The cheers had barely died down after Rijeka’s spectacular opening ceremony as the European Capital of Culture in February, when the coronavirus sabotaged years of preparation in the Croatian port city.
Months later, an on-the-fly overhaul of the entire project emerged from the wreckage.
“The opening was really sensational,” says guitarist Vlado Simcic, a mainstay of the Rijeka music scene. “We were all proud of it – and we hoped we would have a great year for our city. “
The figures wielding an angle grinder sending sparks from the infrastructure at the dock represented the industrial heritage of the city. And Rijeka’s non-conformist cultural scene was reflected in a doom metal rendition of the anti-fascist anthem Bella Ciao.
The stage has been set for a year of events to revitalize the city artistically and economically.
But Croatia has entered one of the toughest lockdowns in Europe and Rijeka’s Port Of Diversity brochure now reads like a work of fiction.
“Just a month after the grand opening, it was quite shocking,” recalls Ivan Sarar, head of the culture department of this town on the Adriatic coast.
Even when the end of the lockdown opened the door to certain events being held, it was clear that the original vision for Rijeka 2020 was gone for good.
“We decided that the budget would be cut by around 50%,” says Sarar.
“The Covid measures were clear on large-scale events, so we killed all the street theaters and large gatherings. We have also canceled all the elite, extravagant and not so popular programs and all the complex international cooperation, because of the trip. situation. “
Instead of an international arts jamboree, a more local interpretation of Rijeka 2020 has emerged from the rubble.
The community aspects of the program, which might have seemed peripheral, were placed at the center of the stage.
In Bresc, nearly an hour’s drive around Kvarner Bay from Rijeka, it seems that all 129 inhabitants of the cliff-top village have made their way to Capital of Culture for their moment.
A local choir announces the unveiling of a work by Danish artist Sofie Thorsen.
The permanent installation, Strokes and Incisions, is a sculpture that doubles as a series of benches. This is part of Lungomare Art, a project that survived the Covid cull and draws surrounding communities to the Rijeka 2020 experience.
Program Executive Director Irena Kregar Segota says this shows that the original spirit of the program has survived.
“We rely heavily on the local cultural and artistic scene – but that doesn’t mean that the international dimension of the project has been completely lost. If Sofie Thorsen can’t be physically present, her creativity is there.
“There are also a lot of intangible things; new festivals, a new university program. “
Perhaps more importantly, the physical legacy of Rijeka 2020 is assured.
A stone’s throw from the city’s waterfront, workers are scrambling to complete a whole new cultural district in a complex that once housed sugar and tobacco factories.
When completed, the buildings will house museums, galleries, libraries and an interactive arts center for the youngest citizens of Rijeka, known as the Children’s House.
“The infrastructure will be the legacy of the whole project for the future,” says the man who has been the mayor of Rijeka for 20 years, Vojko Obersnel.
He has seen his city struggle through hard times, as traditional industries such as shipbuilding are in decline. Rijeka 2020 should have been a relaunch – put the city on the international map and change its image in Croatia. But Mr Obersnel remains optimistic that he will always achieve those goals.
“The old industries are gone – and this project can be the initiation of a new type of industry, mainly in the cultural, design, architectural and IT fields. ”
Even so, some find it difficult to bear the loss of most of the international program. “It’s not enough for me or for Rijeka. I was hoping to meet people from other countries, exchange experiences and gain new perspectives, ”says guitarist Vlado Simcic.
In contrast, singer Iva Mocibob – who happens to be married to Vlado – is a bit more positive.
“Rijeka artists are stubborn,” she says. “They don’t let anything get in their way. So maybe some great songs and books and paintings will come from this very difficult time and this disappointment.
“In difficult times artists have inspiration – and maybe some of these pieces will become part of European heritage. ”
Defiance, toil, construction and culture emerging from chaos, perhaps, as the opening ceremony had promised. It might not be the capital of culture the city had planned for – but it could still become a fitting reflection of Rijeka’s character.
All photos are copyrighted by Rijeka 2020 and Guy Delauney and the BBC.