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Matera (Italy) and Plovdiv (Bulgaria) are the European Capitals of Culture 2019. The European Capitals of Culture initiative is designed

to highlight the richness and diversity of cultures in Europe, celebrate the cultural features Europeans share, increase European citizens' sense of belonging to a common cultural area, foster the contribution of culture to the development of cities. In addition ...

to this, experience has shown that the event is an excellent opportunity for regenerating cities, raising the international profile of cities, enhancing the image of cities in the eyes of their own inhabitants, breathing new life into a city's culture, boosting tourism.

European  Capitals  of  Culture,  according  to latterday  legend, were born at Athens airport in January 1985, a day of high winds and delayed flights. Sitting in the lounge waiting for their planes were glamorous former actress Melina Mercouri, then Greece’s Minister of Culture, and her French counterpart, the charismatic Jack Lang.

They  were  fresh  from  a  meeting  of  Europe’s  culture  ministers, and said it was a shame  that there were so few occasions  of  this  kind.  They  talked  about  this  and  that  and  as they  killed  time  in  lively  conversation,  Mercouri  came  up with  the  idea  of  launching  a  series  of  yearly  events  that would put the spotlight on cities around Europe and their role  in  the  development  of  European  cultures.  Lang  was keen and so the European Capitals of Culture initiative was launched.

Matera was the first southern Italian city to be recognised as a European Capital of Culture. But, like many towns across the region, it bears the wounds of structural deficiencies, such as high youth unemployment. Such problems, often chronic in the south of Italy, are exacerbated by historic and deeply rooted difficulties in a town which was virtually abandoned for more than 40 years after the Second world war. Cut off from the modern economy, Matera was one of Europe’s poorest cities, where families lived in grottoes, the “Sassi” (literally stones) carved out of the limestone that dated back to Matera’s prehistoric era. The extent of the squalid conditions in the Sassi only came to international attention when writer Carlo Levi was exiled by Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime to a town close to Matera in 1935. In his book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, published in 1945, Levi described the horror he witnessed – the paltry furniture, children either naked or in rags, bodies ravaged by disease – and concluded: “I have never seen in all my life such a picture of poverty.”

In 1952 Italy’s prime minister, Alcide De Gasperi proclaimed a state of emergency in Matera, described by Rome as “a national disgrace”. The inhabitants of the Sassi were eventually evacuated and relocated a few kilometres away. Matera would remain deserted and silent until 1993 when Unesco declared the Sassi, once a source of national shame and a symbol of poverty and disease, a world heritage site, following a long list of achievements that eventually led to its selection, along with Plovdiv in Bulgaria, as a 2019 European capital of culture.

Plovdiv is the first Bulgarian city chosen to be European Capital of Culture. In 2019, twenty years after the city was a host of the Month of Culture in 1999, it will celebrate the most prestigious cultural initiative of the European Union. Plovdiv is one of the oldest cities in the world and the oldest living city in Europe. In the Balkans, roads are crossing from all directions of the world, so different eras have left a beautiful prints in its posture. Historical monuments from the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires adorn the face of the city. The life here is full with the fire of the ancient times and the flames of the future. Beauty and grace are built into the architectural heritage of the City under the hills, which also is an amazing cultural center.

European Capitals of Culture have already been designated for the next few years: 2020 Rijeka (Croatia) and Galway (Ireland); 2021 Timișoara (Romania) and Elefsina (Greece) and Novi Sad (Serbia, candidate country); 2022: Kaunas (Lithuania) and Esch (Luxembourg).

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