Lithuania's capital of Vilnius will show off its art and architecture as a European Capital of Culture in 2009. The city is pulling out all the stops to shine during its year in the spotlight.
Vilnius is expecting 3 million visitors
The New Year marks not only Vilnius' millennial anniversary, but also the first occasion that a metropolis in a former communist-ruled Soviet republic has been awarded the title of European Capital of Culture. Both the city and the country are keen to show themselves as authentic, hospitable destinations.
"It is important to remind Europe and the world of our heritage and it is equally vital to show how we live today in order that Europeans interested in Lithuania can discover just how close to them we are," President Valdas Adamkus told DPA news agency.
Lithuania has always been a European country, even if it did vanish from sight for nearly 50 years as a part of the Soviet Union.
Plenty of architectural gems
A slew of cultural events and concerts are being planned
Fortunately the neglect of the architecture and infrastructure of the old quarter of Vilnius by the Soviet occupiers has been largely made good.
And since 1994, this city of many epochs has been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List because it "has preserved an impressive complex of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and classical buildings as well as its medieval layout and natural setting."
Vilnius has also been renowned for the beauty of its Baroque architecture since the 17th century when artists from Italy, southern Germany and what was then the Austrian-Habsburg Empire settled there and worked alongside local builders.
Vilnius offers up art galore
Lithuanian art will be on display
Meanwhile, one of the world's most famous light artists, Gert Hof of Germany, is due to light up the wintry skies over Vilnius with a spectacular show scheduled for the eve of 2009. It is one of 120 projects encompassing 900 events which are being staged to mark the city's role as a leading cultural center.
The aim is to celebrate the dynamism of this eastern European metropolis and to lay the foundation for a range of future cultural and musical events to be held on an annual basis.
Among the attractions are art and theater programs, a street music festival and a roster of rock and alternative music concerts under the title of "Be2gether." Most of the events are free of charge to visitors.
Vilnius will benefit from a 2009 budget of some 30 million euros ($41 million) for the various programs and 55 million euros for a range of infrastructure projects.
Yet not everyone is happy that Vilnius has been chosen as a European Capital of Culture. An editorial in the leading Lithuanian daily newspaper Lietuvos Rytas blasted well-known figures in Vilnius for homophobia, anti-Semitism and racism.
Activists are eager to show off Roma culture
The Roma, also sometimes referred to as gypsies, hope to use the international attention to highlight their own plight.
Augustinas Beinaravicius, who is helping organize a festival featuring Roma music, dance and folklore, told Deutsche Welle that the going has been difficult.
"We decided to organize this festival because in Lithuania minorities are not dealt with very well politically or socially," Beinaravicius said. "They are somewhat oppressed by the government and we don't like that."
Svetlana Novopolskaja, who is herself Roma, said that the situation is very bad. There are about 500 people living in a political limbo of sorts in Vilnius, she told Deutsche Welle. Officially, many are not legally allowed to be living in the country, she said.
Roma will show their culture
Two years ago, the former mayor of Vilnius had ordered the houses in the Roma settlement outside town to be demolished. But the Roma fought against it. They continue to live outside of Vilnius, completely separated from the rest of society and are considered by many to be thieves and drug dealers.
Novopolskaja said she hopes the designation of Vilnius as a cultural capital will change that.
"The Roma hope that things that they can really do well, such as sing and dance, will be recognized by the majority of people," she said. "And that maybe with this they will be more accepted than they have been until now."