For the rest of 2015, Mons, Belgium-Wallonia and Plzen, Czech Republic, share the title of European Capitals of Culture. In fact, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of the tradition of European Capital of Culture. It all began in 1985 when actress Melina Mercouri, then Greece’s minister of culture, and her French counterpart, Jack Lang, came up with the idea of designating an annual Capital of Culture to bring Europeans closer together by highlighting the richness and diversity of European cultures.
Certainly each and every city of culture, from Paris to Athens, Florence to Madrid, and numerous others, have stepped onto the European stage with major upgrades in their cultural infrastructure and dazzling events to woo visitors to their cities. And 2015 is no exception.
Mons in Wallonia
Mons—22 miles south of Brussels (an hour by rail)—grew up from a settlement around a convent founded in 650 at the foot of a fortress, which later became the site of a castle built by the Counts of Hainaut. The town reached the peak of its prosperity (due to the textile industry) in the Middle Ages during the reign of Emperor Charles V. Besieged several times because of its strategic position on the border with France, Louis XIV captured Mons in 1691, an intrusion that set the architectural style of the elegant 17th and 18th century residences that line the city’s steep cobbled streets today. Mons’ iconic landmark is The Belfry, standing 270 ft. high and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
There are several sites not to miss: The gothic Colligate Church of Sainte-Waudru, whose rich interiors are famous for the allegorical statues and stained glass windows, and whose treasury houses one of the most beautiful collections of gold and silverware in Belgium; the Decorative Arts Museum Francois Duesburg, whose prestigious collection of clocks with exotic themes is considered unique in the world.
However, the museum playing the lead role in Mons’ Cultural Capital year is the Beaux Arts Museum (BAM), which is honoring the 125th anniversary of Vincent Van Gogh’s death with a blockbuster exhibit that focuses on the artist’s formative years. Opening Jan. 24 and running through May 17, “Van Gogh in the Borinage, The Birth of an Artist” reminds us that he arrived in the Borinage (an area west of Mons) at the age of 25 as a preacher and lived with the coal miners; when he left to head for Provence, he had ended his career as a clergyman and began living life as an artist. He actually lived in the village of Cuesmes, where his house has been preserved and is open to visitors. Further, “Lust for Life,” the movie by Vincente Minnelli with Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Gauguin (an Ocar-winning performance), was filmed in Mons. For more information, visit visitbelgium.com.
Waterloo: Pomp & Circumstance
And for clients in Belgium-Wallonia June 18-21, plan for them to join in another event of a lifetime: The Battle of Waterloo Bicentenary, starring thousands of uniformed participants in period attire—5,000 re-enactors, 300 horses and some 100 cannons—re-enacting the Battle of Waterloo between the troops of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Anglo-Dutch forces under the command of the Duke of Wellington and the Prussians, led by Field-Marshal Blucher; this was the confrontation—June 18, 1815—that put an end to Napoleon’s dream of an empire and opened a new page in European history. Anytime is a good time, of course, to visit Waterloo, the battlefield, monuments, museums and town: it’s located a half-hour south of Brussels. For more information, visit waterloo2015.org.
Plzen, the Czech Republic
There are constant reminders in Plzen that you are in zde se narodilo pivo, the birthplace of beer. And indeed that is true, for some 400 years ago, a group of men formed Plzen’s first beer-drinking guild; today the superior Pilsner brew is a top seller worldwide. Clients interested in the secrets of brewing can take a 1-hour tour of the original Pilsner Breweries—visiting the fermentation cellars and brewing rooms, watching a film, and tasting freshly brewed beer. Top off the beer experience at the Beer Museum, housed in a former 15th century house.
An hour-and-a-half by fast train from Prague, this capital of Western Bohemia is surrounded by such elegant spa towns as Marianskei Lazne and Karlovy Vary; Plzen itself has a bit more true grit. The Mze and the Radbuza rivers flow past the old town center, where the gothic St. Bartholomew Cathedral sits on the leafy, beautiful town square; the church tower—some 301 steps up—offers the best of city views. Plzen’s other major religious shrine is the Great Synagogue, built in the 19th century and the second largest in the world—after Jerusalem. A painstaking restoration project has brought back this shrine’s beauty—the building is open and used for concerts and art exhibitions.
Clients will want to visit the West Bohemian Museum: In the basement is the original armory displaying a fine weapons collection; the second floor displays an exhibit of glass and porcelain in the Art-Nouveau Jubilee Hall. You go underground to tour the extraordinary Museum of Plzen’s Historical Underground, a web of passages lying under the town. The earliest were probably dug in the 14th century, the latest date from the 19th century; tunnels are dotted with exhibits of wooden water pumps, mining tools, pottery, pewter and ancient Czech glass. Tours start at the Brewery Museum.
All through 2015, public venues will host a calendar of 50 large cultural events and over 600 activities, focused on theater and music, visual and performing arts; each month there will be one big weekend event. A sampling of highlights follows:
- Le Cirque Nouveau is scheduled for 20 performances throughout the year; made up of nine leading musical ensembles from France, Italy, Spain, Canada and Switzerland.
- May 6-Sept. 20: Plzen-born Gottfried Lindauer Exhibit, paintings done when the artist moved to New Zealand to live and paint among the Maori; the art is now part of the Maori nation’s treasury, the first time to leave the country.
- June 3-8: Festival CIOFF: Czech Folklore & Art Festival, in historic center and surrounding towns.
- July 1-31: Bohemia Jazz Festival
- Mid-August: Jazz on the Streets, highlighted with several concerts by top-name Czech musicians.
- Oct. 3-12/23: Pilsner Fest
- Dec. 1: the Christmas Market opens