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Art throughout the year in two of the precious stones of the continent

Next year’s two European Capitals of Culture will be Plovdiv in Bulgaria and Matera in Italy. Two such cities do the honours each year and this year they are Valletta in Malta and Leeuwarden in the Netherlands. The system works by rotation, and Hungary was last represented in 2010 when Pécs was one of the two. The country’s next occasion will be in 2023, when one of Debrecen, Győr or Veszprém is expected to be the choice.

Plodiv's ancient Roman amphitheatre

Plovdiv is Bulgaria’s second-largest city, after the capital Sofia, and it is the nearer of the two to Budapest for anyone wishing to partake in the year-long series of cultural events. These always have a strong pan-European dimension, so some Hungarian involvement is possible when the calendar is released. Plovdiv is a just over a 900-kilometre drive or train ride (745 kilometres by air), compared with Matera, deep in southern Italy and 1500 kilometres away by car (784 by air).

Known as the city of seven hills, Plovdiv has a very well-preserved Roman amphitheatre sitting in the saddle between two of the hills. Excavated as recently as 1972, the Ancient Theatre provides a marvellous view of the city of some 340,000 people and of the distant mountain ranges. It is Bulgaria’s most impressive man-made sight and will host many concerts and plays in 2019.

Plovdiv boasts plentiful other Roman ruins, being one of Europe’s oldest cities. Its history goes back to a Neolithic settlement dated at roughly 6000 BC. It became an important Roman city in the early centuries of the new era and was fought over by Bulgaria and Byzantium for much of the Middle Ages.

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Plovdiv prospered towards the end of the Ottoman Empire and its rich Bulgarian citizens invested in the Orthodox church, Bulgarian-language education and culture, and the vernacular “National Revival Architecture” that can still be admired today. It missed becoming the new capital of Bulgaria after the Ottomans were defeated, since it was left in the Ottoman province of Eastern Rumelia for another seven years, leaving Sofia to become capital of the new Bulgaria.

The enchanting old town is a quiet and laid-back labyrinth of cobbled streets lined with colourfully painted timber-framed 19th-century houses with overhanging oriel windows. Glavnata, the long and wide main street of the city centre, is completely pedestrianised, allowing the population to enjoy their daily promenade in the evening or simply sit and people-watch from one of the many cafes. The street crosses the river Maritsa via a covered bridge.

The best times to visit are spring and autumn, when the temperature is usually 15-24C. Summer can be very hot, 35-40C. Winter is cold and snowy but rarely below freezing.

It is a taste of Renaissance Bulgaria. Earlier, Roman writer Lucian opined: "This is the biggest and loveliest of all cities. Its beauty shines from far away." In 2018, Plovdiv is Bulgaria’s biggest tourist magnet but is still considered something of a hidden gem that hasn’t yet been over-run by visitors. In 2019, as a European Capital of Culture, its buzz can only get louder.

At Matera, less than 70 years ago some 15,000 people, mostly peasants and farmers, were still living in grottoes, or Sassi, carved out of limestone that dated back to Matera’s prehistoric era: dank dwellings with no natural light, ventilation, running water or electricity.

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Disease, particularly malaria, cholera and typhoid, was rampant. Bed space was scarce, with children squeezed with their parents into bunks that were deliberately built with space beneath for chickens. Coveted animals were kept indoors to prevent theft. Large families would gather around a small table once a day to share a simple meal of bread with pasta or pulses.

The child mortality rate was high and Luigi Plasmati, 89, who grew up amid chronic poverty in a crammed cave, lost one of his five siblings. Those who survived grew up illiterate. "I was working from the age of six, going out early in the morning to cut grain in the fields," he said. "You’d try to sell the odd cigarette here and there to make some money, but there was never any money to spend."

In the most extraordinary way, that history of squalor and poverty is now proving to be the making of Matera in the 21st century. A recent report by the University of Siena said more than 25% of the housing stock in “the city of caves” is available to rent on Airbnb, the most in Italy.

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On top of enjoying a remarkable tourist boom comes Matera’s selection as a 2019 European capital of culture. The impoverished cave dwellings of the Sassi – literally "the stones" – are providing the economic platform for a more prosperous future.

 

Reed more at The Budapest Times

 

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