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Rijeka and Galway: 2020 European Capitals of Culture

Rayna Breuer sb
February 1, 2020

A cultural awakening is set to overcome decades of political and historical struggle as Rijeka in Croatia and Galway in Ireland take up the crown of European Capitals of Culture. Opening celebrations are underway.

Bildkombo Kulturhauptstädte 2020 | Galway und Rijeka

While the information boards and advertising banners from 2019's cultural capitals Plovdiv and Matera are gradually disappearing from the city streets, Rijeka in Croatia and Galway in Ireland are taking up their mantles for 2020. Opening ceremonies began on Saturday. 

Rijeka reawakened

Unlike other Croatian coastal idylls, Rijeka is often bypassed by tourists headed for Opatija or other typically picturesque towns on the Adriatic Sea. But while Rijeka might not be known for golden beaches laid out with sun chairs and colorful umbrellas, its charm is found in the diverse fabric of the city itself.

A crossroads between central and southeast Europe, the port city is a mixture of medieval fortresses, Habsburg-era palaces, Art Nouveau market halls, Italian piazzas, socialist housing blocks and abandoned factory halls.

Part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until the First World War, and from 1924 to 1945 mostly under Italian rule, Rijeka was then incorporated into the socialist republic of Yugoslavia that encompassed the entire Balkan region.

Under the rule of Marshal Tito, Rijeka grew into a model communist-era city with shipyards, refineries and factories as the population increased from 25,000 to 200,000.

Read morePlovdiv: European Capital of Culture 2019

But after the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, many state-run industries were forced to shut down and Rijeka's abandoned factories gave it a post-apocalyptic aura. Amid rising unemployment, the population steadily decreased to around 130,000.

Nontheless, Rijeka remained a tolerant and progressive cultural hub in Croatia where musicians and artists have long found a home. This fact was recognized when the city, in addition to Galway in Ireland, was chosen as the European Capitals of Culture for 2020. 

Kroatien Rijeka | Kulturhauptstadt 2020 - Straßenzug
Rijeka's city streets will be getting festive in 2020 Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Rijeka 2020 European Capital of Culture/B. Vukosav

Open, tolerant and multicultural

Rijeka's vibrant cultural life attracts many freewheeling artists and thinkers. It was the birthplace of the Croatian punk music scene, while seminal rock bands even thrived in Rijeka during the communist era. 

The port city stands in contrast to much of conservative Croatia by welcoming many nationalities, cultures and religions. For example, Rijeka hosts the Smoqua LTGB festival — "a celebration of communion, solidarity, activism and arts"  — that takes place without incident, unlike in other parts of the country where the far right is regaining momentum.

This is why Rijeka has chosen the motto "Port of diversity" to mark its tenure as 2020 European Capital of Culture, said Irena Kregar Šegota, Director for Partnership and Communications at Rijeka 2020, which oversaw the bid to become culture capital. 

"Rijeka is a tolerant city, one that not only accepts the differences, but also lives them," Šegota told DW. "We are also the first city in Croatia to be part of the Intercultural Cities network of the Council of Europe."

"Port of diversity" is also a motto for the rest of Europe. "To what extent is Europe ready to accept differences?" asks Šegota.

Saša Stanišić: Origin

A city transformed

Rijeka received a total of 40 million euros ($45 million) in EU funding for 2020's cultural activities. But unlike other cultural capitals, the city on Kvarner Bay did not want to build new buildings but instead transform its existing ones.

"The abandoned industrial buildings are part of the city's identity, they have a narrative value, which is why we decided not to tear them down but to redesign them," said Šegota.

One former industrial factory site now known as the Brick House will house four new cultural institutions including The City Museum of Rijeka, the Rijeka City Library and the Children’s House, dedicated to the development of creativity in children.

Meanwhile, a former cargo and military ship, The Galeb, which was also Tito's personal ship for a time, is being turned into a museum on the Rijeka port as part of the European Capital of Culture project.

"Some only identify this ship with Tito and Yugoslavia and are skeptical of how this chapter of our history is portrayed, but our goal is to show the entire history of the ship, which started long before Tito and is very exciting," Šegota explained.

Rijeka's cultural diversity is symbolized by its iconic new Islamic Center
Rijeka's cultural diversity is symbolized by its iconic new Islamic Center Image: DW

Galway: 'Barcelona with rain'

On the rugged western coast of Ireland, the city of Galway has a reputation for its constant rain and ubiquitous pubs. But the small university town with barely 80,000 inhabitants is also a font of Irish culture, from music to dance, literature and poetry. There is, to be sure, something for everyone.

"America is the next stop," said creative director Helen Marriage in 2019, at the launch of Galway's cultural program for 2020, of the city at the western extremity of Europe that fronts the North Atlantic Ocean.

The town is especially considered a stronghold for traditional Irish music, with street musicians playing on every corner — despite the bad weather.

"Galway is like Barcelona with rain, because it rains here 240 days a year," said Marriage. And for those looking to stay dry, it's as simple as stopping at one of countless Galway pubs. Apart from music, one might hear conversation in the Irish language that the city is looking to revive as part of its 2020 capital of culture program. 

Irland Galway Kulturhauptstadt 2020
Cosy Galway pubs hum with traditional Irish musicImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Tourism Ireland

Under the themes of language, landscape and migration, the Galway program is structured around the old Celtic calendar of Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain.

Read moreBad blood on the Irish border: the priest, the billionaire and the kidnapped executive

Alleviating Brexit tensions

As Northern Ireland is part of Britain and will therefore leave the European Union at the end of January, there are fears that the long-running conflict in Ireland could flare up again. Galway is located around 160 km from the border with Northern Ireland, and there is a hope that its 2020 cultural showcase could help to ease any tensions.

"The festival is just in time," said the Irish Ambassador in London, Adrian O'Neill at the presentation of the Galway 2020 program last year. "We need culture more than ever," he added, noting that culture can change attitudes.

While the European Capital of Culture title could help alleviate tensions over Brexit, the promise of literary readings by the likes of Booker prize winner Margaret Atwood on Galway's windswept beaches should entice visitors from all over in 2020. And no one should be intimidated by the weather forecast.