Here’s a look at Matera in Italy and Plovdiv in Bulgaria, the two designated European Capitals of Culture for 2019.
You might not be able to locate this year’s two European Capitals of Culture on a map. But that’s kind of the point, as the award tends to highlight lesser-known destinations and offer them the chance to shine.
Previous awards have highlighted places such as Košice in Slovakia, Liverpool in England, and Sibiu in Romania, all of which have benefited a great deal from the accolade.
We put Plovdiv against Matera to see which one comes out top as the destination we would like to visit first in 2019. Restless wanderers as we are, we do hope to visit both to partake in this year’s festivities.
If this is a battle of old versus new, then we must list the Sassi di Matera, a network of cave dwellings that have been inhabited since the Neolithic era. In the 1950s, the area was seen to be something of a backwater stuck in the past, where the modernity of the cities hadn’t yet reached. Seventy years on, Matera is being celebrated for that same exact reason.
Plovdiv, by contrast, is very much a city plugged into contemporary trends. We have been excited to see all of the new fashion brands coming out of the city, such as the streetwear brand WE YONIC, which is available online and at the city’s newly created Gallery 28 creative district. Think urban camo and sportswear meet traditional Slavic woven fabrics for an idea of their aesthetic.
That’s not to say that Matera is cut off from modernity. The MUSMA Museum of Contemporary Sculpture is one of the country’s leading sculpture institutions. You might also like to visit the quaint little pottery shop Dacia Capriotti for brilliant souvenirs.
Zlatyu Boyadzhiev Gallery, named after one of Bulgaria’s most famous artists, is definitely worth a visit. See if you can spot a shift in his style, from when after a stroke in 1952, he began painting with his left hand.
One of the themes of Matera’s 2019 campaign is ‘ancient future.’ In this part of Italy, a scientific lineage can be traced back from Pythagoras to the contemporary Space Geodesy Centre.
In Plovdiv ‘Beauty and the (B)east’ aims to promote the diversity and culture of the Balkans. ‘Multi Kulti Kitchen’ looks to be a particularly promising event that will showcase the food and drink of Bulgaria’s Ukrainian and Armenian population.
Matera and Plovdiv are actually working together as part of the event program. The ‘urban games’ will include courses on game design, urban installations, and outdoor performances. So that’s one all for working together.
Something that Matera certainly doesn’t have is the Alyosha Monument, the enormous statue of a Soviet soldier that overlooks Plovdiv. We have to be thankful that it still stands at all after the city nearly approved plans to transform it into a massive bottle of Coca-Cola. Perhaps that truly would have marked the triumph of Western Capitalism. Or perhaps not.
In Matera, there are sculptures that commemorate more recent tragedies than the Red Army’s battles in Bulgaria. La Palomba boasts a selection of artworks actually made from debris brought to Italy from Ground Zero in New York. The 9/11 works were made by the Italian artist Antonio Paradiso.
Finally, Plovdiv’s Roman Theatre forges a nice link between the two Capitals of Culture. The Bulgarian city is one of the longest inhabited in Europe and has thus seen all sorts of migrations and invasions. During their long tenure, the Romans installed plenty of magnificent architecture.
Matera, of course, is founded on Roman architecture and culture. Take a walk around the backdrop of the film “The Passion of the Christ” and feel as though you’ve been transported back to the Roman era.
So, is there a clear winner between these two wonderful Capitals of Culture? We’ll leave that up to you. Come back and tell us how you found these two up-and-coming cities.