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Plovdiv 2019: Historic moment for a historic city

January 14, 2019

Bulgaria's second city has been inaugurated as European Capital of Culture 2019, an honor it shares with the Italian city of Matera. Under the motto "Together," Plovdiv kicks off a yearlong celebration of culture.

A light show at the opening of Plovdiv's European Capital of Culture festivities
Image: DW/T. Schauenberg

The ancient city of Plovdiv put on a party on Saturday night complete with fireworks, light shows, concerts and speeches from dignitaries as it took up its mantle as European Capital of Culture.

Having been an architectural hot spot during Roman rule, Bulgaria's second city has again taken center stage in the region. 

'Unique' moment

"This is a unique and historic moment for our city," said Plovdiv Mayor Ivan Totev before the opening ceremony.

The artist collective Phase7 staged an impressive light show in front of tens of thousands of visitors as performances by local musicians and dancers gave a foretaste of the European Capital of Culture 2019 motto: "Together."

As Plovdiv residents combine to showcase their distinctive city, a number of headline events are planned throughout the year, including the Ayliak Art Parade in May on Europe's longest boulevard. The focus will be on slow, sustainable and harmonious living via green, creative products and innovations.

Meanwhile, Tobacco City is an already opened flagship project implemented by the Plovdiv 2019 Foundation that is transforming abandoned tobacco industry buildings through multi-genre artistic actions, installations and exhibitions — the postindustrial zone is also part of the European Route of Industrial Heritage.

Read morePlovdiv: European Capital of Culture 2019 

Projectors light the sky during the European Capital of Culture 2019 opening ceremony
Projectors lit up the sky during the European Capital of Culture 2019 opening ceremonyImage: AFP/Getty Images

Rome of the Balkans

"Together" is an apt slogan for a city where juxtaposed layers of ancient architecture are constantly revealed: ancient Greek columns leaning against Roman walls near 400-year old Ottoman baths. While encountering a synagogue or an early Christian basilica in a Plovdiv alley, visitors will be overshadowed by the 15th century Dzhumaya Mosque that towers above the city center.

Often called the Rome of the Balkans, diverse elements of Roma, Armenian, Ukrainian and Turkish culture also fill the streets.

"It has always been the case that people of different cultures and ethnicities have shared this spot on earth. It's part of our DNA," says Svetlana Kuyumdzhieva, curator of Plovdiv 2019. But while this spirit is reflected in the program, so are Plovdiv's inherent cultural tensions.

In June, the Medea theater project brings together children and adolescents of different ethnicities and religions; "100% Plovdiv," a project led by the renowned theater collective, Rimini Protokoll, is also intended to bring together theatrical works from a wide variety of backgrounds.

A women smiles wearing a beret next to an art object
Kuyumdzhieva attended the traveling exhibition "Art Liberty," which consists of painted parts of the Berlin WallImage: DW/T. Schauenberg

Meanwhile, the To Learn from Stolipinovo project will try to build a bridge to the marginalized local Roma community, the largest in the Balkans. Despite Plovdiv's pretensions to cosmopolitanism and diversity, its long-established Roma population living in the Stolipinovo enclave continues to suffer from xenophobia and racist hostility.

"When we made the application [for title of European Capital of Culture] we revealed our problems, detailed them in our agenda and now we want to tackle them, with the help of this year of culture," Mayor Totev told DW.

Read moreHow the 'Germans' are changing the largest Roma enclave in Europe 

With the whole city now talking about contemporary art, Totev notes it has also been possible to spend more money in the schools in the Roma community neighborhoods and to make the trendy bohemian district of Kapana car-free — something that was previously unthinkable.

The good, and the bad

While the local community is trying to face up to the city's inequities, 2019 will also highlight the fact that much of Plovdiv is young, creative and energetic. In a city where English is spoken, especially among young people, the locals identify as Europeans — after all, Bulgaria is a member of the EU.

Bars, cafes and colorful, quirky street life greet visitors to Kapana, Bulgaria's only hipster district. Here, IT student Ludomir Marovski, who works in a local cafe, is divided when asked about the year ahead.

"I am delighted with the many attractions and international people that are coming, but what I don't understand is why ticket prices are also being raised for some exhibitions," he said. "Now there is money from the EU but we have to pay more. That's not possible."

A young man stands by a wall with street art
Marovski is looking forward to many international guests — but not the higher ticket pricesImage: DW/T. Schauenberg

The 23-year-old is one of many locals concerned that the city has recently raised ticket prices for cultural events by 20 percent.

Another oft-stated criticism is a failure to implement promised projects — including the renewal of some Tobacco City former factory buildings that have now been left to the elements.

Local resident Penka Poydovska is nevertheless proud of what her city has already achieved. "It's the best thing that could happen to us," she said. "This year will be good for everyone, and if more tourists come, so much the better."

And the tourists are coming. Even as Plovdiv 2019 was being planned, the number of visitors grew to 1 million in 2017, with around 1.5 million expected to have visited in 2018. Despite some teething problems, this year will likely break all records.