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Transforming Kosice

Silke Bartlick / hw
December 30, 2012

Kosice in Slovakia has a long multicultural tradition - and serious problems. As a European Capital of Culture in 2013, the city is now looking to make changes and redirect its future.

Old Town in Kosice
Image: DW/S. Bartlick

Guests at the Golden Royal Hotel are forced to use the back entrance since the street at the front of building has disappeared. The entire stretch has become a building site littered with trucks, cables, pipes and piles of gravel.

Kosice, a small city in eastern Slovakia, is undergoing a major revamp. Money has flowed into the city since it was announced that it is one of two European Capitals of Culture in 2013, along with Marseille. The European Union alone has contributed 60 million euros (nearly $80 million).

Streets, squares and green spaces have been created alongside new cultural projects, such as the transformation of a disused barracks into a culture and creative center and the conversion of a shabby swimming pool into multi-functional arts space.

Few people believe these ventures will be finished in time. "No problem," says Jan Sudzina, director of the Society of the Preparation of Culture Capital Projects.

Construction work on disused swimming pool in Kosice
This disused swimming pool is being turned into a multi-functional arts spaceImage: DW/S. Bartlick

No major celebrations are planned for 2013. It's more about the long-term transformation of Kosice from a post-Soviet to a modern city.

In concrete terms, that means Kosice is using its year as a European Capital of Culture and the opportunities - including the funding - it brings to reinvent itself.

A city transformed

If everything goes as planned, the city should become a platform for creative collaborations between businesses and artists in the eastern Slovakian region. Transformed into a center of artistic and industrial production, Kosice should be a must-see destination.

But today it's hard to even get there. Whether by bus, car or train, the journey is incredibly long: 500 kilometers from Warsaw, 1,140 from Berlin and 1,550 from Brussels.

Direct flights to the city only go from Vienna, Bratislava and Prague. "Our" airport, says Iveta Ninajova from the Visit Kosice tourist board, is in Budapest, Hungary, a three-hour train ride away.

Dilapidated housing blocks in Košice
Thousand of Roma people in Kosice live without electricity in dilapidated housing blocksImage: DW/S. Bartlick

Kosicewas once a wealthy and flourishing city. The imposing, late Gothic St. Elisabeth Cathedral, the historical, late 19th-century theater, and all the resplendent townhouses in the Old Town are a reminder of the past.

The upturn in the city's fortunes came due to its geographical location on a trade route and German settlers who made their mark on the town they called Kaschau.

For centuries, Kosice was one of the most important and largest cities in the Hungarian Empire. The cultural life of the city flourished and the transition to the modern period went without a problem.

In the 19th century, new factories and manufacturers sprung up. Good money was made, as evidenced by the erection of new buildings in the Wilhelminian style.

In the maelstrom of time

In December 1918, with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kosice fell to Czechoslovakia. From 1938-1945 it was once again part of Hungary, and since 1945 part of Czechoslovakia.

In February 1948, the Communist Party took control of the country. Industry in Kosice was spurred on massively. With the establishment of the East Slovakian Ironworks, the economic importance of the city grew once again and more districts filled with socialist apartment blocks were built.

Then the Iron Curtain fell. In January 1993, Czechoslovakia was divided into the Czech and Slovakian Republics. Since then, the city of Bratislava, close to the Austrian border, has been the capital of Slovakia.

Bratislavahas boomed, with next to no unemployment. Kosice, on the other hand, has been cast to the sidelines.

An abadoned synagogue in Kosice
This abandoned synagogue is evidence of the 11,500 Jews who lived in Kosice before the HolocaustImage: DW/S. Bartlick

The sale of the steelworks, a decrease in jobs, an unemployment rate of almost 30 percent, and the emigration of young people and creatives have taken their toll on the city.

Kosicenow has a population of around 240,000. Germans, Czechs, Hungarians, Ukrainians and Roma live alongside Slovaks.

But now the city has a big chance to turn itself around as European Capital of Culture in 2013. The city wants to overhaul its image away from industry and towards creativity.

Public spaces will be revitalized and the population is to be integrated in the process. That's why the cultural events planned for 2013 will take place in residential areas and in the area surrounding the city.

The projects are informed by the history of the city and raise up the forbidden and the suppressed, such as author Sandor Marai, who is revered in many countries but virtually unknown in his home city.

Tourist attraction

And naturally the city is hoping to attract countless visitors. It has good, hearty Slovakian food to offer. A host of diverse cafés to while away the time can be found in the Old Town. Accommodation ranges from student halls of residence to comfortable international hotels.

Bus trips from Krakow and Budapest will come to the city in 2013, says Iveta Ninajova from Visit Kosice. And it's possible that direct flights are established from Germany and Great Britain.

However, visitors to Kosice should be sure to pack a pair of sturdy shoes, since it isn't yet clear when the construction work will be complete.