Located 100 miles southwest of the Hungarian capital Budapest, Pecs, a compact city of 160,000 people, was a European City of Culture in 2010. Renowned within Hungary for its long association with the visual arts, over €120 million was invested in cultural projects during the year. The city is also close to a famous wine region, and Lake Balaton, central Europe’s largest lake, is less than two hours away. Willie Dillon discovers a city full of distinctive Hungarian charm and some world class art.
It’s just after 8 o’clock on a warm Saturday morning and the inhabitants of Pecs are still shaking themselves awake. In the magnificent central Széchenyi Square with its imposing Mosque-shaped church and elegant buildings, only a handful of people are strolling around. One of the grandest structures is the beautiful early 20th century City Hall – possibly the only major civic landmark in all of Europe whose street frontage includes a large McDonald’s restaurant and a Murphy’s Pub.
Welcome to Hungary’s fifth largest city with its rich tapestry of colour, history and contrasts.
Pecs – pronounced Page - is not a place whose name readily trips off Irish tongues. The vast majority of Irish visitors to Hungary never venture beyond Budapest. Pecs is more than a hundred miles south-west of the capital, close to the border with Croatia. It sits on the edge of a resurgent wine growing region. The forests and lakes of the Mecsek hills are almost within walking distance of its downtown streets. Some two hours drive away is Lake Balaton, Central Europe’s largest lake and a major tourist attraction – often referred to in landlocked Hungary as the Hungarian Sea.
It’s a little gem of a city which claimed its rightful place on the international tourist stage last year when it became a 2010 European Capital of Culture. Achieving this accolade was an enormous boost to Pecs and sparked a €120 million programme of physical regeneration. It was a well deserved honour because this is a city steeped in culture and art. The big year may be over, but it provided a very solid foundation on which the local tourism authorities are now building. You could say that Pecs has started to flex its tourism muscles.
Széchenyi Square is the city’s focal point. The dominant landmark there is the copper-domed Mosque of Pasha Qasim. Its name and appearance conceal the fact that this is in fact a Roman Catholic church. The original church was demolished when the city was occupied by the Turks in the Middle Ages. The mosque they built was claimed back by the Jesuits after the Turks were driven out in the 17th century. Today both cross and crescent sit together above the dome. Locals regard it as a symbol of the city’s multi-ethnic character.
Pecs is sometimes referred to as The Borderless City and sees itself as a gateway between the Balkans and the rest of Europe.
For a variety of reasons, it makes an ideal spot for a weekend or mid-week city break. Because of its compactness, most of its tourist attractions are within easy reach of the central square, which itself is part of a much larger and quite picturesque area of pedestrianised streets and grand ornate buildings. Just past the McDonalds-sponsored civic offices is Király Street, popular with tourists for its attractively informal restaurants, many with canopies for outdoor dining and snacking, and young lively - but not garish - bars.
On my quiet Saturday morning stroll, I make for Kaptalan Street – popularly known as Museum Street because of the presence there of some of this delightful city’s finest art galleries. My route takes me past an attractive park filled with trees covered with a vibrant sheen of early summer greenery. Dotted around are several splendid modern bronze sculptures by big name Hungarian artists. It’s really quite idyllic. The air is filled with birdsong and the sound of organ music coming from somewhere I can’t quite pinpoint.
I meander through the invitingly open gates of the Modern Hungarian Gallery to admire yet more dramatic modern sculpture in the dappled leafy garden. The museum itself, which houses a very fine selection of 19th and 20th century works, is still shut. The adjacent terraced greenery of the Northern City Wall Promenade is a slightly unkempt little haven of seclusion, which I have almost entirely to myself.
The already lovely morning is coloured by another glorious burst of organ music – probably Bach. This time I can see where it’s coming from. A cluster of organ pipes, rising to about six feet in height, is nestling amid the trees to my right. Beneath the pipes is a series of buttons with the names of famous composers. It’s a combined art installation and Baroque jukebox!
You’d never suspect it in these surroundings, but Pecs is also a bustling home to nearly 160,000 people. I decide it’s time to check out some of that bustle myself, so I head off for the Saturday morning market. As I walk, dreamy reflective Pecs is quickly replaced by the more familiar sights of shopping malls and traffic. Multi-storey apartment buildings abound – some of them grim remnants from the old communist days.
Most of the market is conducted inside a large unattractive building alongside the city bus station. Dozens of stall holders stand behind counters stacked with food of all sorts, vegetables, fruit, fresh flowers, garden plants and lots more besides. Among those offering their wares on the street outside is a woman selling live chicks from a cardboard box. There are vendors offering hideous artificial flowers, if the real ones aren’t to your taste. In the midst of it all, hard men engage in lively banter as they gulp mid-morning beers in rough-looking cafes.
