Two European cities will host the equivalent of an artistic Olympics this year, writes Ewan McDonald
Two old ports are expecting a storming 2020. Galway, in Ireland's west, and Rijeka, in Croatia's north, have been designated the year's European Capitals of Culture.
Devised by Melina Mercouri, the Greek movie star and Culture Minister, the initiative is 35 years old and has spotlighted 60 cities. It's a European Union project to highlight the richness and diversity of member nations' cultures; celebrate shared cultural features and increase European citizens' sense of belonging to a common cultural area.
• Europe: 20 travel mistakes to avoid
• Premium - Europe: The holiday hotspots for 2020 you should be booking now
• Premium - Europe travel: Brexit or not, why a UK holiday is still on our wish list
Rather like an artistic Olympics, it's an excellent opportunity to regenerate urban areas, raise their international profile and enhance their image in the eyes of their own inhabitants – and, of course, boost tourism.
What can culturally inclined visitors expect from this year's models?
Population 120,000, it's Croatia's third-largest city and its biggest seaport. Most people speed through on their way to the islands or Dalmatia, but those who pause will discover charm, culture, good nightlife and Croatia's most colourful carnival. It's had a turbulent history, kicked about between various empires until it became part of independent Croatia in 1991.
Rough Guide describes Rijeka as a "row of cumbrous cranes and rusty, sea-stained tankers in front of soaring apartment blocks". The Guardian calls it "Red Rijeka … a left-leaning, punk-loving city that's ready to rock." Behind the seafront you'll discover Habsburg grandeur, labyrinthine streets, medieval castles and cathedrals. Dominating the old town, Trsat Castle is one of the oldest and best-preserved medieval fortifications on the Croatian coast; Our Lady of Trsat Sanctuary is the largest centre of pilgrimage in the region. For authentic flavours, visit the city market. Get out of town to the Kantrida pools or take a local bus to Opatija, once the rich-and-famous' favourite resort, now a great place to swim. Divers adore the clear sea and wealth of underwater life.
Former industrial complexes are being transformed into art spaces; new bars and restaurants are springing up alongside Austro-Hungarian palaces, Venetian townhouses and Tito's concrete curios. New cultural institutions will be opened, including the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, RiHub cultural centre and Galeb ship museum.
Beyond King's Landing: A break away from Dubrovnik's crowds
Some 1000 events range from pop to high-brow culture, community programmes to alternative art, traditional to contemporary artwork.
The Lungomare Site-Specific Art features 10 contemporary installations at different locations in Kvarner Bay devised by world-renowned artists. Exhibitions include The Nineties: Scars, art expressing a turbulent era in Eastern Europe and Klimt Unknown: Love, Death, Ecstasy, seldom-seen artwork by the young painter.
Croatia's National Theatre is unveiling several works while famed director Ann Bogart will present Richard Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde at the Rijeka Theatre for the first time. Renowned choreographer Andonis Foniadakis is preparing the premiere of the ballet Burning Water.
Bus from Zagreb or Slovenia; large car-carrying ferries down the Adriatic Coast from Zadar, Split, Dubrovnik or Bari. There's a small airport but no major airlines use it.
Population 80,000, it's Ireland's fifth-largest city and gateway to the Wild Atlantic Way route around the coast, villages and islands of the West of Ireland. Don't expect too much in the way of typical tourist attractions such as museums. Charming pedestrian streets, numerous pubs – many offering traditional music every night - and the locals' craic (conversation) are sure to keep you occupied.
Because it's lively, fun and a major centre of Irish culture – the language, the music, the arts, the events and yes, the ales. City sights include Lynch's Castle, the finest medieval townhouse in Ireland; the Spanish Arch, remains of the town's ancient defences, where the River Corrib flows into Galway Bay. One of the city's most famous symbols is the silver Claddagh ring, the lovers' emblem of two hands holding a heart; it has its own visitor centre and can be bought from artisan jewellers on almost every street corner. Must-sees in the area include the other-worldly landscape of the Burren, the dramatic Cliffs of Moher and the rolling vistas of Connemara, where Irish is the first language. Offshore are the Aran Islands.
The festival is intended to celebrate the region's rich culture and history, while creating waves of disruption – artistically, culturally and socially - not only in Galway city but throughout the county.
The pan-European programme will see events in unexpected locations throughout the region, on its islands, in remote villages, fields, mountains and on beaches. A large portion of the programme will be free.
The year is themed by the four pagan seasons: Imbolc (February-April); Bealtaine (May-July); Lughnasa (August-October) and Samhain (November-January).
Imbolc highlights include Wild Atlantic Women, celebrating International Women's Day with author Margaret Atwood. During Bealtaine events kick into gear with theatre and early music festivals, Poetry Matters and the Film Fleadh. In Lughnasa, performances take on a creative and expressive lilt with Cie Carabosse's Fire Garden and the high-wire acts of Wire's Crossed. Samhain shifts the festival to a more reflective tone: Comhaltas celebrates Irish culture and NIghthose Studio's Unsung pays tribute to mothers and children mistreated by the state between the 18th and 20th Centuries in an immersive light and sound display.
Celebrations close with Lumiere Galway, international artists re-imagining public spaces with large-scale projections, light sculptures, and interactive digital installations.
Galway is 185km west of Dublin with six daily trains from the capital (two-and-a-half hours). Better, rent a car and drive there in a couple of hours - you'll want to see the surrounding countryside. It's only an hour from two international terminals, Shannon and the airport up at Knock.