park), and Parcul Rozelor (Roses Park).

This year’s programme, with the tagline “Shne Your Light,”  builds especially on Timisoara’s status as a hotbed for avant-garde/underground culture in the past several decades, and includes events with two Nobel literature laureates, Orhan Pamuk and Olga Tokarczuk, as well as German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk; a concert directed by Timisoara-born conductor Cristian Macelarum (also the artistic director of Bucharest’s George Enescu International Festival); and an exhibition of the works of Romania’s most renowned sculptor, Constantin Brancusi.


Vezprém-Balaton, Hungary

A city of around 57,000, just over an hour from Budapest and near the shores of Lake Balaton (the largest in Central Europe), the capital of Balaton County is one of Hungary’s oldest urban areas, and predates even the arrival of the Hungarians to the region in the early 11th century. With its hilly, winding cobblestone lanes and romantic corners, Veszprém definitely sports that “fairytale” vibe many visitors to Europe come seeking, and spots here not to miss include its 10th-century castle complex, on a hill right in the middle of town; the Laczkó Dezső Museum of history; its biweekly Sunday outdoor market; the atmospheric ruins of the 13th-century church and monastery of St. Margaret; and the 19-century Fenyves Mill, the town’s only intact water mill, complete with interactive exhibits. And of course right nearby are the various pleasures of Lake Balaton and its other surrounding towns and wine country.

What’s more, this is a small town with big cultural chops, and for some years has had plenty of experience in putting on cultural events, such as its annual VeszprémFest, Utcazene (Street Music) Festival, Auer Festival, the Hungarian Motion Picture Festival, and DANCE Festival, And shared with neighbouring communities, a programme entitled “Shine! The Celebration of Creativity” will bring in hundreds of artists from  25 countries nd across various disciplines. It’s a bit ironic, actually, all this “creativity” and apparent openness to the world in the European Union’s most repressive “illiberal democracy”, but there you have it – presumably Viktor Orbán’s secret police will not be monitoring your every move.

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