The changes 2015 brought to the cultural politics of Plovdiv. Where are we headed?

plovdiv-2019-evropeiska-stolica-na-kulturataWe are all still overwhelmed by the joy we felt when Plovdiv was pronounced the Cultural Capital of Europe for 2019 earlier this year. Our reporter, Yoana Nikolova looks into what happens after the euphoria and celebrations are over and it is time to get down to work. Realisation of the ambitious projects turns out be way more stressful than expected.

Disgruntled Emil Mirazchiev wrote #resignation in big red letters on the door of the town council after furiously leaving a meeting. The huge discontent about the changes in the events calendar for the new year and the tension in the town council escalated after the board decided to cut off the money for certain projects in order to finance others.

However, putting aside this and other disagreements about the financing of the cultural calendar and misunderstandings between the council and the artists, 2015 marked Plovdiv with receiving the title of Cultural Capital of Europe for 2019 and put the Town of the Hills on the world map for tourism and culture.

In the past year Plovdiv’s citizens have been overwhelmed by art exhibitions, theatrical and opera premiers, street – art festivals more than ever before. From various cultural events to restoration of old monuments, to reconstruction of main roads and outdoor areas the town has been transformed into a place for cultural education, more outdoor activities, more socializing, more music and dancing – a town worthy of the title Cultural Capital of Europe.

The initiative is amongst the most prestigious cultural events in Europe and its main purpose is to strengthen the link between all nations on the continent. The idea was born back in the summer of 1985 in Athens and was soon turned into reality.

The new PLOVDIV 2019 sign in the town centre

Jose Manuel Barroso – President of the European Commission – said that the event has had a huge positive impact on each city. Glasgow won the title in 1990 and researches show that “the impact was dramatic in terms of building city confidence, of developing a strong strategic and practical base for future development. The event substantially changed people’s vision of Glasgow in the UK and beyond”, Mr Barroso said in an European Capitals of Culture publication for the foundation’s 25th anniversary in 2010.

The Ancient Theatre of Plovdiv, believed to date back to 98-117 AD

Little did the world know about the fairly small town of Plovdiv before it was awarded the prestigious title. In fact, the city known as the hometown of the seven hills of the Rhodope mountain is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe and also one of the oldest cities in the world. Plovdiv is a contemporary of ancient Troy and Mycenae still standing proudly by the seven hills.of Culture publication for the foundation’s 25th anniversary in 2010.

Until 23 May 2015, when Plovdiv celebrated the official designation of the European Capital of Culture title. Locals and guests celebrated under the motto Plovdiv TOGETHER with performances from the State Opera, Ensemble Trakia and Plovdiv Boys Choir, and 2019 balloons flew in the sky as a symbol of the emblematic year in which the town will actually host the event.

Plovdiv May 23, 2015, celebrating the official designtion

Looking back, the mayor of Plovdiv Ivan Totev said he is proud to be the leader of the city right now when its star shines bright on the cultural map of Europe.

“We all, the people of Plovdiv, made a great effort during the past four years to prepare our town and make the change in it. And it has changed and this is visible already. Undisputedly, we still have many things to improve by 2019, but it’s important that we have started and I believe we’re on the right track”, he said.

Valeri Kyorlenski, the executive director of the initiative “Plovdiv Together 2019” explained that the foundation’s main objective is strategic development and realisation of the goals the committee has set for itself.

He continued: “The conception “Plovdiv Together” has the ambitious task to unite people from different generations, ethnicities and religions in the town and the whole south central region through culture in the widest sense of the word. At the same time “together” also means integration of the historical layers, concentrated in the region, modernity and vision for future development. Our foundation also aims at strengthening the link between all these people and the territory they inhabit by bringing public places such as the hills, the river, the parks, the streets and old abandoned buildings to life again and transforming them into areas for culture, sport and leisure.”

Official logo

In its core, the European Capitals of Culture initiative is designed to highlight the richness and diversity of capitals in Europe, celebrate the cultural features Europeans share, increase European citizens’ sense of belonging to a common cultural area and 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 their international profile, enhancing the image of cities in the eyes of their own inhabitants, breathing new life into a town’s culture and boosting tourism.region through culture in the widest sense of the word. At the same time “together” also means integration of the historical layers, concentrated in the region, modernity and vision for future development. Our foundation also aims at strengthening the link between all these people and the territory they inhabit by bringing public places such as the hills, the river, the parks, the streets and old abandoned buildings to life again and transforming them into areas for culture, sport and leisure.”

