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Cultural capitals of Europe

Special to the Chicago Tribune

The newly anointed Cultural Capitals of Europe for 2009 are Linz, Austria, and Vilnius, Lithuania, both a bit off the continent's prime tourist paths.

Separated by the Czech Republic and Poland, these central and northern European cities are near enough to each other to afford travelers a double treat. Both cities make for charming discoveries, especially in a year in which they are staging exceptional events.

Nearly any day you happen into the old towns of Linz or Vilnius this year, the streets will be given over to celebrations and special events as cultural capitals. This honor has been passed from city to city across Europe each year since 1985. Last year it was Liverpool, England, and Stavanger, Norway; now it's Linz's and Vilnius' turn to show off.


West of Vienna and straddling the banks of the Danube, Linz is small enough to have retained its picturesque neighborhoods but big enough to have maintained cultural charms dating to the Middle Ages. Linz's cultural heritage once drew the likes of composer Anton Bruckner and astronomer Johannes Kepler, but today Linz is best known for its devotion to culture of a very modern bent, especially with cutting-edge electronic media. What's been dubbed the Culture Mile stretches along the Danube, linking the venerable Brucknerhaus concert hall to the flashy new Ars Electronica Center on the north bank.

Linz inaugurated its cultural reign on New Year's Eve with an explosion of fireworks on the Danube, dubbed the Rocket Symphony. Then the bars and clubs of Linz threw open their doors for an all-night party. New Year's Day then saw the official opening concert, the world premiere of Philip Glass' latest symphony in the Great Concert Hall. The next day, Jan. 2, the Lentos Kunstmuseum on the Ernst-Koref-Promenade hosted the Best of Austria, a gathering of 100 top artworks on loan from across Austria, a collection that remains on view through May 10.

Jan. 2 also marked the inauguration of new floor space to the Ars Electronic Center, which has become the mecca of electronic art and media in Europe. The Ars Electronic Center is highlighting a major theme of the Linz 2009 program: the celebration of the city's 12 neighborhoods. Throughout the year there will be a movable feast of neighborhood celebrations, each neighborhood showcasing its art, music, architecture and cuisine in monthly succession.

In May, for example, the neighborhood spotlight will be on Linz-Mitte, an immigrant section where residents of Middle Eastern, Indian, African, Turkish and Balkan origins now live. A dozen local guides will be on hand to take visitors on a walking tour.

For tourists at any time of year, the place to start is Linz's main square, the Hauptplatz, location of the Linz09 InfoCenter, which is not easy to overlook. It's the new building with the checkerboard facade. The InfoCenter is the place to reserve tours, hotels and tickets, as well as to find what's coming up next (phone 0732-7070-2009).

In the Cultural Year, there always is plenty coming up. From Feb. 6 to April 26, for example, the Nordico-Museum will be "Doing Magic." Illusionists, hypnotists, occultists, fortunetellers and magicians have played the music halls and roadsides of Linz since the 18th Century, and many of their gadgets, magical apparatuses and automatons will be on display here.

From March 2 to June 30, the Landesgalerie Linz (Art Galley of Linz) will be dedicated to the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. A more somber display is slated to occupy the Schlossmuseum (Castle Museum) through March 22. Titled "The Cultural Capital of the Fuhrer," the collection reflects on the everyday life of Linz under the Nazis, 1938-1945, and shows how German dictator Adolf Hitler dreamed of making Linz into the main cultural center of the Third Reich. It was in Linz that Hitler spent his early school days.

In the end, Linz and its Nazi steelworks were heavily bombed during World War II, and the new Cultural Capital that has risen from the ashes has an altogether different look. Even the Castle of Linz itself (Linzer Schloss) has taken wing--or rather, added a new wing that affords visitors an expansive view of the city.

Late spring brings four widely varied events to Linz. The annual Crossing Europe Film Festival will run 150 films in local theaters April 20-26, mainly flicks by young, unconventional European directors. Then comes May Day, the first of May, the streets reverberate with marching bands making a three-day procession to Postlingberg, the peak in northern Linz.

This event is called simply Parade, and the bands, whose members will pitch their tents along the way, feature not only brass instruments from Zanzibar and Iran but alphorns from Switzerland, balaphones from West Africa and duxianqins from China. For some, this long parade will be merely a warm-up for the Linz-Danube Marathon on May 17. For others, it will be a tuneup for Linzfest09, a May 30-June 9 party in the Donaupark on the Danube with music, cabaret, art and food. Artists from former European Capitals of Culture will be on hand.

