Europe's capitals open all night for vultures of culture

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The Independent Online

Suddenly Europe finds itself with a new cultural season, a wave of events and performances stretching across the continent and beyond that privileges a previously ignored segment of society: insomniacs.

Blasting off at 9.30 tonight on Michelangelo's Piazza del Campidoglio in the heart of Rome, the season of the White Nights gets under way.

The idea for nuits blanches – meaning sleepless nights in French – originated in Paris with Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, the man who also gave us the city beach and the ubiquitous rental bicycle. He was presented with the idea by his culture attaché Christophe Girard, inspired by descriptions of St Petersburg's White Nights as described by Dostoevsky.

Like the city beach and the bike, the idea was basically simple: what if the city never closed? What if museums and galleries and shops and bars stayed open all night, concerts started at 2 or 3 in the morning, and buses and trains ran through to dawn and beyond to ferry the customers around? What if for just one night in the year the city behaved as if time did not exist? Would the citizens welcome the idea or would they switch off the light and go to sleep as normal?

The answer was that the insomniacs are far more numerous than anyone imagined. Give them the buses and trains and an enticing menu of events and they will keep on the go till dawn in their millions.

Starting in Paris in 2002, the idea spread to Rome the following year, and has now established itself in numerous other cities, including Brussels, Madrid, Barcelona, Riga and Valletta. If this bug is as contagious as it seems, America may be the next continent to succumb: the fad has already crossed the Atlantic to Toronto.

White Nights appeal to our childish gluttony. Only the most ravenous culture vulture can stomach more than one dinner or concert or film or museum visit in an evening, yet the vast smorgasbord of events offered by the White Nights cities seems irresistible.

Bad luck dogged the first events: Mayor Delanoë was stabbed and seriously injured during Paris's first White Night; the following year Rome's first effort was shut down in the middle of the night by a disastrous power cut. Despite free and continuous public transport throughout the night, Rome's event is perennially dogged by dreadful traffic snarls. But in both cities the White Nights have proved a huge success commercially and now there seems no stopping them.

The theme of Rome's event this year is The World in One Night: more than 1,000 artists from 29 countries will give a flavour of the growing artistic diversity of the Italian capital.

This year's Paris Nuit Blanche on 6-7 October will be a trail of contemporary art exhibitions along the newest Metro line, Line 14, culminating in a new station to be opened this autumn at Olympiades in south-eastern Paris.