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Small Greek, but European Capital of Culture

If Greek myths and archaeology aren't sources of enthusiasm for you, you haven't had a reason to visit Elephsina, a city with 30,000 inhabitants, yet. The European Capital of Culture 2023 team has set out to give the city back its mysteries, through cultural activities they refer to as modern mysteries.



When you stand on top of an archaeological site in Elefsina, Greece, the entire city spreads out below you. For example, the cave from which, according to mythology, Persephone, daughter of the fertility goddess Demeter and wife of Hades, the god of the underworld, emerged from the underworld. According to legend, spring came into the world with her and it was she who ensured the changing of the seasons.


Elefsina or Eleusis was one of the five most important sacred sites of ancient Greece. Pilgrims came here by land and by sea along the sacred roads. Very little of the mythical rituals, the Eleusinian Mysteries, have survived. However, we do know about the processions and we know that they involved the goddesses Demeter and Persephone.


Today, they are only witnessed by an archaeological site, from which there is a beautiful view of the sea. Elefsina is both a harbour and a ship burial ground, rusted wrecks looming out of the water.


If you look around, you can see the chimneys of factories dating back to the nineteenth century, when the city was one of the largest industrial centres in Greece. Now the factories of Elephsine are just monuments to industrial history, but the lights and burning chimney of the nearby refinery give the town an industrial atmosphere.


Ceremony with ships at sea


The cultural events during the opening weekend included everything the city has lived in the past and lives in the present. On the opening day, crowds, larger and smaller parades of people in costumes, folk songs and dances were heard. Runners from Athens ran 21 km to Elefsina, and the TimeCirkus circus performers came here on foot all the way from Antwerp. At the official opening both the President and the Minister of Culture of Greece addressed the people, and the European Capital of Culture Eleusis 2023 was inaugurated by the Mayor.



The official opening was a spectacular production for television – a special light show and choreography of ships at sea, accompanied by music and choir. But everything else reflected the greatness of the city. It wouldn't have been enough for Athens, but the city of 30,000 experienced a colourful mix of events.


Small concerts or performances on balconies and in windows around the waterfront, DJs from current and past ECOC in a revitalized old factory, exhibitions and installations in renovated buildings. There was also an exhibition on Melina Mercouri, the Greek actress and Minister of Culture who founded the European Capitals of Culture project. At the archaeological site, in a special tour, participants were allowed to experience how the Eleusinian Mysteries might have taken place.



Lessons from Greece


We brought back many lessons from Elefsina. For example, that even in Greece the weather can disrupt the programme and we have to prepare the winter opening in Trenčín very well for various alternatives.


The openings of other European Capitals of Culture also show us that we have to reckon with the fact that in January 2026 the city does not have to be a tip-top. Renovations were not completed last year in Novi Sad, this year in Veszprém and in Elefsina we also walked around the square by the pedestrian zone closed for ongoing works. The sidewalks weren't perfect either, and there wasn't enough accommodation in town – guests were also staying 21 km away, in Athens.


However, the European Capital of Culture is not about one year of the title. It is about the change that the city and the region is going through. It's about a change in the physical environment, and it's also about a change in mindset. In Elefsina, it was not only the events, exhibitions, the renovated factory, the archaeological site or the views that impressed us. But also the ordinary people – the waiter who took the initiative to run up our bill, the receptionist who suggested a check-out time of one in the afternoon, the shopkeeper who gave me a tangerine to taste...


In Trenčín in 2026, it will also be important whether we are nice enough. People who come to us, for example, will appreciate it if we try to understand them at all.


Foto credits: Eleusis 2023

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