Sunday, 18 January 2009

Northern Baroque

I'm not a big fan of heavy metal with my breakfast. A Baltic blast of Europe's The Final Countdown doesn't exactly aid my digestion of the luke-warm scrambled eggs at the Klaipeda Hotel. But maybe it's appropriate. Vilnius, with its Unesco-listed Old Town and array of Baroque churches, has been counting down for several years and now its moment has finally come as the new European Capital of Culture (a title shared with Linz, Austria). The Culture Live programme promises over 900 events with 60 per cent of them free. But is Vilnius really ready for the long-awaited cultural jamboree?
Dalia Bankauskaite thinks so. The Executive Director of Culture Live owes a big debt of thanks to Phil Redmond and the team behind Liverpool 2008 for their advice on running the event - and how to keep it in the €100m budget just as recession bites.
"Quality and visibility are the key to a successful Capital of Culture," she tells me over a bowl of beetroot soup in a downtown Vilnius cellar bar. "Cultural education is often dilapidated in a developing country, but we want it to be culture by the people for the people."
Nice sentiment. But will anyone actually go? The plummeting pound means that Lithuania is not as cheap as it used to be to us Brits. And, by way of supreme irony, the national airline, Lithuanian Airlines, went bust this week, leaving the UK without direct flights to Vilnius.
Around 50,000 people braved sub-zero temperatures in Cathedral Square for the opening ceremony, but many of the best events are not scheduled now until mid summer.
I previewed Culture Live for the Observer and will report back later this year on just how Vilnius is doing.

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