Linzfest heralds summertime, as festivals come fast and furious. July 23-25 will usher in Pflasterspektakel, a no-holds-barred street art festival in the inner city with samba groups, jugglers, actors, acrobats and fire-eaters. July 27-Sept. 2 will encompass Theaterlust 2, with performances of Kuttiyatam theater from India as well as contemporary expressions from Africa, Asia and Europe. Theaterlust 2 will include performances in Linz's parks and gardens, ample stages given that 60 percent of the city consists of green space.

For special events in autumn, head indoors. The Sept. 3-8 Ars Electronica Festival, now in its 30th edition, is the fall headliner. This year's special edition will focus on the future, and it will do so with performances and workshops in its newly enlarged facility known as the Museum of the Future.

The electronic music and media festival will be followed by another keystone in the Linz cultural calendar, the annual Brucknerfest. The opening concert on Sept. 13 is Josef Haydn's "The Creation," which will be enhanced by an "open-air optical-acoustic" performance. The chief venue for Brucknerfest is Brucknerhaus, one of Europe's premier concert halls. This year's performers will include the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra and the Wiener Philharmoniker with Zubin Mehta. Linz has long been associated with Europe's supreme classical composers. Mozart's house in Linz, a stalwart tourist attraction, is where he wrote his Symphony No. 36, now known as the Linz Symphony.

A Sept. 20 concert at the Landestheater returns Linz's wide-ranging musical focus to the modern age with a piece titled "Kepler" by Philip Glass. Later events continue to stretch the acoustic spectrum. On Austria's National Day, Oct. 26, the Vienna Philharmonic pays a special call to Brucknerhaus to perform Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, while from Nov. 11-21 masters from all over Europe will play and spar as they honor an altogether different type of performance in a program titled "A Proper Punch-and-Judy Show."

On whatever date one visits Linz, there will be neighborhood celebrations and special Cultural Year events. Each and every evening at 6, Tower Music will ring out over the city as trumpets sound from parish church towers, harkening back to older traditions. Every Sunday at Stadtpfarrkirche on Pfarrplatz, music students will perform one of the clarion trumpet duets by Romanus Weichlein, Linz's best known baroque composer. On any day of the week in 2009, one can visit the Kepler Salon and converse with astronomers and physicists. This salon is in the house at 5 Rathausgasse, where Johannes Kepler resided from 1612 to 1627.

For a break from the festivities anytime from May to September, visitors can climb aboard the world's steepest adhesion railway (the most common type of railway) in Hauptplatz and ascend to the peak of the Linz's "sacred mountain," Postlingberg (elevation 1,761 feet). This promontory has been a longtime Linzer favorite for family outings. Today it is the site of a pilgrimage church (Gottenbahn) from the Baroque era that affords stupendous vistas of Linz and Upper Austria.

For those drowning in the sounds of Linz, the Hermit in the Tower program offers the ultimate antidote. During 2009, volunteers can take a vow of silence and live in the steeple of St. Mary's church for a week at a time. The hermitage contains a bed, table and chair. There are no computers or mobile phones, but there is a diary that will pass from hermit to hermit for the year. Should all else fail, take refuge in the elegant shops in the side lanes off Landstrasse, Linz's main street, or simply tuck away in a comfortable cafe for a slice of Linzer Torte, a local seducer for three centuries.


Sharing the throne as Cultural Capital in 2009, Vilnius has served as Lithuania's political capital since 1323. More recently it was occupied by Germany and then the Soviet Union, until Lithuania regained full independence in 1991. Today the city most often is visited for its extensive Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site surrounding the ruins of a 14th Century castle. With more than 20 Eastern Baroque churches still standing, Old Town Vilnius is Europe's largest baroque town. Even so, Vilnius also boasts the world's first statue of American musician Frank Zappa, and its most famous son, at least to modern moviegoers, is the man-eating serial killer Hannibal Lecter.

Given Vilnius' independent character and wide-ranging assortment of cultural icons, one would expect the city to have fun and raise a few eyebrows while co-ruling Europe's cultural realm in 2009. Indeed, the New Year's kickoff did break a few barriers, with Gert Hof orchestrating a light show, and a spectacle titled @hofman_Spragtukas delivering a thoroughly contemporary version of "The Nutcracker."

