If you're going to Europe this year in search of places showing off their cultural side, consider visiting Mons, Belgium, and Pilsen, Czech Republic. The two cities share the title 2015 European Capitals of Culture, which means you can count on seeing original art, music and theater events throughout the year.
The European Union started designating cultural capitals in 1985. The idea was floated by Melina Mercuri -- yes that Melina Mercuri -- who, besides being an actress, was serving as the Greek minister of culture.
The first Capital of Culture was Athens, followed by Florence, Italy (1986), Amsterdam (1987), Berlin (1988), Paris (1989) and many others since.
Now it's time for Pilsen and Mons to shine.
Pilsen's claim to fame: It's the original home of Pilsner beer, which is still made in the city. It will start celebrations Jan. 17 when Swiss tightrope walker David Dimitri and the Pilsen Philharmonic Orchestra perform, according to the 2015Pilsen website.
Dimitri will perform acrobatic and circus stunts for 10 days in a tent on the city's Republic Square starting in late January. In February, the city will host a Festival of Lights with illuminated walkways from the city's main depot to the famed Pilsner Urquell brewery.
Among the art exhibitions slated for 2015 is a display of 19th century portraits of New Zealand's indigenous Maori people created by Pilsen native Gottfried Lindauer. The exhibition at the West Bohemian Gallery will feature 44 portraits lent by the Auckland Art Gallery in New Zealand. It runs May 6-Sept. 20.
The show is currently on display in Berlin, where Maori descendants participated in a ritual belssing of the portraits of their elders.
Mons got off to a shaky start with its celebrations after a commissioned outdoor sculpture by Arne Quinze called "The Passenger" collapsed into a heap of wooden planks on Dec. 24. No one was hurt in the tumble.
The city still plans to kick off its special year Jan. 24. Mons2015 lists this opening-day trick: "You will be turned into a living mirror ball when you pull on one of the 18,000 silver ponchos that will be distributed for free."
On the same evening, residents and visitors also are invited to light thousands of candles at the city's Place du Parc and to dance with illuminated robots.
Lots of cultural events are planned, including one that pays tribute to Vincent van Gogh. It was in the Borinage area of Belgium that the French artist apparently decided to devote his life to painting.
The exhibition will highlight his early years with 70 drawings, paintings and letters at the Beaux Art Mons starting Jan. 25.