Getting Ready To Be A Capital Again

Ten months ago, we arrived back in Europe after a trip home for the holidays, landing in Tallinn, Estonia just before the new year. It was an exciting time in the city - they were celebrating not only the beginning of 2011, but also the commencement of their term as European Capital of Culture.
Now, we're in Guimarães, in the north of Portugal, and there is an expectant buzz in the streets. Having been selected as one of two Capitals of Culture for 2012 (along with Maribor, Slovenia), Guimarães has a right to be happy. Being worrisomely behind with the preparations, however, has put the place on edge.
Being a capital isn't new to Guimarães. In a way, it was once the capital of the country, when it became the seat of Henry, count of Portugal, in the 11th century. Before true nationhood, the county-fiefdom was arranged around the fortifications and monastery here, and the city has long been called the "cradle of the Portuguese nationality."
Guimarães history is tempered by youthfulness, though. Much of its medieval center is surprisingly intact, with cobbled streets and pretty old balconies. Many of the old spaces have become art galleries and vintage shops, and the culinary scene is considered even more forward thinking than Lisbon's. It's a tangled, fascinating city of hanging laundry and hidden bars, where young people sit out late into the night and old people watch them, leaning languidly out their windows.
Being a European Capital of Culture is an honorary, yearlong distinction, typically shared with another "Capital", but the impact on a city is huge. Being selected generates a massive amount of tourism and attention; Tallinn was jubilant.
Guimarães is barely two and a half months away from inauguration, and the city has a long way to go before it celebrates. An all-encompasing beautification initiative is only partly completed. Much of the old town looks like a giant construction site, and the work crews were going full-tilt late on a Friday night and early on a Saturday morning.
It seems that everyone is involved with the slow process. Signs in windows shout messages of preparedness, groups gather to watch the machines. Sometimes, there are as many men and women with clipboards as with tools; progress is monitored and analyzed, discussed and argued. We sat in a busy cafe near one worksite, and there were as many eyes fixed on the hole in the street as were watching the soccer on television.
In some corners of town, streets or squares had cordoned off, torn up and then, apparently, left to sit. Portugal's financial problems have likely taken a toll, here, and it may be that the original plans were too grand for the practical reality.
The truth is, Guimarães is going to look great no matter what. It's a beautiful, vibrant city that, miraculously, doesn't seem to have lost much after being torn asunder. The beauty of the city - of Portugal, really - is in its haphazard detail. Intricate tiles, ornate steeples, hidden icons, cracked paint, vibrant hues... sometimes all packed into one lopsided building. The feeling of renewal is greater than the sense of worry, the dust and rubble in the streets only highlights the effect.
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