Bad Ischl, a town in the Austrian region of Salzkammergut near the border with Germany’s Bavaria, is a popular tourist spot. Hundreds of thousands of people come here every year to enjoy the region’s scenic mountainous views, with crystal-clear lakes and lush green meadows in the summer or snow-covered peaks in the winter. (Also Read | Year-end Travel: Have ₹1 lakh? Go to Qatar)
This had also attracted the Austrian nobility to the town. Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Sisi spent many summers in Bad Ischl. They also got engaged there in 1853.
In 2024, Bad Ischl and 22 surrounding communities will become one of the three European Capitals of Culture of the year — alongside Tartu in Estonia and Bodo in Norway.
Climate change, history and Conchita Wurst
Bad Ischl and the other communities want to realize more than 300 projects together in order to show there’s more to the region than its idyllic landscapes. The program will explore, among others, the consequences of overtourism and climate change as well as the region’s historically burdened past.
The goal is to “shed light on the positive and negative sides of this entire region and not to turn it [the European Cultural Capital year] into a fireworks display or a festival,” program curator Elisabeth Schweeger told the German press agency, DPA.
The program will nevertheless kick off with a bang on January 20 in Bad Ischl. Tom Neuwirth, who is better known as Eurovision Song Contest winner Conchita Wurst and who hails from the Salzkammergut region, will take part in the opening concert together with rappers and a thousand-strong yodeling choir.
Shaped by salt mining
Salt has been mined in the Salzkammergut area for at least 7,000 years, and this “white gold” shaped the region.
“It developed because of salt, became rich through salt — and with salt it will face its future,” said Schweeger. “Now it’s time to add another essential element: culture. It is the engine for sustainability in Salzkammergut and far beyond.”
Projects for the European Capital of Culture include an exhibition by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, which will also explore the tradition of salt mining.
Other exhibitions deal with looted art by the Nazis. The Nazi regime stashed looted art and art treasures in a mountain tunnel in Bad Ischl during World War II. A show in Bad Aussee will also shed light on the life of the art dealer Wolfgang Gurlitt, whose collection included artworks looted by the Nazis.
Concerts with music by Arnold Schönberg and an operetta by Oscar Straus also highlight the many Jewish artists and art lovers who were closely connected to Salzkammergut.
Another project will deal with the history of the Habsburg monarchy. Salzkammergut was originally the private property of the Habsburgs.
A critical reflection on the past
Bad Ischl only has around 14,000 residents. The other communities in the region that have come together to form the European Cultural Capital have, in some cases, a population of just a few hundred.
The region, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997, already has to cope with an influx of visitors every year. Historian Michael Kurz from Bad Goisern, who knows the region well, notes there was a certain unease during the European Cultural Capital campaign. Locals would often ask, “Do we need this?”
On the other hand, as curator Elisabeth Schweeger pointed out, more than 85% of events are held by local and regional project sponsors. And getting an outside perspective on the region is an opportunity for the community to reflect critically on its own history and culture, she added.
Tartu: Heart and soul of Estonia
The city of Tartu, in eastern Estonia, is much less well known. With close to 100,000 inhabitants, it’s the second largest city in the country after the capital, Tallinn.
Economically, it’s clearly in the shadow of Estonia’s capital. But culturally, the old university and Hanseatic city is at least on par with it. Tartu has traditionally been seen as the heart and soul of the small Baltic state in northeastern Europe.
“Tartu has always been a center for science, education and culture in Estonia,” said Mayor Urmas Klaas.
Tartu was once the cradle of Estonian national awakening and the birthplace of the Estonian song festival, Estonian theater and even of the Estonian state itself.
The Peace Treaty of Dorpat — the old German name for Tartu — was signed in Tartu on February 2, 1920, in which Soviet Russia recognized the sovereignty of Estonia, which had become independent in 1918.
Through an artistic concept titled “Arts of Survival,” the European Cultural Capital of Tartu will offer more than 1,000 events. Its program will be launched on January 26, with an anthem specially composed to celebrate the university city as the “Young Blood City.”
Highlights include “Kissing Tartu,” a mass kissing event; “Naked Truth,” an opinion festival where discussions are held in saunas; as well as the play “Business as Usual,” inspired by the money laundering scandals that rocked Estonian banking.
Tartu Pride will take place from August 12-18, an occasion to celebrate the legalization of same-sex marriage in Estonia, a new law that comes into force on January 1, 2024.
Bodo focuses on sustainability
Bodo is the third European Cultural Capital of 2024. It’s located high in the north, on the west coast of Norway, making it the first European Cultural Capital north of the Arctic Circle.
With more than 1,000 events, Bodo and the surrounding Nordland region want to show that they not only have breathtaking Arctic nature, but also an engaging culture. Organizers hope to attract more than 500,000 people throughout the year.
The region is huge: A drive through Nordland from north to south will cover a good 800 kilometers (500 miles).
“Bodo2024” is the largest cultural project to take place in northern Norway to date.
Bodo aims to be the most sustainable European Capital of Culture. In the spring, it will host what organizers call “the world’s most sustainable concert,” titled “Pure Music.”
The culture of the Sami, the region’s Indigenous people, will also receive a special focus, including with a multi-part musical theater production.
Several events have a connection to Germany, including the opening ceremony on February 3. It will be celebrated with a spectacular harbor event with the Berlin artist collective Phase7, on a specially built floating stage.
An important open-air event is planned for Midsummer Eve on June 22, when the midnight sun can be admired. And the first Nordland Light Festival will be held in November and December when the days get shorter again.