Surveys inquiring why Americans travel to Europe almost all point to one factor: culture. The majority of Americans still trace their DNA to the continent, and while their first stops in Europe might be English-speaking countries, 42 percent of passport-holding Americans revisit Europe frequently.
Recent studies indicate that tourists pursuing culture and heritage tend to stay longer than the average visitor by 20 percent, and they tend to spend almost 40 percent more than general tourists. Culture seekers also have the highest repeat visitation. So, the concept of the European Capitals of Culture is the right ticket to suggest new destinations in very old places.
Each year, the European Union designates one or more cities as European Capitals of Culture for one calendar year, during which it organizes a series of cultural events around those destinations. Two Old World cities are sharing the European Capital of Culture crown this year: Matera (Italy) and Plovdiv (Bulgaria). They are both rich with ancient sites and they are off-the-beaten-path; have high-quality accommodations; and offer local gastronomic opportunities — all with a very specific appeal for culture vultures.
Neither of these cities have direct flights from the U.S. Both have solid accommodations, if not for large groups, then certainly for independent travelers. And both are worth at least a two- to three-day stopover. Currently, operators serving either Italy or Bulgaria include Matera or Plovdiv as daytrips from larger cities.
Cave dwelling history and opera in Matera, Italy
Perillo Tours has added a daytrip to Matera, while at least three other tour operators are seriously considering visits to the town. But don’t let that stop you from directly booking a train ride from Bari, Puglia or from Salerno, Campania to Matera; or from Potenza in Basilicata.
This summer, in cooperation with Teatro San Carlo of Naples, Matera will stage the first, open-air performance of the opera “Cavalleria Rusticana.” The opening celebrations saw the gathering of some 2,000 musicians from all the villages of the Basilicata region and many other parts of Europe.
Matera’s current marketing tagline is “Open Future,” which is a bit ironic, as the 9,000-year-old city is most famous for its cave dwellings that were only depopulated between 1950 and 1969. Back then, peasants and farmers lived crammed in limestone grottos that were dank, damp, lacked light, ventilation and electricity.
The stunning landscape of Malta only tells part of its story. It is claimed to be the third-oldest, continually inhabited settlement in the world, after Aleppo and Jericho, but it has been during the last 70 years that the city has been dramatically altered.
Admittedly, cave dwellers are nothing new to the world – in Europe, the Middle East and even our own Southwest. But the society that grew within the cave dwelling population of Matera was, although impoverished, also culturally rich, sophisticated and somewhat contemporary, as the population was moved from the caves during the post-WWII years. During that time, the inhabitants operated 10 factories, three cinemas, and two museums – despite the fact that most were illiterate. The transition away from the caves resulted in massive displacement.
Miraculously, Matera went from a very wealthy city to an impoverished one to nearly a hip hub for today’s cave dwellers and visitors that number about 600,000 a year.
While in Matera, a visit to Casa Noha reveals many of the mysteries behind the dwellings, such as faulty urban planning and impaired judgment followed by a deep sense of pride. It also illustrates why this city deserves to be preserved, admired and unspoiled.
For a deeper look at the treasures in this town, be certain to arrange walking tours of the Sasso Caveoso, where many of the dwellings are in use today and they have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A visit to one of the Ripastri Churches, cave churches, will reveal fading frescoes and messages beseeching the powers that be for bountiful crops.
Roman and Slavic influence in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Plovdiv is the first Bulgarian city to be chosen as a European Capital of Culture, but it has always been one of the most popular tourist towns in Southern Bulgaria. Under the banner of “Together, 2019” the city is counting on gaining international visibility, at the very least.
More than 300 projects have been organized in Plovdiv and the South-Central Region of Bulgaria, as well as in the cities of Varna, Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo. Of these, the capital city of Sofia and the Black Sea town of Varna are most well-known, and the latter is a frequent port stop on Black Sea cruise itineraries.
Plovdiv may be one of the most Roman cities on the Balkan peninsula, but parts of Bulgaria were equally influenced by the Greeks, Thracians, and an arm’s length of various cultures. But once the Roman Empire dissolved, the country united with the Slavs to form the Bulgarian state under the Byzantine Empire.
Historians mark the Bulgarian Revival at the beginning of the 18th century, when its citizens reclaimed their ethnic identity and threw off Ottoman domination. Harkening to that period, highlights of the city include the Old Quarter, the Roman amphitheater, and the Bulgarian Revival 19th-century architecture that characterize the streets of Plovdiv.
Among the most famous and best-preserved Ancient Roman sites are the Roman Stadium, which can seat up to 30,000 spectators; and the Roman theater, which was constructed during the 1st century A.D., is currently in use, and can accommodate 5,000 to 7,000 spectators.
Festivals and community-based projects range from exhibits that follow the discovery of the Cyrillic alphabet through to joint theater productions with the Western Balkans and the Roma and Turkish communities.
If visiting in summer, try to include a stop at the world-famous Valley of the Roses, where 70 percent of the worlds’ rose extract is produced.
Like its neighbors, Bulgaria transitioned to a market economy, a new constitution, and elections in 1989, followed by European Union membership by 2007.
Why you should care about the European Capital of Culture tradition
The European Capital of Culture tradition is celebrating its 34th anniversary this year. It started in 1985 when Greek actress Melina Mercouri, then Greece’s Minister of Culture, and her French counterpart, Jack Lang, came up with the idea to showcase the continent’s cultural diversity.
Most big cities don’t need the designation to bring attention to themselves, but lesser-known cities gain well-deserved recognition, attract investments, and often emerge with a new profile on the tourism spectrum.
The beauty of being chosen for the reign, even when a city shares it with another, is that each city obtains grants and investments that can dramatically improve tourism facilities and infrastructure. Thus, the cities can take giant leaps, instead of baby steps, in improving their stations on the cultural radar.
One of the most dramatic transformations took place in 1990, when the sooty, industrial town of Glasgow in Scotland prepared for its reign. It was transformed into an art city, after having been overlooked and living in the shadow of the more obviously beautiful Edinburgh, where the castle is a travel icon.
Glasgow brushed itself off, and steam-cleaned its heart, only to reveal its industrial roots, but with architectural details that were once hidden: The delightful gardens in town, and the Glaswegians (who finally got a chance to introduce themselves to the world that year).
Last year, two cities shared the European Capitals of Culture crown: Valletta (Malta) and Leeuwarden (The Netherlands). In 2020, the culture capitals will be Rijeka (Croatia) and Galway (Ireland). In 2021, they will be Timisoara (Romania), Elefsina (Greece) and Novi Sad (Serbia, candidate country). In 2022, Esch (Luxembourg) and Kaunas (Lithuania) have been named. For 2023, Veszprém (Hungary) has been recommended.