How being a European Capital of Culture reshaped Bulgaria’s most ancient city 

While 2019 saw a massive boost for artists, many long-term challenges remain for Plovdiv’s ambition to become a major European cultural hub.  

Visit Bulgaria and you will inevitably hear about Plovdiv – a major city in the centre of southern Bulgaria and the country’s cultural heartland. 

Very few cities in Southeastern Europe have retained their importance throughout the millennia, and arguably none as long as Plovdiv. Bulgaria’s second city boasts a historic record dating back to the 6th millennium BCE, making it a chief contender for the title of Europe’s longest continuously inhabited city, well ahead of Athens and Rome. 

There is another title which Plovdiv is famous for in Bulgaria, however. In 2019, Plovdiv became joint European Capital of Culture (ECoC) along with the Italian city of Matera. It was the first city in Bulgaria to receive the title. Its grand hills, ancient Thracian, Greek and Roman ruins, remarkable revival-era architecture and vibrant art scene were put on display for the world to see.  

Now, four years later in 2023, Plovdiv proudly looks back at its achievements and promotes its position as a leading cultural centre in the Balkans and Europe as a whole. 

The Plovdiv – European Capital of Culture 2019 programme ran under the slogan ‘TOGETHER’ and included 320 projects split into four thematic platforms – Fuse, Transform, Revive, and Relax.  

The stated goal of the programme was to “contribute to building capacity in the management of cultural projects, engage the local scene, involve large and small independent organisations and community centres, and boost the consciousness of Plovdiv’s citizens as European citizens.” 

A year to remember 

Culture has long been at the heart of the city council’s outlook for the city, capitalising on its leading cultural position within the country. The ECoC programme was crucial for revitalising the city’s art scene and tourism sector. From the renovation of central vistas to foreign exhibitions and annual festivals, it brought new life to Bulgaria’s oldest city. 

Plovdiv’s bid for the European Capital of Culture had its humble beginnings at the grassroots level with local artists wanting to further develop the city’s cultural sphere. This philosophy shaped the official programme which sought to revitalise the city’s unique creative industry and bolster tourism – a sector Bulgaria has been keen on investing in long-term. 

By the end of 2019, the programme had encompassed around 800 events attracting over 1.2 million visitors out of a total of 2.2 million who visited the city that year. Tourism in the city also grew by 27 per cent in the period 2015-2019, with nearly half of the foreign visitors coming from EU member states. The tourism revenue these events generated for the Bulgarian economy amounted to 400 million leva (205 million euros). 

The local art scene also benefitted massively. The Plovdiv 2019 Foundation was created to facilitate the execution of the programme, creating a wide net of partnerships with artists and creative organisations, including 90 from Plovdiv, 150 from the rest of Bulgaria and 130 from across Europe. 

This generated attention for the city provided opportunities for local and international artists to collaborate and boosted the local art scene. The number of cultural or sport-related enterprises in Plovdiv grew by 25 per cent, while the employment rate in the sector grew by 16 per cent. 

While 2019 saw a massive boost for artists, many long-term challenges remain for Plovdiv’s ambition to become a major European cultural hub. 

In a conversation with the Bulgarian magazine CapitaL in February 2023, local Plovdiv artist and curator Emil Mirazchiev commented that “there’s a lack of this clear, long-term vision independent from politics.” The creation of a modern art museum is a major goal and a major missed opportunity for Mirazchiev, who has previously worked on many of the city’s premier art projects, including the Banya Starinna contemporary art gallery. 

“Of course, things happened, there were events, but crucially, if we look at the most important thing in the entire policy and framework of the project — the construction of infrastructure – we’re leaning towards a big zero,” he added, citing the unfinished plans to transform derelict parts of the city into cultural landmarks. This includes the Tobacco City project to revitalise old tobacco warehouses, the creation of a multifunctional arts centre, and a cultural centre in the Roma neighbourhood of Stolipinovo. 

Pavel Nachev from the citizens’ initiative “Plovdiv – City for the people” shares a similar view. In a conversation with Emerging Europe, he points out that the programme’s successes were largely thanks to the city’s active community. 

“The potential was not fully reached, but it was definitely beneficial for the city. This is, however, entirely thanks to Plovdiv’s citizens,” he adds. “Many projects failed due to the city’s administration.” 

“Winning the title was absolutely a great thing for the cultural scene, for the city’s image, for tourism. But could it have been done better? Yes, absolutely.” 

Many projects, however, did come to fruition. Most notable among them are the renovation work on the Central Square and the transformation of the city centre’s Kapana neighbourhood into a trendy creative district filled with artisan shops, cafés and restaurants.  

A long-term vision 

Challenges are abundant, but Plovdiv’s cultural development is far from over. The city council is still committed to investing in the cultural sector long-term – a requirement by the ECoC programme itself no less. According to the council, for every euro invested in culture, three euros in revenue are generated. The city continues to cherish its European Capital of Culture title to this day and is an invaluable brand for the city’s tourism sector. To continue with the development of the sector, the Plovdiv 2019 Foundation remained operational as a part of the city council after the programme had concluded. 

Like many European tourist destinations, the city took a hit during the Covid-19 pandemic making it hard to estimate the program’s effects in the years that followed. Nevertheless, the city came out of the pandemic stronger than ever in 2022, gaining one per cent more visitors than in 2019. 

Plovdiv’s Deputy Mayor for Culture, Archaeology and Tourism Plamen Panov tells Emerging Europe that there are many other events unrelated to culture throughout the year as well, but Plovdiv remains famous “mainly for its events in the cultural sphere”. 

He also notes the city’s commitment to the European Capital of Culture brand in the years after the programme ended. 

“This is a title that remains and we continue to be the first Bulgarian capital of culture. Most former European capitals of culture do not retain the (administrative) structure of their programmes, but Plovdiv retains it in order to continue investing in local culture,” he adds, drawing attention to the continued work of the Plovdiv 2019 Foundation. 

Regarding the programme’s legacy, Panov notes that, “Most cities close down their ECoC organisation, but Plovdiv retains its own in the form of a committee and continues to uphold the brand,” citing plans to adapt the programme’s branding as the city’s official tourism brand. 

As a follow-up to 2019, the city launched its HERITAGE programme which has been running since 2020 and includes a wide range of events, while festivals like Hills of Rock attract regular visitors every year.  

While the years have passed since the City of the Seven Hills held the spotlight, Plovdiv remains unique in its commitment to the brand. 2019 opened a new chapter in the city’s millennia-spanning history and it will remain Bulgaria’s cultural heart for a long time to come. 

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