The market is only about three blocks away from the arty solitude of the museum garden, but it’s like being teleported to a different planet. This is where you come if you’re looking for the clatter and bustle of Eastern Europe in all its noisy unvarnished glory.
Food is an important part of the Hungarian cultural experience. But getting past the ubiquitous “international” menu can be a problem. The waiter at the popular Replay restaurant is a little perplexed when I ask him to point out the Hungarian dishes on offer. After some earnest fussing, he can identify only two possibilities. I am eventually presented with a large plate of spare ribs, garnished with a generous helping of French fries which look and taste exactly like the ones which come with the Big Macs a few doors away.
The next day, as rain starts to pitter on the canopy at the Elephant House in Jokai Square, my eagerness to sample the native cuisine is shown up as empty posturing. One of the speciality dishes here commands instant attention. But my sense of gastronomic adventure is blunted by a shapeless nagging from the depths of my male DNA, so I decide against ordering the Rooster Testicle Stew.
Most people I meet in Pecs have at least a smattering of English. Menus have English translations, as do the galleries and museums on their information displays. Hungarian, which is a relation of Finnish, is a difficult language for the foreigner. But the occasional kayram (please) and que sa nam (thank you) – phonetic versions learned from the helpful staff at the Palatinus Hotel – never go astray.
But the real treasure of Pecs is its history and its obvious love of the visual arts. A highlight of my visit is an extensive exhibition of works by a group of Hungarian avant-garde painters known as "The Eight" who flourished during the decade leading up to the First World War. Names such as Robert Bereny and Lajos Tihanyi mightn’t ring too many bells in this part of the world. But their work is right up there with some of the best Western European art of the period.
An artist of a very different hue was Pecs-born Victor Vasarely who, as father of so-called Op Art, became a significant international art figure before his death in Paris in 1997. His clever geometric works, filled with dazzling optical illusions, can be seen in his permanent gallery in the heart of the city’s artistic quarter.
Another major highlight is the stunning Zsolnay Museum housing an incomparable collection of highly decorative ceramics. Between 1870 and 1910, the renowned family-owned Zsolnay factory in Pecs produced thousands of specially designed pieces, mirroring the glory years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Much of the work has since been lost or destroyed. But some 600 pieces, gathered over four decades by a Hungarian ex-pat in the US, can be seen here at the museum.
The Zsolnay factory also employed many leading Hungarian designers of the time. The intricate detail and beauty of the work is quite extraordinary. A highly distinguishing feature is the unique iridescent glaze developed by the family. Many of the later pieces are in the Art Nouveau style and in some cases look remarkably contemporary. Construction and regeneration work is currently ongoing on a much larger Zsolnay cultural quarter on the site of the former factory.
Another recent addition to the city’s cultural landscape is a major new concert hall, named after the Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly who died in 1967. It opened last December, as the City of Culture programme was drawing to an end. Since then, it has hosted many big names in European classical and jazz music. The renowned Russian conductor and violinist Maxim Vengerov paid it the ultimate complement, describing it as “the Stradivarius of architecture”.
The new venue is architecturally striking, with light-streaked wood panelled walls in the auditorium giving the impression of sound radiating out from the stage. It also boasts superb sound. Director Janos Hauer is so chuffed with the acoustics that, during our conversation, he can’t resist clapping his hands and clicking his fingers to illustrate the concert chamber’s minutely-timed resonance.
It is said that Pecs is a city where the more you look the more you find. And this is certainly true of its greatest historical site. The Necropolis of Sopianae, situated in heart of the city close to the Catholic cathedral, is a Unesco World Heritage Site. This fourth century early Christian cemetery is enclosed by a recently built visitor centre with walkways between the burial chambers. In all, there are some seventeen chambers in which archaeologists found hundreds of graves and numerous Roman artefacts buried within them. The site is also rich in ancient murals.
The centrepiece of the site is the Cella Septichora, a large tiled floor space surrounded by the remains of 1,700 year-old walls containing seven apses, or recesses. Overhead is a dramatic glass and steel roof level with the street outside. Passers-by above can walk across the glass and look down into the chamber. The effect works best at night when the chamber is illuminated.
If you’ve become sated with art and history, there are other out-of-town attractions. The Mecsek hills are so close they are actually within the town boundary. The highest peak is over 2,200 feet. There are endless forest paths and lakes offering a wide choice of outdoor activities. During the failed Hungarian revolution in 1956, these hills were the scene of pitched battles with invading Soviet forces.
