Friday, 02 January 2015 00:00

Belgium and the Czech Republic

Written by  Maria Lisella

Why you may wonder, are Belgium’s city of Mons and the Czech Republic’s Plzeň (or Pilsen as Americans would recognize it), marketing their distinctly different cities together? Yes, you could combine visits to both Mons and Plzeň via Eurail or Rail Europe rides taking seven hours, or a less than a two-hour flight, but no, that is not the link, at least not this year.

Both cities are sharing the European Capital of Culture (ECoC) crown in 2015. As most agents know, the European Capital of Culture tradition is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. It started in 1985 when Greek actress Melina Mercouri, then Greece’s Minister of Culture, and her French counterpart, Jack Lang came up with the idea to showcase the continent’s cultural diversity. Most big cities don’t need the designation to bring attention to themselves, but lesser known cities gain well-deserved recognition, attract investments, and often emerge with a new profile on the tourism spectrum.
The beauty of being chosen for the reign, even when a city shares it with another, is that each city obtains grants and investments that can dramatically improve tourism facilities and infrastructure. Thus the cities can take giant leaps instead of baby steps in improving their stations on the cultural radar.
One of the most dramatic transformations took place in 1990 when the sooty, industrial town of Glasgow in Scotland prepared for its reign: it was transformed into an art city that had often been overlooked and lived in the shadow of the more obviously beautiful Edinburgh whose castle is a travel icon.
Glasgow brushed itself off, and steam cleaned its heart only to reveal its industrial roots but with architectural details that were once hidden: the delightful gardens in town and the Glaswegians themselves who finally got a chance to introduce themselves to the world that year and in subsequent years since. By 2004, the European Commission conducted a survey that further demonstrated that the ECoC title has proved an important catalyst of cultural development and urban regeneration.

Planning Visits
One way to visit the reigning cities while their calendars are stacked with literally hundreds of great events is to combine each city with their own respective capital cities: Mons with stylish, art nouveau Brussels, which wore the crown in 1999 (though it shared it with five other cities that year) and Plzeň with the ever-energetic and riveting Prague, which reigned as Capital of Culture in 2000.
Given that both these countries attract substantial marketshare among American travelers, there is no doubt their infrastructure and hotel inventories are strong and diverse. One advantage of staying in a five-star property in a secondary city that is off the tourist track is that luxury can be affordable.
Mons hotels include Best Western’s Plus Hotel Lido ($82 in mid-March), and the Hotel Dream within a mile of the city center, but more price sensitive is the Hôtel du Pasino Saint-Amand-les-Eaux set close to regional attractions such as the Musee des Beaux-Arts, Stade Nungesser, and Museum of Fine Arts. Likewise, a Marriott Courtyard in Czech’s Plzeň starts at $89 a night, located in Pilsen’s legendary historic district while the angelo Hotel Pilsen is close to Pilsner Urquell Brewery, the Brewery Museum, and the West Bohemian Museum.

