Let the show begin!

Essen, Pécs and Istanbul celebrate debut as European capitals of culture
Let the show begin!

Three European cities are set to kick off a year-long culture fest featuring exhibitions, music and theatre. The cities chosen to be this year's European capitals of culture are Essen and the Ruhr region of Germany, Pécs in southern Hungary and Istanbul in Turkey. Taking over from Linz (Austria) and Vilnius (Lithuania), the three have put together a packed programme of events that should attract tens of thousands of visitors.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the EU's culture capital programme. Events must reflect the city's European character and directly involve residents. They must also promote the cities' overall development. To that end, each ‘capital' receives €1.5m in EU funds.

Organisers of the Ruhr programme hope to contribute to the revival of the heavily urbanised area in western Germany - home to well over 7 million people. A century ago, the Ruhr was Europe's biggest industrial region, teeming with coal mines and steel mills. Today the idle factories, furnaces and industrial canals are being turned into museums and tourist attractions.

Istanbul is playing up its history as a crossroads of European civilisation and a bridge between Europe and Asia. Turkey, a candidate for EU membership, is not the first non-EU country to hold the title. The Norwegian city of Stavanger was a European capital of culture in 2008.

Halfway between Essen and Istanbul, the Hungarian city of Pécs is highlighting its rich multicultural heritage. Historically a staging grounds for traders and armies that crisscrossed Europe, the city of 150 000 hopes to build ties with neighbouring countries, especially in the Balkans, to become a cultural hub for the region.

Essen and Pécs kick off their cultural programmes this weekend. In Germany the remains of the vast Zollverein coal mining complex, now a UNESCO world heritage site, will provide an extraordinary venue. The opening ceremony in downtown Pécs will feature actors and puppeteers in historical costumes and songs composed by Róbert Erdész, keyboard player in the internationally renowned band Solaris.

Istanbul's cultural celebration debuts the following weekend.

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