12419757300?profile=RESIZE_710x4FR, Jacob Wackerhausen,RAndrey

Annually since 1985, the cultural poobahs of the European Union have designated one or more of the continent's cities (and as of 2022 it's been three rather than two), 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 Athens, (then Greek minister 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 more under the radar. That's certainly true of this year's trio. Here's a quick look:

Bad Ischl, Austria

Set in the mountains of Upper Austria – just under two hours west of Vienna and an hour and a quarter from provincial capital Linz – this town of just over 14,000 (first of photos at top) dates back to at least the mid-13th century and was an important producer of salt for hundreds of years. But Bad Ischl´s heyday truly started in the 1820s, when brine (which after all is salt water) became chic in upper-class circles as a health treatment, and the town turned itself into a spa resort, attracting the crème de la crème of Europe, particularly that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; Emperor Franz Josef himself summered here for nearly 70 years. All this has left a magnificent legacy of architecture and culture, complemented by spectacular surrounding scenery including some 70 lakes. Landmarks besides various spa resorts such as the Eurothermen Resort include the emperor´s summer residence Kaiservilla and Imperial Park; the Marble Castle, a two-story Tudor built for the Empress Elisabeth (aka Sisi); the Kongresshaus, opened in 1875; Lehár Villa, the former residence of the composer Franz Lehár (today a museum), the iconic, historic  Hotel zur Post; and the 14 century Sankt Nikolas Church, whose current incarnation was finished in 1780. There are also museums devoted to local history, antique cars and photography, and you can take a cable car up nearby Mount Katrin, as well as hike, bike, swim, climb, and go horseback riding in the beautiful natural surroundings.  Also interesting is a day trip to visit the Altaussee Salt Mine, one of the backbones of the area´s pre-spa prosperity.

Re its year in the ECOC limelight, Bad Ischl together with 23 surrounding municipalities in the Salzkammergut region are programming some 150 projects and events from classical to very avant-garde, from across Austria and the world,  with four themes: “Power and Tradition,” “Culture in Motion,” “Sharing Salzkammergut” (the name of the region in which the town is located) and “GlobalLokal.” Furthermore, harking back to the distinguished past that first put the region on the map, all these are further connected by the overall theme of salt and water. More info: Salzkammergut.at.

Bodø, Norway

This one´s of special interest to me since I recently experienced an exciting sojourn in Norway´s Arctic (though I didn´t make it to this compact city of a bit over 53,000 (second photo at top), located just above the Arctic Circle). Though there are plenty of urban amenities, here the main allures for visitors are adventure and ecotourism, starting with the Saltstraumen, a narrow strait (just 490 feet/150 meters wide) between a pair of fjords whose claim to fame is one of the world´s strongest tidal currents – up to 25 miles (40 kilometers) per hour and the kicky whirlpools it creates, up to 26 feet (eight meters) wide. You can take a tour by RIB (rigid inflatable boat), and believe it or not the strait is also great for snorkeling and diving (away from the whirlpools, obviously).  Other cool stuff to do in warmer weather: the world´s northernmost via ferrata on a sea cliff near town; and enjoying local nature via hiking (including on nearby Svartisen Glacier), biking, e-biking, kayaking, and canoeing. In winter of course there´s dogsledding; various ways to experience the Northern Lights; and good skiing both downhill and cross country. And finally, year round  you can book a visit to the local Sami (the Finnic herders and fisherman who predate the Norse up here) and their reindeer as well as visit the City Museum and the Norwegian Aviation Museum.

As the first European Capital of Culture to be located north of the Arctic circle, Bodø 2024 will focus on coastal culture in the entire Nordland region of Northern Norway, and especially on the culture of the Sami. There will of course be a wide variety of cultural, culinary, and sporting events throughout the year, including some in unexpected venues, such as a concert in an underwater cave.  

More info: Bodo2024.no.

Tartu, Estonia

Estonia´s second largest city (a bit over 97,000), astride the Emajõgi River a bit over two hours south of Tallinn by car or train, was founded in the 5th century and has long been known as an intellectual/cultural powerhouse (and home to the country´s national university, established in 1632). Much of Its center was destroyed in World War II, but there’s still a good deal of neoclassical architecture, and top attractions/landmarks include the old Lutheran Jaani Kirik (St. John's Church), its oldest, Gothic sections dating back to the 14th century when it was a Catholic church; the town hall, on the central square Raekoja Plats, d completed in a mix of neoclassical, Rococo, and Baroque in 1789; the older, early-19th-century buildings of the University of Tartu, the imposing ruins of the late-14th-century cathedral; and the Upside Down House (you/ve gotta see it to believe it). Other musts: the Tartu City Museum; the modern National Museum of Estonia; Tartamus art museum; the University of Tartu Museum; anhanging out in the boho neighborhood Karlova, the quirky nabe Supilinn (Soup Town), the factory.turned-complex of shops and restaurants Apaaratidas. and along the riverfront walk. And a final note: in addition to a good choice of great restaurants, the bar scene is also pretty lively, thanks of course to all the students.

Across a wide variety of more than a thousand events throughout the year, in addition to focusing on Tartu and southern Estonia the creative theme of Tartu 2024 is “Arts of Survival” —  concretely, “awareness,”  “co-creation,”  “uniqueness,” and “sustainability — make up “the knowledge, skills and values that will help us lead a good life in the future” (One of my faves: “A Washing Machine Made of Beetroot”). More info: Tartu2024.ee.


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  • I do love seeing lesser known European destinations get their due!

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