Lifestyle & Culture

European Capital of Culture Plovdiv 2019: Here’s our list of best events, concerts and exhibitions

Plovdiv – Bulgaria’s No. 2 city and arguably Europe’s most ancient – just celebrated its new designation as the European Capital of Culture for 2019 last week with fireworks, lights and a digital show by German artistic network phase7 and artistic director Sven Sören Beyer.

More than 1,500 people from Bulgaria and abroad celebrated under the motto “Together.” This begins a year of mega-celebrations because Plovdiv is the first Bulgarian city to be the European Capital of Culture. (It’s in good company … others include Valetta, Malta, Aarhus, Denmark, San Sabastían, Spain and Luxembourg City.)

After four years of preparation, the programme includes 300 projects and almost 500 events covering not only just the city but much of south-central Bulgaria including finalists from the second round of the competition – Varna, Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo.

So, this is a full year of events in a city and its surrounding region that are increasingly a tourist draw in winter for skiing, and summer for everything else.

From the official program, here are the major events out of a jam-packed calendar with too many events to list:

Hills of Rock, 19-21 July, The Rowing Canal

The ‘Hills of Rock’ festival is one of the major music events in Bulgaria. Since 2017, it’s brought together thousands of fans to see performances by international stars, rising artists from neighbouring Balkan countries and some of the best Bulgarian bands.

The festival takes place annually at the Rowing Canal in Plovdiv on four stages, each offering different music genres and sounds. In an area of about 70,000 square meters, 50 artists and groups from the United States and Europe played in 2018 including Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. Hills of Rock’s edition in 2019 will continue the tradition of world-class performers. Organised by Sofia Music Enterprises.

One Dance Week, 19 September through 13 October, the House of Culture

This year, One Dance Week is one dance month, the biggest forum in Bulgaria dedicated solely to contemporary dance. In Plovdiv, the festival is presenting the most exciting and notable performers in the field of contemporary dance in Europe, Asia and America. For more than 10 years, the festival has been the scene of world premieres and pre-premieres of the most prominent artists. Developing more and more intensively as a program and ambition, the festival brings for the first time in Bulgaria and in this part of the world performances of the famous Japanese choreographer Shiro Takatani and the world-famous choreographer Dimitris Papaioannou. In 2019, ONE DANCE WEEK will mark another culmination in its programme within the European Capital of Culture. The ‘ONE DANCE WEEK – International Festival for Contemporary Dance and Performance’ is a project by ONE Foundation for Culture and Arts.

• Plovdiv Karavana, 1-10 June, Trakia District, Stoplipinovo District, The Rowing Canal and the Main Pedestrian Street

In 2019 the theatres from CITI – International Center for Traveling Theaters – will gather in Plovdiv. Thirteen companies from Belgium, France, Italy and Switzerland are setting off on European roads by foot, horses, bicycles or trucks to meet up in the European Capital of Culture. They will set up three large artists camps with 200 artists, technicians and art rapporteurs sharing their crafts at workshops. On 10 June, all 13 companies together will launch the Farewell Parade.

•  Art Liberty – From the Berlin Wall to Street Art – January through April

At the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, this is the only traveling collection of original fragments. The exhibition consists of works created by the predecessors of the Berlin street art movement as well as contemporary street artists. The collection is presenting the art of the emblematic artists who used to work on the Berlin Wall, among them Thierry Noir, Christophe-Emmanuel Bouche, Kiddy Citny, Indiano, Heinz J. Kusdas and Peter Unsicker. It will also include works by internationally recognized street artists such as Jef Aérosol (France), Borondo (Spain), C215 (France), John Crash Matos (USA), DAleast (China), FAITH47 (South Africa), Jimmy C (Australia), L7M (Brazil), RUN (Italy), 1up (Germany), John Dolan (UK). The exhibition will host an array of accompanying events: a screening programme of more than 30 short movies, photos, tourist walks on the Wall, political debates, artists talks, and concerts.

• Electric Orpheus – 13 April through 19 October

Electric Orpheus merges contemporary music and contemporary dance. The format presents Bulgarian and international artists through the combination of various styles and genres – from rock ’n’ roll, space jazz and psychedelic up to EDM. Electric Orpheus’s editions will be held in Plovdiv and the region, so check the calendar for various locations, dates and times.

• Brexit Blues runs the month of May on the main pedestrian street, Kapana Creative District and various spaces in the Old Town.

The Brexit Blues music festival will send out a strong international message: Europe’s cultural links remain despite Brexit. The weekend programme of Brexit Blues will feature a series of city concerts of Bulgarian and British musicians presenting the British music scene from the 1950s to date.

Genres include English rock ’n’ roll, progressive rock, punk, jazz and blues and choral performances. The festival’s final show will be on Sunday, 26 May when some 400 performers, including professional musicians, choral formations from Plovdiv, students of jazz, classical music and folklore, a big band, brass ensembles from the city, as well as amateur musicians will come together on stage.

The festival’s international curators are Dr. Gordon Okafor-Ross, music director of Liverpool ECOC 2008, and Dr. Tim Steiner, who organized large-scale music events for Guimarães ECOC 2012. The Brexit Blues music festival is a joint project of two European capitals of culture – Plovdiv 2019 and Liverpool 2008 – and the Sofia branch of the British Council.

