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A triple dose of culture: Europe’s cultural capitals

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Kaunas is one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2022 (photo © Krivinis / dreamstime.com).


Can you name Europe's three capitals of culture for 2022? All three are the second-largest cities in their respective countries. Step forward Esch-sur-Alzette, Novi Sad and Kaunas. International visitors to the latter two will surely find it immensely frustrating that there are no cross-border train services to Kaunas and Novi Sad.

Have you noticed that we are getting more culture than ever before? When the European Capital of Culture (ECOC) initiative was launched, one city was showcased each year. The first three designated cities were Athens (1985), Paris (1986) and Amsterdam (1987). The ECOC programme took on a new dimension in 1990 with Glasgow standing centre stage and using the ‘capital of culture’ designation to spearhead urban renewal. Other post-industrial cities like Košice and Liverpool have subsequently done the same.

With the millennium, it was recognized that the European Union did not have an exclusive monopoly on culture, opening the door for successful applications from Bergen, Reykjavík and Istanbul. Over the last 20 years, there have quite often been two culture capitals each year, creating some unlikely pairings: Aarhus (Denmark) and Paphos (Greece) in 2017 or Matera (Italy) and Plovdiv (Bulgaria) in 2019.

This year sees three cultural capitals. Novi Sad in Serbia has been carried over from last year when ECOC fell foul of COVID. So we have a surfeit of European culture with the Serbian city showcased alongside Kaunas (Lithuania) and Esch-sur-Alzette (Luxembourg) in 2022. All three places are, as it happens, the second largest cities in their respective countries.

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