From Sibiu to Turku, the nom­i­na­tions are ever more ob­scure

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - TRAVEL - By OLIVER SMITH

In­tro­duced in 1985 with the noble aim of bring­ing our con­ti­nent closer to­gether, the Euro­pean Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture scheme of­fered few early sur­prises. That year saw Athens be­stowed with the ti­tle (birth­place of democ­racy, fair choice), the fol­low­ing year it was Florence’s turn (birth­place of the Re­nais­sance, un­der­stand­able), then came Am­s­ter­dam, Ber­lin and Paris.

The first hint of change came in 1990, when Glasgow — which, while it has plenty to offer (ex­trav­a­gant ar­chi­tec­ture, mu­si­cal her­itage, and more ball­rooms than you can shake a se­quin at), is a wee step down from the City of Light. Thes­sa­loniki, 1997’s Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture, was another in­ter­est­ing choice, but few could ar­gue with Copen­hagen (1996), Stock­holm (1998), Lis­bon (1994) and Bruges (2002).

The last decade, how­ever, has seen some very cu­ri­ous ci­ties take cen­tre stage.

Sibiu (2007) now looks like a wa­ter­shed mo­ment. This Ro­ma­nian city on the Cibin River, in the heart of Tran­syl­va­nia, is so ob­scure that even Ryanair doesn’t fly there. Since then we’ve seen a clutch of cu­ri­ous out­posts hon­oured and next year will be no dif­fer­ent. Join­ing Val­letta (there are two hold­ers an­nounced each year now) is Leeuwar­den. On the as­sump­tion that you, like most peo­ple, have never heard of it, al­low us to shine a lit­tle light on this over­looked Dutch city, and oth­ers that have been handed (or will soon be given) the Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture ep­i­thet.

Leeuwar­den (2018)

Few vis­i­tors to the Nether­lands look be­yond Am­s­ter­dam and Rot­ter­dam, but Leeuwar­den, cap­i­tal of the north­ern prov­ince of Fries­land, has much go­ing for it, in­clud­ing a hand­some his­toric city cen­tre and a for­mer palace (now a ce­ram­ics mu­seum). It also hosts the start and fin­ish of the Elf­st­e­den­tocht, a tra­di­tional 120-mile skat­ing con­test that rushes be­tween 11 towns in the re­gion, veer­ing along frozen canals.

Leeuwar­den’s most fa­mous cit­i­zen is ar­guably Mata Hari, the ex­otic dancer and Ger­man spy ex­e­cuted by fir­ing squad 100 years ago. The city’s Fries Mu­seum ex­hibits two of her per­sonal scrap­books and a statue at Kelders 33, where she was born, com­mem­o­rates her.

Look out too for the Olde­hove, Leeuwar­den’s an­swer to the Lean­ing Tower of Pisa.

Sibiu (2007)

Ryanair might not fly to Sibiu, but Wizz Air does (from Lu­ton). So get­ting to this Tran­syl­va­nian town couldn’t be eas­ier. Vis­i­tors will find it filled with art, churches, cob­bled pi­az­zas and Me­dieval arch­ways, all of which have earned it flat­ter­ing comparisons with Prague — mi­nus the crowds.

Its time as Euro­pean Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture saw a wave of restora­tion. “Even un­der com­mu­nism this place was a bit spe­cial (Ceaus­escu’s play­boy son, Nicu, made it his base),” says Tele­graph Travel’s Adrian Bridge. “But the dull greys of that era have been re­placed by sky blues, reds, apri­cots and greens, and to­day it pos­i­tively thrives.”

Pécs (2010)

First things first: this Hun­gar­ian city is pro­nounced “paitch”, and it lies in the far south of the coun­try, a good two-hour drive from Bu­dapest. It was en­dowed with a new con­cert hall, li­brary and cul­tural quar­ter in 2010, but what else is there to woo trav­ellers? “One key lure is the Mediter­ranean cli­mate — spring comes early and sum­mers are hot,” says Nigel Tis­dall. “Another is the lo­cal wine, with the full-bod­ied reds from Vil­lány par­tic­u­larly worth be­friend­ing.”

He adds: “This is a city where the more you look the more you find. In its cen­tral square, Széchenyi tér, the em­blem­atic cop­per-domed MosqueChurch stands as a re­minder of the 143 years Pécs spent un­der Turk­ish rule. In the depths of Cella Sep­ti­chora, a well-dis­played set of early Chris­tian burial sites that forms a Unesco World Her­itage Site, bi­b­li­cal faces stare up from the depths of time. Find a mo­ment, too, for the Csontváry Mu­seum, which cel­e­brates the sin­gu­lar vi­sion of a mys­ti­cal Slo­vakian painter lauded by Pi­casso.”

Turku (2011)

This Fin­nish city lies to the west of Helsinki and was given a chance to shine in 2011. It did so with a spec­tac­u­lar cer­e­mony along the River Aura in­volv­ing py­rotech­nics, ac­ro­bat­ics and a thou­sand lantern-bear­ing school­child­ren, fol­lowed by a year of cul­tural ex­hi­bi­tions.

“Fin­land’s old­est town is a sea­side gem with a ma­jes­tic cathe­dral, river­boat bars and an im­pos­ing cas­tle,” says An­drew Stone, our Scan­di­navia ex­pert. “Head along the Au­ra­joki to the har­bour where there’s a great choice of drink­ing and din­ing op­tions in­clud­ing on sev­eral moored river­boats. For fam­i­lies Turku is also close to Moomin World, the is­land theme park de­voted to Tove Jans­son’s oth­er­worldly chil­dren’s story books.”

