Liverpool: European Capital of Culture for 2008

( dpa ) - Perched high above Liverpool are two examples of the symbol of this city on the River Mersey, the Liver Bird - a cross between a cormorant, eagle and griffin. The bird also adorns the players' tricots from a very famous local football club.

A salty breeze blows in from the Irish Sea and down the Mersey. "People all over the world have heard of this place," says tour guide, Phil Hughes.

For many years, most tourists came to Liverpool because of the city's connection to The Beatles.

However, it appeared that Liverpool was destined to fall into decay despite that musical heritage.

But Liverpool's fortunes have made a turnaround and the city is experiencing a rebirth as Europe's Capital of Culture 2008.

As Hughes guides visitors around the city, he plays songs that have a special meaning or connection with Liverpool.

The first tune he plays is not from The Beatles but "Ferry Cross the Mersey" from Gerry and The Pacemakers.

There's no better tune to listen to when crossing the river by ferry with Liverpool's skyline, its two cathedrals and the Liver Birds in the distance. It's a classic of the Mersey Beat sound.

Liverpool's status as the Cradle of Beat Music is proof of its major contribution to world culture. But does it have more to offer?

"It goes without saying that our old and new pop music scenes are very important," says Paul Newman, spokesman for the Liverpool Culture Company, adding, "But on its own that would not be enough to become a European Capital of Culture. We have more to offer."

Liverpool spent more time than any other English industrial city in a downward spiral of unemployment and hopelessness.

The city was a symbol of economic crisis. At first, the jobs in what was once a busy port were lost. Then the shipyards closed followed by massive redundancies in the region's manufacturing sector.

Then, in the 1980s as Britain's former prime minister Margaret Thatcher introduced sweeping reforms throughout the country. Liverpool, however, seemed to miss out on "Maggie's Revolution".

"The city council made big demands on the government, but hardly anything came of it," recalls Hughes.

In the end, pragmatism and economic know-how got the upper hand. But culture also played a key role in the city's renewal.

"It brought us out of the crisis," says Newman. "Investing in art and culture was the right thing to do, especially during a very difficult period."

In the meantime, Liverpool has become second only to London in terms of its cultural wealth.

Liverpool is also the biggest building site in Europe. Cranes will be a familiar sight on the skyline during the year of culture as many projects, including the regeneration of entire districts, will last well into 2010.

A popular spot with tourists is the harbour area around Albert Dock. Named after Queen Victoria's husband who opened it, the dock has undergone extensive renovation after years of neglect.

Liverpool has a rich architectural heritage to draw upon including many impressive Victorian or neo-classical buildings such as West Africa House, India House or New Zealand House.

Those names reflect Liverpool's former role as "England's gateway to the world" and its position as the point of embarkation for many emigrants leaving for British colonies.

The biggest impression, however, is made by the new International Slavery Museum.

The museum deals with Liverpool's history as the most important shipment point for "human cargo" between Africa and America - a trade that helped the city to become enormously wealthy.

A late after-effect of slavery, which was banned in Britain in 1807, was an argument that broke out last year over one of Liverpool's most well known streets.

Penny Lane, which a Beatles song helped make famous, was named after the ship-owner James Penny.

His ships helped transport enslaved Africans to Britain's colonies in America.

A local councillor proposed renaming the street but there was widespread opposition including from Liverpool's black community who spoke out against what they called "silliness".

Another aspect of Liverpudlian culture is the local dialect known as Scouse. It's somewhat difficult to understand for people not used to its sound.

Naturally, Scouse is most quickly encountered at the bars in Liverpool's pubs, of which the best well known is "The Philharmonic Dining Rooms."

The Phil, as the pub is called by locals, was also a favourite drinking spot with The Beatles, but that's not the only reason tourists turn up there.

Due to its lavishly decorated pissoir, the Phil has the most photographed pub-toilet throughout England.

Liverpool's authorities have planned more than 300 events during 2008, so it comes as no surprise that many of the city's most famous celebrities will be taking part including the conductor Simon Rattle as well as the former Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.

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