Salamanca in Spain and Bruges in Belgium have been busy renovating their city centers and planning hundreds of events in preparation for their tenure as the European Union's cultural capitals for 2002
These streets around St. Anna's Church in Bruges won't be quiet for much longer.
Both are small, well-preserved cities whose heyday as important European centers is long gone.
Bruges, in northwest Flanders, gave up ist designation as commercial capital of Belgium to Antwerp in the 16th century. Salamanca’s famous and ancient university, once recognized as a major seat of learning, is now better known for the hordes of foreign students it attracts to ist Spanish language courses each Summer.
But in the ensuing centuries, the two cities preserved their charm remarkably and developed into tourist and artistic hubs, drawing millions of visitors a year.
This year will probably bring even more of a rush, as both have been designated European Cultural Capitals for 2002.
The desgination, an award accompanied by a European Union subsidy, has been awarded to a different European city every year since 1985, when the EU conceived it "as a means of bringing European citizens closer together." This year marks the third in a row that the designation was awarded to multiple cities.
Renovations already begun
Both have already begun renovating parts of their already well-preserved historic city centers and each has flashy web sites advertising the hundreds of events, from Baroque ballets to a concert by American blues legend Van Morrison, they plan to put on in 2002.
"Our goal is to present a balance of tradition and renewal," said the organizers of Salamanca’s 2002 events.
That means concerts from sopranist Montserrat Caballe and tenor José Carreras to Patti Smith and Van Morrison. The city also has plans to convert an old prison into a new center for the arts and modernize the Liceo Theater and Convention Center, one of the venues for the planned 100 concerts and 115 ballets and theater pieces Salamanca is organizing for 2002.
Visitors to the European cultural capital will be pulled in by Salamanca’s old city, recognized as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1988.
One of the centerpieces is the Plaza Mayor. Once the home of bullfights, the plaza now serves as a popular meeting place surrounded by well-preserved Rennaisance architecture and the Castille and León region‘s trademark plateresque style of decorative masonry.
The 170,000 large city is the capital of the Castille and León province in Spain’s western half. In the centuries since it first emerged with the construction of the university in 1218, Salamanca has been the home of Moors, Jews and Romans, among other settlers and conquerors.
With its easy access to the North Sea, Bruges was also a popular destination. The city’s name was given by the Scandanivans, who served alternately as conquerors and traders of the onetime commercial center. In old Scandinavian Bruges means harbor or landing stage, according to the city’s tourism office, a name it has lived up to.
In the middle ages, the city grew into one of the most important international trade centers in Northwest Europe. Fine Flemish cloth was a particularly hot export, something that the city is still known for today.
But in the 16th century, Bruges was beset by political instability and gave up its title as trade hub to Antwerp. The town floundered until experiencing a rebirth as a tourist and cultural destination at the end of the 19th century, a designation it held onto.
Today the city, with a population of 120,000, gets more than 2 million visitors a year – many on one-day jaunts from nearby Brussels. Like Salamanca, the city has a remarkably well-preserved old town. Six centuries of medieval and neo-Gothic architecture can be found in the center’s narrow and winding streets.
For 2002, Bruges has given the 122-meter spire on the landmark Church of Our Lady – home of Michelangelo’s Madonna - a face-lift and will restore the 19th century City Theater. The city has also commissioned Japanese architect Toyo Ito to build a pavilion that the city hopes will become a future landmark.
Organizers plan hundreds of art exhibitions, concerts and performance events, many of which will take place in the city’s newly constructed Concertgebouw. Highlights include the Royal Ballet of Flanders performance of Tschaikovsky’s Swan Lake from March 22-23 and the operas Anitgone and L’Orfeo in August and September.