Lovers of fresh air take note: it’s also one of Europe’s least pol­luted ci­ties.

Guimarães (2012)

One of Por­tu­gal’s most un­der­rated gems is an easy day trip from Porto. “If any city can be de­scribed as adorable, then it is Guimarães,” says Tim Pozzi. “Its pedes­tri­anised heart is a web of gen­tly wind­ing cob­bled streets and wash­ing-hung al­ley­ways be­jew­elled with tiny bars and cute cafés. Those al­ley­ways lead to pretty plazas that, rather sat­is­fy­ingly, tend to be any shape but square, while its dinky, idio­syn­cratic shops, spe­cial­is­ing in lace­work, hats or bird­cages, are a joy to dis­cover — with­out a Body Shop or a Zara in sight.”

At­trac­tions in­clude the pho­to­genic re­mains of a 10th cen­tury cas­tle and the José de Guimarães In­ter­na­tional Cen­tre of Arts, or take the 10-minute ca­ble-car ride over res­i­dents’ back gar­dens to the 2,000ft peak known as Penha.

Mari­bor (2012)

The Slove­nian city, in the north­east of the coun­try, joined Guimarães as Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture in 2012.

“They say there is only one month of the year when you shouldn’t visit Mari­bor,” says An­thony Gard­ner. “In mid­win­ter it has world-class ski­ing; in spring the Kurent Car­ni­val takes place in nearby Ptuj; in sum­mer the river­side Lent quar­ter is taken over by mu­si­cians and street per­form­ers; and in au­tumn the sur­round­ing vine­yards cel­e­brate their har­vest. Novem­ber alone is con­sid­ered too gloomy to bother with.” You’ve been warned.

Kosice (2013)

It might be ob­scure, but, thanks again to Wizz Air, Bri­tons can fly di­rect to Slo­vakia’s sec­ond big­gest city (from both Lu­ton and Don­caster/Sh­effield).

“Bratislava prob­a­bly ranks as one of cen­tral Europe’s more un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated cap­i­tals, so its com­pa­triot Kosice could hardly be seen as a case of fa­mil­iar­ity breed­ing con­tempt,” says Chris Lead­beater. “None­the­less, there are a few rea­sons for vis­i­tors to linger. It was a Euro­pean Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture in 2013, and re­tains some of this spirit in the sculp­ture and paint­ing of the Muzeum Vo­jtecha Lof­flera (ded­i­cated to the prom­i­nent Slo­vak artist, who was born in the city in 1906). Else­where, the St El­iz­a­beth Cathe­dral is a splen­did Gothic mas­ter­piece which dates to the 14th cen­tury — while Art Nou­veau flour­ishes in the likes of the Ho­tel Slavia re­mem­ber the city’s gilded take on the turn of the last cen­tury.”

Umeå (2014)

Another of Europe’s least pol­luted ci­ties, Umeå lies a long way north on Swe­den’s east­ern coast — so pack a fleece. 2014’s Euro­pean Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture, but we’d wa­ger still largely un­known among Bri­tish trav­ellers, it has a tran­quil river­side set­ting and is the for­mer home of Stieg Lars­son, au­thor of The Girl with Dragon Tat­too.

It’s a great base for out­door pur­suits, from kayak­ing the Kvarken Ar­chi­pel­ago in sum­mer to snow­mo­bile rides and dog-sled­ding in win­ter.

Plzen (2015)

The birth­place of the world’s most pop­u­lar beer style has more to offer than golden lager.

Will Hawkes ex­plains: “Home to nearly 170,000 peo­ple, Plzen — the fourth largest city in the Czech Repub­lic — is easy to nav­i­gate: most sites of in­ter­est can be found within 10 min­utes’ walk of the cen­tral Na­mesti re­pub­liky (Repub­lic Square), which boasts St Bartholomew’s Cathe­dral and the Re­nais­sance Town Hall, built in 1559. Get a taste of Pilsen’s cul­ture at the NeoRe­nais­sance Mes­tanska beseda or Burghers’ Hall, the city’s an­swer to the South Bank Cen­tre. There are more than two thou­sand events a year in its theatre, cin­ema, halls and lounges — but if you just fancy a drink, try the el­e­gant Art Nou­veau cafe.”

Ri­jeka (2020)

Ryanair flies to this Croa­t­ian port, which will be Euro­pean Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture in 2020.

Ri­jeka’s econ­omy is largely re­liant on ship­build­ing, but it does have a few draws for trav­ellers. The Ri­jeka Car­ni­val, for ex­am­ple, at­tracts up to 100,000 spec­ta­tors; the pretty hill­top dis­trict of Tr­sat fea­tures an im­pres­sive fort and sev­eral his­toric churches; and the lovely is­land of Krk is a short drive away. It might also be used as a launch­ing point for a tour of the Is­tria re­gion, known for its fine scenery and good food.

Kau­nas (2022)

In five years it will be the turn of Kau­nas, a lit­tle-known Lithua­nian city that can, nev­er­the­less, be reached di­rect from five UK air­ports (thanks to Ryanair).

The for­mer cap­i­tal has quite a nice vibe, with some cul­tural land­marks and sur­round­ing coun­try­side: not a bad bet if you’ve al­ready been to Vil­nius — or want to jour­ney from there to the coast.



6 Among the great cul­tural cap­i­tals of Europe: (1) Sibiu; (2) Kosice; (3) Guimarães; (4) Leeuwar­den; (5) Turku; (6) Mari­bor.

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