KOSICE (AFP).- Known mainly for its steelworks, the gritty industrial hub of Kosice in east Slovakia is hard at work reforging itself as a centre of creativity and the arts as it enters 2013 with the tag "European Capital of Culture".
A two-day gala blastoff featuring fireworks and gigs by international and local artists this weekend launches a year of metamorphosis with an unprecedented flurry of festivals and events to showcase Slovak film, literature and music.
"We want to transform Kosice from a heavy industrialised city to one focusing on creative industries," Culture Capital project director Jan Sudzina told AFP.
Awarded the European Union title "European Capital of Culture" for 2013 and a 60-million-euro ($80- million) grant, central Kosice is a hive of hammering and drilling amid preparations for the opening show and side-events.
Tourists to the city's most famous landmark, the 14th century St. Elisabeth Cathedral, are met with a buzz of activity inside the usually solemn church, setting up for an exhibition this weekend by Paris visual artist Elise Morin, known for her three-dimensional creations with light.
St. Elisabeth is Slovakia's largest church and Europe's easternmost Gothic cathedral.
Tomas Cizmarik, a spokesman for the Kosice European Capital of Culture project, said plans for the city's artistic renewal include "renovating old industrial objects such as former army barracks and giving them a new function" as concert halls and galleries.
The most ambitious project -- the transformation of a derelict swimming pool closed for three decades into a gleaming centre for contemporary art -- is expected to conclude this spring.
On top of the EU grant, Kosice also received 10 million euros from the Slovak government.
Later this year, the city plans to honour its most famous native, Hungarian author Sandor Marai, by re-publishing his works -- some for the first time in Slovak. "What (Franz) Kafka is for Prague, Marai is for Kosice," goes the local saying.
March through April will see a marathon screening of films by Slovak director Juraj Jakubisko, and in May the "USE THE C!TY" festival will bring a variety of art forms to the city's streets.
A modern art exhibition is planned from June through to September, followed in autumn by an international contemporary arts festival involving modern classical composers from across the globe.
The town's efforts are starting to yield the desired effect.
Sudzina said a creative IT industry has started to take root, creating up to 6,000 jobs so far as the fastest developing sector.
-- 'Greater feeling of community' --
Britain's Guardian daily has named Kosice one of the best bargain city breaks of 2013, while US news giant CNN ranked the city replete with historical monuments this year's third top travel destination.
Once a religious and cultural centre of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Kosice's modern history is inseparably linked to steel.
Established in the 1960s, the communist state-owned giant Eastern Slovak Steel Works (VSZ), was bought by the United States Steel Corporation in 2000, a decade after the regime collapsed.
The company provides more than 11,000 jobs and is the largest employer in this eurozone country of 5.4 million people.
With Kosice the city struggling with a 10-percent unemployment rate, spiking to 20 percent in the broader Kosice region, the company caused panic when it said last year it was contemplating quitting Slovakia and looking for a buyer for the steelworks.
"We hope the European Culture Capital project will boost small and medium-sized businesses and help overcome the region's dependence on one company," director Sudzina said.
As a former U.S. Steel manager who left the steel business to launch an independent music recording company ten years ago, Sudzina believes the city will not only benefit from an influx of tourists, but that the project will inspire a greater feeling of community.
Locals seem to agree. Nikola Nevidova, a 22-year-old student, is optimistic the year will make its mark on her city.
"I believe Kosice will benefit a lot from this year as the European Culture Capital," she told AFP gazing up at the soaring spires of St. Elisabeth Cathedral.
"I never realised how amazing the Cathedral is -- sometimes when you see a treasure every day you tend to overlook its beauty," she added.
The European Union has awarded the title European Capital of Culture every year since 1985, usually to two cities at a time.
The French port city of Marseille is Kosice's twin beneficiary this year.
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