Another attraction is the local wine growing region, centred on the little town of Villainy, some twenty miles from Pecs. Here the main street is lined with wine cellars where you are welcome to drop in and taste the product. Naturally, it’s a popular past-time with visitors. Wine festivals are an important feature of the local calendar. There are lots of restaurants.
Wine grower Andrea Gere explains that, during the 40 long years of communism, the vineyards became overgrown and production fell away to nothing. But since what she calls “the political change” wine making has returned. Her father, a former forester, started buying up suitable land and now the family cultivates 70 hectares of vine. They now produce around 500,000 bottles a year. Other local families also started back into wine production. Villainy is all about red wine and traditional grapes such as Portugieser are popular. An average of 2,100 hours of sunshine a year has resulted in some very fine vintages.
The Gere family also runs a delightful four-star hotel and restaurant to cater for the growing numbers of wine tourists. There we have a very nice lunch indeed. Smoked paprika cream soup with smoked perch and squid is followed by duck breast accompanied by pear in a Greek pastry, salad-wrapped foie gras and cottage cheese dumplings. And it was all topped off by no fewer than three desserts.
The Gere Crocus Hotel also has a spa and wellness centre where you can relax with a programme of “vino therapy”. Extracts of the vine are used in all the massage and beauty treatments. And yes, you can if you desire have a wine bath. However this isn’t quite as decadent as it sounds. A glass of wine is added to your perfumed bath water. You get a glass in your hand too to enjoy while you lie back and soak. What’s not clear is who gets to drink the bath water afterwards.
Back in Pecs, the city’s multi-cultural character is neatly summed up by a busker in the main square. He’s a Hungarian banjo player dressed in the attire of an American cowboy. And he’s playing a Kerry polka. GETTING THERE
Budapest is served every day from Dublin airport. The Hungarian national airline, Malev Airlines, now has a daily service from Dublin to Budapest. Fares start from a new promotional rate of €149 return, including all taxes. There’s also a generous 23 kilo luggage allowance and in-flight catering. Flying time is three hours.
Passengers wishing to travel on to Pecs and three other Hungarian cities can avail of a Malev shuttle coach. This is picked up directly outside the arrivals terminal in Budapest. Travelling time onwards to Pecs is around three hours. The terminus and pick-up point for your return journey is Pecs train station.
Malev coach connections also go from Budapest Airport to the cities of Debrecen, Miskolc and Szeged.
Budapest is also a major Malev air hub serving over 50 European and Middle-Eastern destinations, notably to the Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Greece, Israel, Jordan, Cyprus, Poland and Bulgaria. WHERE TO STAY
The three-star Hotel Palatinus is a prime location art nouveau style building in Kiraly Street, literally a two minute walk from Széchenyi Square.
This elegantly renovated fin-de-siècle hotel boasts an ornately decorated lobby, along with a stylish restaurant and a period ballroom in which the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok once performed.
On my final evening there, the ballroom hosted a vibrant programme of entertainment by some 20 belly dancers, watched by a capacity audience.
The Palatinus rooms are comfortable and the staff are courteous and extremely helpful.
A night in a standard double room with a generous self-service breakfast comes to €87.50 per room. The price for an economy double room is €75.50, while you can book the superior model for €97.50.
For lunch and dinner, a three-course menu without drinks comes in at just €12 per person plus 10% service. CURRENCY It may surprise you to learn that Hungary is not in the Euro. The Hungarian currency is the Forint. There are approximately 268 forints to the euro. This does not make for easy mental calculations at the culmination of a long convivial evening in the bar. EATING OUT
Dining out is relatively inexpensive in Pecs, and there’s plenty of choice. A filling goulash lunch can cost as little as €8. The popular Addo Café & Restaurant offers a typical menu with main course prices ranging from €8.50 for a burger and fries to €17 for a tenderloin steak.
Going upmarket won’t break the bank. A three-course lunch at the very fine Gere Crocus Hotel in the Villainy wine region costs around €22 per person. If you want to go all-out, the gourmet menu there, with seven courses and six different kinds of wine, will set you back €56. BEST BARS Drinking is also inexpensive by Irish standards. A half litre of draught beer in one of the more touristy bars will only cost around €2.20. But for real local quirkiness, visit the Sufni in Kiraly Street. Its décor style might be described as arty junk shop, with everything from bicycles to half pianos on the walls. The atmosphere is alluring and the service fast and friendly. CAR HIRE
Prices at Regina Rent a Car range from €21 per day based on renting for a minimum of 22 days. However, if you’re just staying for a week, the cheapest rate is €37 per day.
MORE ABOUT HUNGARY
You can find out more about what Pecs and Hungary have to offer by visiting the Go To Hungary website.
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