Mr Ivan Totev added that the European Capitals of Culture initiative’s purpose is to be a “catalyst” for change in the areas of tourist development, increased inward investment, supporting the growth of new industries, physical regeneration, social engagement and enhanced pride in the city. He believes that the town of Plovdiv has long ago embarked on this journey to improvement when preparations for candidacy for the competition began four years ago.

“The improvement in the whole country began back in 2007 when Bulgaria became a member of the EU. Nonetheless, never has so much money been invested in culture before. We are moving as a country, making baby steps. And now because of this title, so much money is invested in one city and that’s why you can see the difference from the very beginning. This is an opportunity to put Plovdiv and the whole country on the world map of culture, tourism and education. In terms of history – it’s already here. We’ve been here for a long time and we’re here to stay – it’s just that no one really paid attention to us before. But now we have this opportunity to make the West realize Bulgaria is not a country from the Third world and we have a lot to offer – we’ve finally been offered a chance and we are taking it”, finishes the mayor of Plovdiv with a proud smile. He acknowledges that there is still so much to be done but says that he and his team have a plan and so many more projects are planned for 2016.

According to the ambitious cultural programme there will be an Island of Arts in the middle of the Maritsa river, the old tobacco warehouses in the city will be turned into cultural space, following the example of the extremely successful “Capana” (“The Trap”) transformation, the “Water Project” with approved financing of almost 100 million levs (£37 037 037) and many more.

One of the most important projects for 2016 is the excavations in front of the Episcopal Basilica in Plovdiv. This is the biggest Early Christian church found on the Balkans. The town council recently decided that this extremely valuable archaeological monument should be fully revealed and the priceless mosaics hidden under the road beneath the building should also be exposed to the public.

The “America for Bulgaria” foundation is actively working with the city council and is investing more than 5 million levs (£1 851 851) in this project. Architect Nikolay Traykov – manager of design and construction for the “America for Bulgaria” foundation, said the work should be finished by 2018.

He added: “All mosaics from the V and VI centuries are unreachable for us because they are under the road and so we don’t have any documentation for them. Their actual condition will be established after the excavation, but judging by the already found mosaics and architectural fragments they should be in a good condition and of extreme value.”

Mr Traykov said that the main purpose of the additional building will be to preserve whatever is found underneath, including the mosaics which will be exposed inside. The idea is that the new structure will protect the found valuables and emphasise on their worthiness. The foundation is aiming at maximum authenticity, according to the requirements of UNESCO.

“We fully understand that the closure of this main road during our work will be inconvenient to citizens, but even after the excavations the council plans to transform this into a completely pedestrian area anyway.

“We from the foundation and the city council both believe that the revealing of the whole Basilica is a historical obligation, a historical act that needs to be done”, Mr Traykov added.

Many locals have expressed their satisfaction with the council’s work so far through social media. The majority seems to be happy, seeing that all this money is used for improving the city. People say they are particularly satisfied with the new outdoor areas for sport and leisure and the cultural events taking place and that they feel ”the town is alive again”.

However, there are people who disagree with so much money being spent on events when the whole country is still struggling for financial stability. Borislav Iliev, a tax inspector for many years now, said he is extremely happy to see his hometown flourish, but at the same time believes that this money can be used for the “long – needed transformation of the whole infrastructure, health and improving of hospitals, more financial support for young families”.

Emil Mirazchiev, the angry artist who wrote #resignation in big red letters on the door of the council, said he strongly disagrees with the board’s decision to cut off the financing for projects such as the Beatbox World Championship, The “Ancient and Eternal” Dance festival, The Night of Museums and Galleries and many others.” Capana” (“The Trap”) fest and Plovdiv Jazz fest – two of the most successful festivals of the past year – have been cut off the cultural calendar for 2016 and will not be financed by the municipality, regardless of their success and popularity.

The board said that this way the saved 131 000 levs (£48, 520) will be used to finance other projects, previously not approved.

Mr Mirazchiev said his discontent with the committee comes because successful events have been completely cut off, whereas the three projects by “One” Group – The Week of Design, The Week of Architecture and The Week of Contemporary Dance, have again been approved “not because of their quality and success, but only because they are supported by Stefan Stoyanov”, assistant – mayor of Culture and chair of the” Plovdiv 2019” foundation. Mirazchiev also explained that Stoyanov is trying to “politicize our culture” and that is why he wants his resignation and has the support of many artists and members of the public.

It is obvious that the Cultural Capital of Europe title has brought Plovdiv back to life and the money the prize comes with is being invested in culture the best way possible. The initiative has already proven to unite people across Europe through culture. As to disagreements and conflicts between ourselves – the locals, the artists and the council – we need to let this great opportunity bring to life the bond we share as a nation first. And then, hopefully, it will reunite us with the rest of Europe.