Veszprem is one of the oldest cities in Hungary — almost as old as the nation itself — and dates roughly from the arrival of Christianity in the country. It was home to the country's first university and episcopal see, which was established in the early 11th century. Indeed, for centuries, Hungary's queens were crowned here by the bishop of Veszprem.
Today, the city has a population of 60,000 and is shaped by industry and culture. In recognition of the region's musical diversity, Veszprem was made a UNESCO City of Music in 2019. "In terms of the city's sociographical make-up, there are both white-collar and blue-collar workers here: lots of engineers who studied at the city's university and now work in its many factories, and the laborers who work in those factories too," said Zoltan Meszaros, chief adviser for program development at Veszprem-Balaton 2023 European Capital of Culture.
David versus Goliath
When bidding for the title of European Capital of Culture, Veszprem had two fierce rivals in Hungary: Gyor and Debrecen. "On the one hand, we had a very firm intent. On the other, it was really a case of David versus Goliath. We were the smallest city, but we were the most enthusiastic," he told DW. There was another factor that tipped the balance in Veszprem's favor: The city bid for the title together with the surrounding region of Balaton.
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Lake Balaton is only 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from the city. "I regard myself as a citizen of both Balaton and Veszprem," says Meszaros. "People here often have a double identity. Most spend their summers at the lake and the rest of the year in the city. It's a blessing and a curse because while the lake attracts lots of tourists, it draws them away from the city," he adds with a smile.
Building bridges within the region
Meszaros sees it as an interesting challenge that the city and region are hosting the event together. "What interested me was how Veszprem can rethink and reestablish its bond to the region. This is a task for the next 10–20 years. Lake Balaton has, for example, an environmental problem. And although it can't be fixed within a year, we can draw our visitors' attention to it."
One of the organizers' most important objectives is to improve existing links between the communities in the city and the region and to build bridges. One goal is to encourage young people and students to stay in the region and to attract more people to it. The hope is that the many cultural events will draw attention to existing problems and make the region a great place to live in the long term.
Regeneration and sustainability
Inota, a former lignite-fired power plant 26 kilometers from Veszprem, was closed down at the start of the millennium. Its abandoned cooling towers will be used as a location for a festival of light and electronic, experimental music next year.
Daniel Besnyo is in charge of the project: "This is the largest remaining industrial relic in Hungary. It's important to us that we reach the locals. The power plant is important to them because their parents or grandparents worked here. They have a connection to this place. We are leading by example by bringing life back to the site. We want to make the program sustainable and organize it anew every year."
Breathing new life into abandoned buildings
An abandoned orphanage on the outskirts of Veszprem will also be repurposed. Built in 1903, it will be turned into a culture and leisure center in 2023. The ActiCity Centre will provide ideal training and performance facilities for groups that have until now been spread out all over the city. Groups dedicated to classical ballet, folk dance, various different kinds of social dance and modern forms of movement will at last find an affordable, self-supporting home here.
The early 19-century Ruttner House was saved from collapse quite literally at the last minute. This is a prime example of how a rough corner of the city, which was latterly used only by the homeless, has been repurposed and given a new lease of life. The house could have been turned into a luxury hotel, but the organizers had other ideas: They assessed accommodation in the city and realized that there was nothing suitable for school trips. It will now be used, among other things, as a hostel for school classes.
A paper dog brings the Old Town to life
"No more boring Tuesday evenings" is the motto of the restaurant Papirkutya (Paper Dog) in the Old Town. The restaurant is filling a gap in the city's cultural scene: Until it opened, there was nowhere where people could enjoy local food and wine and interesting events simultaneously until late in the night. Now it organizes Tuesday-evening concerts.
Because there was so little going on in downtown Veszprem in the evenings, the university's 2,000 students preferred to stay on campus. The "Paper Dog" and the numerous other new cafes, bars and pubs opening up in the city are certain to change all that.
Massive program of events
The program for 2023 includes about 3,000 events. An app with detailed information has been developed for visitors.
On January 21, 2023, Veszprem-Balaton's year as a European Capital of Culture will officially begin with a street festival. This will be followed in February by a festival of contemporary literature. In April there will be a blues festival and in May an international dance festival. Other festivals will include a festival of Hungarian film in June and an opera festival in July. This will be followed by a world music festival in August, the festival of light in Inota in September and a jazz festival in November. There are no plans for a major closing festival, but there will be a big party.
The government in Budapest is contributing 70 billion forints (approx. €175 million/$186 million) to the event. About one-third of this will be spent on the program and its organization; the remaining two-thirds have been earmarked for infrastructure investment. With a well-thought-out concept, enthusiastic organizers and adequate funding, Veszprem-Balaton seems well-equipped to be one of Europe's Capitals of Culture in 2023 and ready for its moment in the spotlight.
Author Agnes Szabo
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