The facade of the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports was transformed into a multilevel glazed wall, musical performances were broadcast onto huge screens installed in Cathedral Square, and at midnight along the banks of the Neris River 60 spotlights, 10 laser cannons and other assorted devices fired a dome of light "visible from outer space."

In the coming months, Vilnius will offer some 3 million visitors their pick of 900 events, 600 of which are free. A number of the top events are classical in flavor. Winners of the annual Herbert von Karajan Competition, for example, are slated to perform at the Vilnius Congress Hall in January through May, with former winner Gintaras Rinkevicius conducting the opening and closing concerts. An Homage to Jascha Heifetz Jan. 9-13 at the Lithuanian National Philharmonic Concert Hall puts competing violinists to the test and closes with a concert by violin virtuoso Gidon Kremer. The London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Valery Gergiev, plays May 14, and the Sacred Music Festival runs from May to the end of 2009 in the churches of Vilnius, where the sounds cover a wide spectrum, from Corsican and Tartar folk songs to a Scarlatti oratorio for St. Casimir, Lithuania's patron saint. The church that bears St. Casimir's name was built 1604-1615, the oldest of Vilnius' Baroque masterpieces.

Romantic and experimental as well as Baroque opera will get a hearing at the Opera and Ballet Theater during the June 9-July 4 Vilnius Opera Festival, but not all the music in Vilnius during 2009 will be so traditional. Downtown squares and parks will reverberate with funkier sounds on May 2, for instance, during Street Musician Day, and in February, June and November, European jazz masters will pour into the Lithuanian National Drama Theater and the Philharmonic Concert Hall. Three stages in Vingis Park will frame an electronic music festival, Creamfields, on July 10-11. And the Klezmer Festival will hold forth in halls and public spaces Aug. 27-31, with Klezmer masters such as Frank London. The Klezmer Festival is associated with a Jewish Congress, to be held in late August in Vilnius, a city of 100 synagogues before the Nazi occupation. Vilnius today contains one synagogue and a Jewish population of 4,000.

The city will serve countless cultural needs in 2009. Book lovers will relish the Vilnius Book Fair Feb. 12-15, the largest in the Baltics. Colleen McCullough, Frank McCourt, John Irving and dozens more will read and sign books during the fair, to be held at the Lithuanian Exhibition Centre (Litexpo). Fans of women in the arts will find many of like mind at Ladyfest, an International Alternative Cultural Festival, May 4-16. From sports to soirees, Ladyfest focuses on "flash-mob social events" at venues across Vilnius.

Those with Polish connections might want to be in Vilnius Aug. 1-9 during the Polish Cultural Program to see screenings of Polish films and hear jazz musicians improvise Polish folk songs. Drama devotees will be entertained by Eimuntas Nekrosius' new production of Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" at the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre April 3-5 and later, Oct. 15-16, by an offbeat Finnish production, the "Transeuropean Comedy About Holy Hatred." Set in the year 2069, "Holy Hatred" involves Finnish rebels who reside in a giant container, reject European Union law, do karaoke and sauna openly and imbibe a magical drink (pontikka) that gives them otherworldly powers. This futuristic critique of the EU is the work of playwright Kristian Smeds.

Art aficionados will be drawn to the National Art Gallery Oct. 5-Dec. 14 for "Cold War Modern: Art and Design in the Split World, 1945-1975." This lifting of the Iron Curtain includes art pieces by Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso, a model of Sputnik and spacesuits from astronauts and cosmonauts alike.

For anyone who loves to explore a city on foot, Vilnius has lined up some special excursions. A program of Live Tourist Routes, running June 5-Sept. 6, provides tourists with maps through Jewish, Polish, Russian and Byelorussian neighborhoods, with guides on call and performers lining the way.

On June 20 and 21, Let There Be Night transforms Vilnius into a midsummer night's dream of roving dancers, open-air cinema, church concerts, gallery exhibits, poetry readings and laser performances. The Bartholomew Fair comes to Old Town Aug. 21-22 with ethnic craftsmen showing how it used to be done. And in a Sept. 19-27 undertaking titled Art in Unusual Places, video-installation artists and performers dress up market squares, bridges, broken fountains, inner courtyards and abandoned "ghost buildings" throughout Old Town.

Perhaps Vilnius' open, playful spirit is best exemplified by its two Fashion Weekends June 5-6 and June 12-13. From Municipal Square to Cathedral Square, Gediminas Avenue will be transformed into "the longest catwalk in Europe." Spectators can even create their own fashions from elements of cardboard clothing lining this playful urban runway.

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