Veszprém Gears up for Year as European Capital of Culture

In Hungary

Veszprém, the administration center of the eponymous surrounding county, was once home to Queen Gizella, wife of Saint King István I. Next year, it will be the Cultural Capital of Europe. Despite COVID and the war in Ukraine, preparations are well underway.

Photo by Geza Kurka Photo Video / Shutterstock.com

Frustrated drivers in Veszprém have been complaining for months about a surfeit of roadworks impeding their passage, primarily due to the city preparing to become the European Capital of Culture next year. But the pain will be worth it, says Mayor Gyula Porga.

Veszprém, a city with a population of just 60,000, 120 km southwest of Budapest, may not seem an obvious choice as the European Capital of Culture. Yet, it defeated two far larger and arguably better-endowed rivals, Győr in the west and Debrecen in the east, in the final round of the competition in 2018.

“We worked very hard for this. As you may know, it’s only a single city that can apply for the ECoC title, but it was important for Veszprém and me personally to include the Balaton-Bakony region, the surrounding towns and villages in the application, as they face similar problems as us here. The international judging committee really liked this idea of inclusion,” Porga told international journalists at the end of September.

The outcome of this effort is that the city is now in partnership with more than 120 municipalities in the program. Populations vary from villages of a few hundred to 20,000-30,000 in towns such as Balatonfüred, Várpalota and Ajka.

As a result, to better reflect the project’s aims, its official name is the Veszprém-Balaton 2023 European Capital of Culture (VEB2023 ECoC).

“This was not some [marketing] trick; this was genuine. I believe we are stronger when we are together,” the mayor stressed, although he admits that managing the hopes and aspirations of so many different localities is not always easy.

Especially since Porga also stresses that 2023 is not to be “all about headlining stars and massive events throughout the year.” Veszprém, along with the surrounding region, has to cope with the combined effects of aging populations and youth emigration. Thus, for the mayor, it is vital that the ECoC year is “no flash in the pan,” that events reach people in even the smallest communities and that the infrastructure improvements are widespread and sustainable.

“It was important in the bidding process to outline what challenges the city and region were facing, culturally and infrastructurally, and how, if we won the title, the city would use the cultural program to implement solutions to these challenges,” Porga says.

Events Galore

In terms of cultural programs, the ECoC project is supporting a plethora of events ranging from “traditional” concerts (be they folk, classical or contemporary), artist days and book readings to more “off-the-wall” happenings, such as “joy drumming,” where local specialist Dániel Franczia teaches groups of beginners the fun of how to conduct a drum orchestra.

This is not to omit wine and gastronomy, an area of vital interest to the Balaton region, which has been developing its range and quality of wines over the last 30 years in a process that has arguably been overshadowed by similar trends in more famous wine districts, such as Tokaj and Villany.

Péter Tungli, program director at Balaton Wine&Gourmet, which is managing the principal events in this segment for ECoC, is keen to promote the importance of the local viniculture industry.

“There are six different wine regions around Balaton, all with different terroirs and grape varieties, including some indigenous vines not to be found anywhere else,” he says.

Local gastronomy is mainly focused on fish from the lake and game from the Bakony forests. These resources, he maintains, represent a sustainable chain of supply, though necessarily based on seasonality, which, as Tungli puts it, is “the new keyword for both bistro food and fine-dining experiences.”

Infrastructure Investments

However, despite the efforts to disperse events, it is still Veszprém that will host the biggest shows and experience the greatest number of infrastructure developments. Indeed, it is home to 49 of the grand total of 68 construction projects being undertaken to prepare for the Cultural Capital year.

In terms of value, the city will benefit from an even larger slice of investment, taking EUR 103 million of the total of EUR 111 mln allocated for developments, according to data from Veszprém 2030, the municipality’s own company responsible for infrastructure development. The EUR 26 mln renovation of the former children’s hospital, which had been derelict for two decades after the change of system, is “the flagship project” in the investment package, says Péter Lamos, chief executive of Veszprém 2030. This downtown building will open next spring as a center for movement-related arts, redesigned to host activities from folk dancing and ballet to wall climbing.

But perhaps the most intriguing development is the conversion of part of the former city prison, in the castle district, into a museum. This will not, as ECoC press officer Mihály Müller is quick to point out, focus on torture or cruel methods of correction but rather document the history of the sociological background to criminality and the rehabilitation of convicts.

“It will not be about torture; it’s not to frighten people with how prisoners were torn apart, because you can see that in many places. The message behind the new museum is completely different,” he insists.

Inevitably, some Veszprém drivers consider the current traffic jams a form of modern torture brought on by the Cultural Capital project. But when asked if the city could have attracted the EUR 103 mln in investment (primarily provided by state funding) if it had not won the hosting rights, the response of Veszprém 2030’s Lamos was straight and to the point: “Not a chance,” he said.

Making Roman Remains Available to the Masses

This year, fall has come early at Baláca, a lonely, windswept site 10 kilometers south of Veszprem, somewhat shielded from the gusts by the surrounding trees. It was, maybe, on such a day when, in 1904, a plowman preparing the soil here unearthed the stones of what later transpired to be the most extensive remains of a Roman farm in Pannonia.

Perhaps this should be better described as a Roman agricultural complex. For almost 120 years later, after much painstaking, on-off work by dedicated archeologists, visitors can view the intricate yet massive 62 sqm stone mosaic and other impressive technical developments, such as underfloor heating, all associated with the lifestyles of the local “super rich” two millennia past.

Though the site is hardly the proverbial “hidden gem” of the tourist guide book (being well advertised in local tourism circles), the ECoC team believes the 2023 cultural program will boost visitor numbers to Baláca and scores of other lesser-known attractions across the region, especially with marketing programs now being carefully prepared.

The management team at Baláca is certainly readying itself for an influx of guests, with a particular emphasis on enabling children to understand life and its challenges all those centuries ago.

“The kids love the virtual reality tour we’ve installed. It brings [the ruins] to life. We have to limit their time on this, or only a few would be able to experience it when visiting,” says Adrienn Pálinkás, cultural manager at the National Institute of Archaeology.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of October 7, 2022.

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