VILNIUS - To the sound of drills buzzing and cutting through rock, a construction worker fits pieces of stone into jigsaw puzzle-like formations in newly dug up portions of ground along Didizioji and Ausros Vartu streets. Tourists and locals carefully cross over wooden walkways and stare at the long fences wrapped around portions of the Town Hall and Rotuses Square.
While some of the road construction and building renovations going on in the capital this summer are routine repair projects, Vilnius is also sprucing up many of its public places, as well as cultural and historical landmarks, in preparation for upcoming Millennium Anniversary celebrations. In 2009, the country plans to hold a blowout bash in recognition of the time, 1,000 years ago, when Lithuania's name was first discovered in written records.
During the same year, Vilnius will flaunt its European Capital of Culture title around the world, showcasing its cultural heritage while, hopefully, boosting its economy to boot.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, the European Capitals of Culture Program, started by the EU's Council of Ministers in 1985, allows two EU countries per year 's on a predetermined, rotating basis 's to apply to have one of their cities given the title of European Capital of Culture. The idea is to highlight the cities' cultural life and development. The cities hold the title for one year.
Vilnius applied for the title back in 2005, and after several months, The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union officially designated Vilnius, along with Linz, Austria, European Capitals of Culture for 2009.
"The Vilnius European Capital of Culture events are one of the most important for our country. It's like the Olympic Games. Vilnius is really exploding, and it's really amazing for me who lives in the city," said Dalia Bankauskaite, Executive Director of The Vilnius European Capital of Culture 's 2009 Bureau, which is responsible for organizing the cultural programs for the event.
Their package of events is called "Culture Live!" and its theme is based on Fluxus, an art movement from the 1960s that has Lithuanian roots. Fluxus is a name derived from the Latin word, "to flow," and is used as a symbolic term for connecting artists, composers and designers from around the world who work in different media and disciplines.
"[The title] is stating that culture is created here and now, and everyone is participating in creating culture. That's why it's 'live,'" said Bankauskaite.
But the cultural program is only part of the story.
"It is not an ordinary festival where, after the tents have come down, everyone goes home with happy memories and some nice snapshots; it is known to the majority of EU citizens, and has proven to have a lasting and concrete impact on its host cities. It transforms a city... for years to come," she said.
Indeed it's this kind of transformation that's a staple of the European Capitals of Culture idea, with long-term infrastructure projects playing a key role.
The Vilnius City Government's Web site lists pages and pages of building and renovation projects to be carried out in connection to VECOC. They include several main points of interest: Vingis and Sereikiskes Parks, The Royal Palace, National Stadium, National Gallery, Arts Printing House, Gedimino Avenue, Town Hall Square reconstruction, and renovation of theaters, museums and Old Town streets. It's a big job.
"We have the theoretical part done," said Ausra Siciuniene, head of international projects for the Vilnius' Urban Development Department.
"The budget for all of the infrastructure projects is still under discussion," she added.
The total budget for VECOC projects is estimated at whopping 30 million euros, 60 percent of which will come from the Ministry of Culture, 40 percent from the Vilnius city government. Of the total, Bankausite said the European Commission is expected to grant 1.5 million euros.
The final budget is expected to be approved by the national government and the parliament in the early autumn.
One of the bigger projects is the National Stadium, the first stages of which are expected to be ready by June 2009.
"The stadium is the most expensive in the program. We should start very soon and plan accordingly," Siciuniene said.
Another very visible, and ongoing project, is the Gedimino street reconstruction. Since Gedimino street attracts tourists with its shops, restaurants and clubs, road infrastructure projects along the street up to the Parliament building are the main task to complete before next summer, Siciuniene added.
"I think the [road infrastructure] process is strong and [going] very good right now. We have the possibility to finance more because the municipality is good and so is the European Union funding," City Development Director Linas Naujokaitis said.
The Royal Palace, also known as the Palace of Grand Dukes, is one of the main attractions for the celebrations. While construction continues on the building, which sits controversially right at the back of Vilnius Cathedral, eight specialists from the Lithuanian Art Museum are preparing 130 art objects for display there.
The exhibitions in the south and east wings of the palace will have their grand opening on July 6, 2009, the national holiday that celebrates the coronation of King Mindaugas. There visitors will be able to view the interiors, furniture and tapestries from the 16th and 17th centuries. The west wing will house a large exhibition displaying objects from the King's Residence, Wawel Royal Castle, in Krakow. The Wawel Royal Castle is working closely with the Palace of Grand Dukes specialists on the project.
One of the more anticipated displays will be on the lower level of the west wing, where the archeological history of the palace will be showcased.
"When I talked to the archeologists, they told me they have never seen such rich and interesting territory," Palace of Grand Dukes specialist Remigijus Cernius said.
Interested parties will no doubt be counting the months until everything is ready, both in the palace and in Vilnius at large.
Those who can't wait to see what a European Capital of Culture looks like can head to Luxembourg, which holds the title this year. The city is spicing up its neighborhoods with art and glass exhibitions, film festivals, a circus, and a rock music festival featuring Faithless, Daft Punk, and many other popular bands.