• Ayliak Parade, 4 May

The Ayliak Parade will extend the entire length of the main pedestrian street of Plovdiv – 1.8 kilometers – the longest pedestrian street in Europe.

Hundreds of participants will show off specially designed costumes along with participants from the UK and Italy. The Ayliak Parade is a project of the ZHAR Theatre-Art-Culture Foundation in conjunction with Handmade Parade (UK); Stalker Teatro (IT); and the Plovdiv-based community centres.

Opera Open, 14 June through 31 July in Plovdiv’s ancient theatre

Opera Open will present 10 shows between 14 June and 31 July. The highlights will be the opening event – a premiere of Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’, a large-scale co-production with Teatro Regio di Parma directed by the leading Italian director Stafano Poda – a Verdi festival, and a ballet performance with stars of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.

The festival will feature top opera performers and conductors from Europe, the U.S. and Asia, as well as Bulgarian singers and musicians with established international careers. An ancillary Light programme is currently in preparation which will present concerts, singing shows, and a sequel, in August and September, to “Na Bis” (“encore”), which will feature the festival’s most memorable moments. “Na Bis” will take place at the Ancient Theatre in Plovdiv. The “Opera Open” music festival is made possible by State Opera Plovdiv.

This continues a 30-plus year tradition of opera that has brought the world’s top performers and orchestras to Plovdiv.

• Digital Ecologies 5-6 May

Digital Ecologies is a large-scale international contemporary art exhibition exploring the interaction between electronic technologies and the complexity of the urban environment. The theme of the 2019 edition is “Digital Affects: Reflections from the Future.” A symposium will take place on 5-6 May 2019. The concept behind the project comes from the curator Dimitrina Sevova (Switzerland/Bulgaria), in collaboration with Katharina Swoboda (Austria) and Emil Mirazchiev (Bulgaria). “Digital Ecologies” is an Art Today Association’s project.

• Traveling the World: Art from Germany, November and December at SKLAD art gallery

The IFA (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) is presenting this touring exhibition for the first time in Bulgaria. Drawing on the IFA’s own large collection of contemporary art, curators Matthias Flügge and Matthias Winzen have compiled an overview that traces artistic key developments in Germany since 1949, and present 380 works of art by nearly 100 artists.

Works of art from East and West Germany are brought together for the first time in such density. The exhibition includes works by internationally renowned artists such as Joseph Beuys, Arno Fischer, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Rebecca Horn and Katharina Fritsch as well as younger positions from the German art scene. The exhibition is organized by Plovdiv 2019 and IFA  in partnership with Goethe Institut, Bulgaria.

• 100-Percent Plovdiv, 17-20 October, Plovdiv Drama Theatre

In Plovdiv, the German theatre collective Rimini Protokoll will present one of its most notable shows. “100-Percent Plovdiv” is a documentary stage production performed entirely by nonprofessional actors, all residents of the host city. The German theatre collective puts a special emphasis on transferring real life onto the stage without the mediation of professional actors. The project “enters” the local urban community and selects 100 members in a several-month casting process.

All participants drawn from different demographics including sex, age, area of residence, social and marital statuses, political inclinations which, when combined, represent a mirror image, as it were, of the local community. In their concluding performance, the participants come onstage and begin debating various topical or thorny issues.

These put a shape on the general idea, but the spectacle takes care to prove different for each specific location. It shows the various faces of the respective city, which are by necessity contrasting in their individualities but inevitably sharing a common space and feeling. Rimini Protokoll is the most noted group in Europe in the field of documentary theatre. It was set up in Berlin in 2000 by Stefan Kaegi, Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel, theatre directors and graduates from the University of Giessen.

The first “100-Percent City” was staged in Berlin in 2008 and has since visited more than 35 cities, among them London, Paris, Marseille, Vienna, Cologne, Dresden, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam.

• Mood for Food, throughout September in the city center

In September 2019, you will have the opportunity to enjoy this food feast in the center of Plovdiv. The programme will feature thematic forums, lectures and workshops for advocates of city living; restaurants and eateries featuring emblematic menus; local and regional producers; startups developing culinary innovations; bio foods and locally produced foods and beverages. The Mood for Food festival is a project by All Channels Communication.

• Love Swing Dance Festival, 26-29 September, Boris Hristov House of Culture, Sklad and the Plovdiv Drama Theatre

The festival’s second edition will take place in September 2019. The programme includes open-air swing lessons, international dance competitions, dance evenings, evening parties with music from the 1920s, a city tour with live music and dancing. The festival is made possible by Lindy Hop Bulgaria.

• Plovdiv Jazz Fest, November, the Boris Hristov House of Culture, Beebop Café

Plovdiv Jazz Fest is an international music festival, the successor to the 10-year tradition of the Plovdiv Jazz Evenings. The jazz events have brought the world’s most influential jazz artists to Plovdiv. The main program of these jazz-filled autumn nights includes a number of accompanying events such as master classes, jam sessions, exhibitions, a full jazz award, and a Youth Jazz Contest. Plovdiv Jazz Fest is organized by the singer Miroslava Katsarova and her company Blue M.

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Kalina Varbanova freelance journalist based in Varna, Bulgaria. Kalina’s interests include culture, tourism, archeology and politics. She's been a Dispatches contributor since 2017, and has written some of our best-read posts.

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