Two small cities — Pilsen in the Czech Republic to the east and Mons in Belgium to the west — will share tenures as the official European Capitals of Culture throughout 2015, a tradition about to enter its 31st year.
The Bohemian city of Pilsen, 90 miles west of Prague near the German border, is renowned for its beer, Pilsner, and the Pilsner Urquell Brewery (established in 1842) remains a major tourist draw. But Pilsen has cultural attractions too, including a 13th-century Gothic cathedral (St. Bartholomew's), the second-largest synagogue in Europe (the Great Synagogue), a 16th-century town hall and a 12-mile network of historic cellars running beneath the streets of Pilsen's Old Town. Pilsen was liberated from the Nazis by the U.S. Third Army under command of Gen. George Patton, and the annual Pilsen Liberation Festival in 2015 will mark the 70th anniversary of that event.
Like its co-cultural capital to the east, Mons, Belgium, was liberated by the U.S. Army in World War II in 1944 the old tanks in the city recall this pivotal event. A university town of 93,000 residents and an hour by train from Brussels, Mons boasts several rather unusual UNESCO Cultural Heritage designations, including a belfry, a mine (the Neolithic Flint Mines of Spiennes) and a festival (re-enacting St. George's slaying of the dragon). The main square (Grand Place) at the center of Old Town Mons is filled with Gothic architecture. The Van Gogh House in nearby Cuesmes, where the celebrated artist lived for 14 months early in his career, is open to visitors. For its 2015 cultural extravaganza, Mons already has scheduled more than 300 events and will open five new museums and two concert halls for its reign.
With their combined cultural riches shining especially brightly this year, Mons and Pilsen give travelers two fresh destinations to enjoy on both sides of Europe.
When Mons kicks off of its 2015 cultural program Jan. 24, the city will be illuminated by light installations. Ten dragons and a flotilla of fluorescent robots will parade through the streets, and discos and Finnish saunas will be opened to all comers. Some 18,000 silver ponchos will be handed out as well to those who want to dance through the night at the Grand Place.
The next day marks the opening of the "Van Gogh in the Borinage" exhibit at the newly remodeled Musee des Beaux-Arts, running through May 17. Seventy original drawings and other artifacts trace Vincent Van Gogh's brief residence (1879-1880) in the region, where he abandoned his career as a preacher and became an artist. Mons' top event is the annual Doudou Festival (or Ducasse de Mons), starting May 31 and running eight days. The Doudou dates to 1349 when the city was miraculously rescued from a ravaging plague. On June 1, a procession will accompany the horse-drawn Car D'Or carrying the relic shrine of St. George to the Grand Place, where there will be a re-enactment of St. George's slaying of the dragon. The week that follows will be given over to street markets filling several pedestrian-only avenues, where music, food and beer are the main attractions.
Among special events in Mons for its Cultural Capital year, the most notable include:
March 27-29 — "Slam in All Its Forms." Europe's top slam artists go at it on stages throughout downtown Mons.
June 28-July 11 — Festival au Carre. Performance artists and circus performers come to town.
June 28-Sept. 25 — The world premiere of seven tragedies by Sophocles, as conceived by Lebanese-Canadian director Wajdi Mouawad, will be staged at the Theatre Le Manege.
July 4-Oct. 4 — "The Chinese Avant-Garde." Twenty sculptors from China will exhibit their latest works at Anciens Abattoirs, Mons' former slaughterhouse.
July 17-26 — 8,000 sunflowers and 250 lawn chairs will bedeck Mons' central square for a series of open-air concerts.
Aug. 26-28 — Armada of a Thousand Lights. The city marina hosts a procession of boats and barges, concerts and fireworks.
Four new bells, replacing those melted down for ammunition during the Nazi occupation, will ring out for the first time in nearly 70 years, at the opening ceremonies for Pilsen's year as Europe's Cultural Capital on Jan. 17. Five processions will meet at city center for music and performances, including a troupe of tightrope walkers led by circus icon David Dimitri. The next day begins a season of Le Cirque Nouveau, with over 70 nights of performances in tents pitched across the city showcasing Europe's top new circus acrobats and contortionists. In March, Pilsen's major breweries will come together to toast the opening of the Svetovar Culture Factory, with four new halls for performances and exhibitions. Throughout the summer Pilsen will "go for Baroque" as it stages festivals in open-air squares and classical music concerts in monasteries, churches and chateaux. Summer events close when Royal de Luxe, a Paris-based theatrical ensemble, puts on a three-day show with giant puppets Aug. 28-30.
Altogether, Pilsen's roster for 2015 offers some 50 large shows and more than 600 other special events, including:
Jan. 17-May 10 — "Jiri Trnka's Legacy." The first comprehensive exhibit of Pilsen native Trnka's animations, illustrations, paintings and sculpture, including an interactive exhibit based on his book "Zahrada," at the Gallery of the City of Pilsen.
March 2-28 — Smetana Days in Pilsen. This festival of classical music from the romantic period consists of 10 concerts in a new venue, the Burgher Meeting Hall. The festival honors Czech composer Bedrich Smetana.
May 1-6 — Pilsen Liberation Festival. Commemorating the liberation of the city by the U.S. Army on May 6, 1945, this annual thank-you to the Americans is at the military camp at Krizikovy Park. The 70th edition includes displays of original vehicles and equipment, re-enactments of the daily life of soldiers and a grand parade of wartime vehicles through downtown Pilsen.
The two European Capitals of Culture for 2016 will be Donostia-San Sebastian, Spain, and Wroclaw, Poland.