Belgium’s Mons
In Belgium, the cities of Antwerp (1993), Brussels (2000) and Bruges (2002) have held the coveted title. It is now Mons’ turn to showcase its cultural wealth, the first city from the Walloon Region to do so.
In the opening ceremony on January 24, the city will be ablaze with fireworks and candles lit in a unified action taking place around the world. The Compagnie Carabosse will form a circle of thousands candles here and in city squares all over the world.
As with all Culture Capitals, venues all over the city will become stages for live performances, art installations, and concerts. From the Church of Sainte-Waudru to the Belfry, Mons is a city full of history and heritage. Starting from its foundations, the European Capital of Culture will showcase its treasures juxtaposed with contemporary architectural designs.
Last year, one of Mons’ biggest attractions -- the Beaux Art Museum or BAM - drew nearly 85,000 visitors for an exhibition about Andy Warhol in partnership with The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. This year, two million visitors are expected.
On January 5, BAM’s blockbuster exhibit -- Van Gogh in Borinage, the birth of an artist -- will open through May 17, 2015. Many of the 70 paintings and drawings as well as original letters written by Van Gogh in the Borinage and in Brussels have rarely been seen by the public.
Adding to the excitement is a treat for cinephiles: 60 years ago in 1955, filmmaker Vincente Minnelli shot Lust for Life, the biopic of Vincent van Gogh starring Kirk Douglas in Wasmes, Hornu and Saint Ghislain, precisely where the painter had lived and worked 75 years before. This marked the first time Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer producers allowed crews to leave Hollywood studios and shoot at actual locales of historic events. A campaign calling for testimonials has tracked down people who lived during the filming and were willing to share their stories during those 10 days of innovative filming.
From June through September, the Mons Memorial Museum’s exhibition will feature “One Number, One Destiny. At The Service Of Napoleon” focusing on parallel destinies: those of “Belgian” soldiers who fought on the battlefields of Europe and those civilians who lived in Mons during the socio-cultural changes brought about by the French regimes.
“Our aim is to build a new city where the next legacy will be established and to draw the next chapter of history for several generations to come,” says Francoise Haffreingue, Executive Manager of the Belgian Tourist Office in New York.
Recently, Google chose Mons as its European data center, which represented an investment of $554 million. This move attracted Microsoft and 100 other innovative digital tech companies and start-ups to form, prompting a new moniker for Mons. “Digital Innovation Valley” employs 1,000 high-tech professionals.
With its slogan: “Where technology meets culture,” Mons’ local officials are fastening on digital technology to spur social and cultural change. “Some ambitious pilot projects such as Mons Street RE-View (a parody of Google Street View) and Café Europa will definitely change our perception of new technology, bringing it closer, making it more tangible and creating connections, warmth and exchanges between people from different generations, adds Haffreingue.
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Czech’s Plzeň

The fourth largest city in the Czech Republic sits at the confluence of four rivers, a position that heightened Plzeň’s importance along two trade routes. Today Pilsen, its English name, is more likely to be associated with beer as the Pilsner Urquell Brewery, the Gambrinus Brewery are based here while the enigmatic, mysterious and altogether compelling Plzeň underground, a labyrinth of passageways, cellars and wells built below the city dating back to the 14th century, is not to be missed.
Founded by Czech King Wenceslas II in 1295, its architectural gems include Gothic Cathedral of St. Bartholomew, the Renaissance Town Hall, the Baroque reconstruction of the Archdeacon’s home and Franciscan Monastery and the recently re-opened Great Synagogue of Plzeň. Other cultural venues such as the city theater, the Burgher Hall and houses with Mikolas Ales’ graffiti date from the 19th century.
As much of an industrial city as it once was, today, Plzeň is a hotbed of international cultural events and festivals that include the Smetana Days, the Theater Festival, International Drawing Biennial, Skupa’s Plzeň, and the International Big-Band Festival while the Plzeň Cultural Summer program is packed with open-air-stage concerts in the city center, which is where the biggest events of Capital of Culture will also take place in 2015.
Opening ceremonies will be preceded by no less than five processions on January 17 at the Town Square; evening celebrations will take place inside historic buildings, courtyards, culture halls, museums, galleries, libraries, pubs and music clubs with exhibitions that will be installed for the duration of the year.
Le Cirque Nouveau or the New Circus will consist of nine leading musical ensembles from France, Italy, Spain, Canada and Switzerland for more than 60 performances from January through November before more than twenty thousand spectators.
These elegant performances, however, do not give a hint about the unrepeatable experiences for everyone who likes theater combining acrobatics, juggling and tight-rope walking with suspense, amazement, humor, clownship and poetics. “We have chosen performances that rank among the best of new circus and that are mostly without language barriers and able to entertain the whole family,” says Petr Forman, the Pilsen 2015 Artistic Chief.
On the serious side, The Liberation festival is an exhibit (from May to June) that will resonate with American travelers as it traces the liberation of Plzeň by the American troops, culminating with a spectacular celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. Part of the program includes a concert of the American southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, who will appear in the Czech Republic for the first time.
Gottfried Lindauer, a painter who was born in Plzeň became famous for his Maori portraits that he painted after he moved to New Zealand in the late 19th century. This collection, which represents a national treasure for the Maoris, will leave New Zealand for the first time; 40 portraits will be on exhibit in the West Bohemian gallery.
Techie travelers will enjoy the free mobile app with tours guided by nine natives of Plzeň leading them to places linked to the big stories that made the city and the smaller, personal tales through their eyes. The project began by collecting stories from ordinary Pilseners or finding them in archives to prepare these entertaining multi-media strolls through the city.
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