Kosice in eastern Slovakia shares the 2013 title of European Capital of Culture with Marseille. Sooner or later, every visitor to the city will end up here, on Hlavna ul., the beautiful, old main boulevard. In the center of the Old Town, the street splits and runs along the city's most important sights, including the theater, the cathedral and the small park with the singing fountain.
In 2013, Kosice plans to look back at its rich and diverse history. A number of countries, empires and cultures have left their mark. Today in Kosice, you'll find traces of Slovak, Czech, Hungarian, Carpathian German, Ukrainian and Ruthenian culture.
There are a few surprises to be found in Kosice. This synagogue from the year 1883 has been disused for a long time. Prior to the Holocaust, Kosice was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in what is now Slovakia. Today, there are only 260 Jews, most of whom are elderly.
Its status as a European Capital of Culture is intended to help open up Kosice to Europe - and also to bring Europe to Kosice. The city wants to reinvent its image, making it young, modern and cosmopolitan. A lot has been invested in the facelift and building projects are underway in the city center. For some buildings, step one means complete demolition.
During the 20th century, a ring of grey, socialist-style apartment buildings was constructed around the historic Old Town. Demand for living space was high, since Kosice was a quickly growing center of industry during the communist period. The pre-fab buildings are a silent testimony to the city's boom.
The Lunik IX settlement, a 10-minute car drive from downtown Kosice, has caused a political scandal. Home to several thousand Roma, it is essentially a ghetto without electricity or running water, without sanitation and without hope. Roma are often met with prejudice across Slovakia. It is difficult for them to find jobs and they are marginalized in society.
Kosice is the gateway to the eastern part of Slovakia. Traveling through the beautiful surrounding region and the old villages that were founded by Carpathian Germans, your eye comes to rest again and again on the poor Roma communities. In some villages, residents can earn a bit of money sweeping the streets.
In the Carpathian forests - Kosice's front door, you could say - visitors can take a hike and discover a myriad of wooden churches. They were built here over the centuries by a variety of denominations and are recognized as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site.
The so-called Slovakian Paradise is an area full of canyons, abysses and cliffs. Spis Castle, one of the largest fortresses in central Europe, can be found on a long cliff. Built over a long period of time, the castle complex represents nearly all of the European architectural styles and is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bardejov, another UNESCO site just north of Kosice, is worth discovering. The town, known as Bartfeld in the 13th century, had its heyday after the arrival of German settlers. The old City Hall now houses a museum, where visitors can trace the city's long history.
The north-eastern part of Slovakia is rich in cultural heritage, but not in monetary wealth. But that is to change with Kosice's year as a Culture Capital. The project is an opportunity to creatively reinvent the region's future - and perhaps find a new purpose for this abandoned factory building.
What will the future bring? Kosice is hoping for more visitors as well as creative, young people who want to live here and shape the area. 2013 is a chance for Kosice to make it happen.
A city full of contradictions, incongruities and challenges, Kosice invites us to discover it. Visitors are rewarded with cultural treasures from the past and present.