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What the Heck is a European Capital of Culture?

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And what does that have to do with a bunch of cows migrating across downtown Marseille?


Transhumance, as remembered in Marseille, European Capital of Culture 2013 (Photo LaProvence.com)


Because the transhumance  – the migration of herds between pastures – was staged during Marseille’s tenure as European Capital of Culture for 2013.

Yes, culture, one of those terms so broad it could strangle you.

It can mean the arts… painting, theater, dance, poetry, music, sculpture, classical or avant-garde, individual or collective, high culture, pop culture, street art or film.

It can also mean the social behaviour or customs or lifestyle of people in a certain place – including ancient agricultural traditions.

And culture can mean hearts.

Guimaraes, European Capital of Culture

One of the many hearts dotting Guimarães during its year as European Capital of Culture

When I visited the Portuguese city of Guimarães in 2012, I saw hearts everywhere: Hearts on buildings, in parks, on doors. Handmade hearts.

Hearts of stone, hearts of cloth.

Guimarães, too, was a European culture capital.

Having worked for two decades in international development, I’m slightly suspicious of sweeping descriptions: grand global this, worldwide that. They’re usually far more modest than their bombastic names imply.

But something about this one tickled me.

Perhaps it was a throwback to childhood and sitting on my mother’s lap as she taught me the capitals of the world (I could name them all by the age of seven but gave up – they changed each time a country became independent.)

I mean… Capitals. I was hooked.

It all began with a woman

The scheme was the brainchild of Melina Mercouri, Greek actress turned minister of culture, in conversation – and here accounts diverge – with either the German foreign minister or the French culture minister.

With Europe expanding and becoming increasingly diverse, the continent needed some glue and this master plan could provide it.

So Europe in 1985 came up with the label ‘Cities of Culture’ (the term Capitals of Culture arrived later) to promote Europe while showcasing each city’s uniqueness.

Ms Mercouri and history obliging, Athens was the first. 

Dozens followed.


Some choices have generated a bit of politics, like San Sebastian in Spain, whose Basque culture makes a few people nervous.

Cities don’t seem to be complaining

Events like these are good for diversity, it would seem.

They bring new people into cities, help open up minds and sweep away parochialism (most of the time, anyway – sometimes they help stimulate base instincts instead).

Neighborhoods work together and get to know one another better.

As people visit a city, more money flows in, the city becomes more popular and more people visit, a virtuous circle of tourism that improves long-term economic prospects. The ‘year’ is also an opportunity to invest in old buildings and broken down transport systems, using the Cultural Capital as an excuse to improve infrastructure – ‘for visitors, you know’.

Cities seem to like the scheme. More than 80% of those taking part say they have benefited and are glad they were involved.

Like Umeå in Sweden.


And cities are lining up to compete in the bidding: for 2016, 16 Spanish and 11 Polish cities applied.

Here’s an example: Riga’s pitch for 2014.


The cultural capitals plan is called ECoC (all government schemes require an acronym). It just passed its 30-year mark and is still going strong.

And it’s not just about the cities.

Each plan must have a clear European component, some kind of ‘European value added’ that improves the perception of Europe as a whole. This might be done by bringing in artists from other European countries or showcasing their work.

Of course it’s neither perfect nor universally popular

Detractors argue everything from cost to selection methods to relevance to crowds. In fact, controversy around the (formerly top-down) selection of cities forced the EU to revisit the process and make it more democratic.

New buildings have been known to go over budget, artwork has crumbled and crashed to the ground and some cities have been saddled with debt. Inclusivity and participation have not been universal and many disfavoured suburbs or underserved minority groups feel they have been left out.

It is also a given that no public endeavour involving money and visibility can possibly be concluded without petty infighting and politics.

There is even criticism of culture itself, about its elitism and inaccessibility.

Where you might think “culture” involves such refined events as operas (it does) and classical concerts (that too), there are also plenty of… fun things. Like hearts.

Some cities try to go a step further by including groups who aren’t regular consumers of culture, whether by staging a concert in a prison or placing a piano on a riverbank to allow strollers to play.

When a city becomes a Capital of Culture things go nuts and places you may never have heard of – like Guimarães or Mons – suddenly become (modestly) famous.

They take advantage of the publicity (and of the €1.5 million – US$1.7 million – Melina Mercouri Prize that comes with it) to refurbish museums and spruce up theaters, but also to experiment with art forms that wouldn’t be as popular if the local taxpayer had to foot the bill.

So how does a city actually become a European Capital of Culture?

Not overnight.

Each year, two EU countries are chosen as hosts: for example, 2017 is reserved for Denmark and Cyprus, with the Netherlands and Malta on for 2018.

But the process starts much earlier.

Six years before a country’s ‘reign’, it invites its own cities to apply. An independent panel of cultural experts pores over the applications and eventually recommendsone city in each of the two countries, giving them ample time to prepare.

As I write this in early 2016, the cities have been chosen through 2019 and most countries are confirmed until 2033. In a gesture of openness (and in response to pressure and criticism), one city in a non-EU country which has applied for EU membership can be chosen every three years.

So yes, I like the scheme: I discovered cities I had never heard of, attended cultural events I would never have seen otherwise, and generally opened up to new and diverse art forms.

Plus – visiting these ‘capitals’ is (relatively) achievable.

I’ll never make it to all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Nor will I see Every Country in the World Before I’m 80.

But European Capitals of Culture? Possibly.

Seems I’ve been to 32 out of the 54 named so far. Like Santiago de Compostela and Istanbul. (Lots of catching up to do.)

This is a time of deep divisions in Europe; culture can reach across borders and bandage some of our fissures. While politicians in Brussels throw spitballs at one another, artists and citizens can forget their differences under a cloak of art.

Or behind a herd of cows.



  1. Catherine Sweeney on February 16, 2016 at 6:20 pm

    Thanks to Melina Mercouri for getting the ball rolling. I’ve been lucky to a few (haven’t counted yet) of the culture capitals and I’m making it a goal that I visit all of them, too. Most recently, I was in Guimarães, but didn’t see any hearts remaining since 2012. Maybe some were covered by Christmas decorations. The first city that really impressed me as a European Capital of Culture was Marseille. I was fascinated to learn about the significant economic and cultural impact on the city. At least in the cases I’ve seen, the designation brings such a feeling of pride with it.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on February 16, 2016 at 6:54 pm

      That’s been my impression too. Another (far grander) scheme is the Olympics, but those cost overruns are so spectacular that they tend to leave a sour taste. This is a more modest platform and encourages cities to dig into their past and come up with the unusual and the specific – and I love that.

  2. Green Global Trek on February 17, 2016 at 12:27 am

    Of course everyone probably has a different definition of culture, depending on their background and their own culture.
    Love the photo of Transhumance.

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