Georges Rouzeau - 2010-06-07
Located 200 km south of Budapest, not too far from the borders of Croatia and Serbia, Pécs is a small, little-known pearl of a city: a two-thousand year old gem which has (fittingly) been named European Capital of Culture 2010.
Pécs, a city with a Mediterranean flair
Protected by mountains from north winds, Pécs (PEH-tch) makes the most of its Mediterranean climate. Indeed, with its flowering almond trees; eclectic, neoclassical and baroque architecture; mustard yellow and pistachio green-coloured buildings; and café terraces which seem to spring up everywhere as soon as the weather allows it, Pécs is truly lovely. In fact, it almost reminds one of a small-scale Vienna.
A city of students and rock music
A youthful and dynamic city with a sizable student population, Pécs has a thriving musical and contemporary art scene along with a highly impressive historical legacy. The first Hungarian city to receive the European Capital of Culture title, Pécs is fiercely protective of its cultural independence with regard to Budapest. It is, in fact, the only city in Hungary to boast four theatres and a renowned philharmonic orchestra. Pécs is also home to nearly a dozen top-notch rock groups, as groups which make a name for themselves here have a shot at national fame and an enduring career without having to move to the capital.
Its excellent and renowned university, founded in 1367, attracts an international blend of students (from as far away as California and China) who flock to the city’s many cafés and bars from Thursday night on.
Like the rest of Hungary, the city is a veritable melting pot, with German, Croatian and Serbian influences. In Pécs - and this is unique in Hungary - Gypsies can study in their own language, from infant school to university. Moreover, many signs of the Ottoman occupation are still visible today: Pécs lays claim to the country’s best-preserved mosque. The city, relatively unscathed by the succession of 20th century wars, also has a fine synagogue on Kossuth tér (Kossuth Square).
Pécs is a fine town to stroll about in, and one should take the time to discover it on foot, from museums to alleyways, from squares to cafés. But there’s no need to jump on the next flight over: although it has received € 127 million for structural renovations, the city has not been able to complete the work on time. They say the restoration ought to be finished in June.
Central Europe’s most impressive necropolis
Impressive and deeply moving, the Early Christian Necropolis of Pécs should not be missed; it holds the best-preserved late Roman period burial chambers, crypts and frescoes of all of Central Europe. In the 4th century C.E., the pagan Roman town of Sopianae (Pécs’s ancestor) had already begun its conversion to Christianity. With over a thousand tombs discovered since the 17C and underground galleries which run as far as Széchenyi, the city’s main square, the vast necropolis bears witness to this religious transformation.
Unimaginably vivid and fresh, the frescoes of the Peter and Paul chapel and the Korsós (Wine Pitcher) crypt are especially poignant, including the medallions of four young men who have been looking visitors straight in the eye for over 1,700 years. One visits this exceptional group of ruins, remarkably well restored and classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, via metallic walkways suspended above the chambers and along concrete-paved passageways.
Jókai, our favourite square in Pécs
During the day, this completely pedestrianised square is our very favourite place to relax. Take a seat and have a drink on the terrace of the Italian restaurant All’Elefante, well-appreciated by the locals. An elephant sculpture graces one corner of the café’s facade - a remnant, we are told, of an Ottoman spice shop. A bit further on, in a street which leads off to the right, is Giuseppe-bón (Ferencesek utca, 28), a nice ice-cream parlour.
Is it a mosque or a church?
If the city were to have just one symbol, this would be it: the old Pasha Ghazi Kassim mosque (dzsámi) set on Széchenyi Square in the heart of town, now metamorphosed into… a Catholic church. A cross above a crescent arises from its majestic cupola. The stones used for its construction came from the medieval church Szent Bertalan, which was demolished by the Ottomans. However, the best-preserved Turkish mosque in Hungary is not this ‘church’ but rather the Yakowali Hassan Dzámi, located on Rákóczi út outside the town gates. Built in the mid-16C, it still sports the original minaret and houses the tomb of a Turkish dervish which remains a Muslim pilgrimage site to this day.
A city which takes its wine with water
Say ‘frötsh.’ According to Hungarians, Fröccs is the sound soda water makes as it is poured into a glass of wine. Whatever you may think of the idea, this drink made with sparkling water and rosé or white wine (or even, sometimes, red) is what people are likely to be drinking on warm summer nights in Pécs.
In several different places on Janus Pannonius street (named after the scholarly Renaissance bishop who was a major figure in the history of Pécs), you will see prodigious clusters of padlocks stuck together - several thousand locks, in fact!
Young lovebirds come to symbolically lock their love and throw away the key. The ‘love padlock’ tradition, which has become a tourist attraction in its own right, seems to have originated in Pécs during the 19C. At that time, soldiers stationed here used to leave behind the padlocks with which they had secured their barrack room wardrobes.
Have you heard of the Hungarian Van Gogh?
There is an interesting museum in Pécs dedicated to the work of Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry [pronounced ‘Chon’tvari’] (1853-1919), nicknamed ‘the Hungarian Van Gogh’ for his penchant for mysticism and his touch of madness. The art of this self-taught, unclassifiable painter who merged religious symbolism with naive expressionism should not be overlooked; certain of his paintings are also exhibited in the Budapest National Gallery. If his grand historico-religious works are frankly rather tiresome, one could spend a long time gazing at his landscapes, splashed with audacious chromatic dissonance and quite other-worldly.
Csontváry Museum: Janus Pannonius utca, 11.
The Zsolnay factory
As you discover the city you will notice here and there the porcelain decorations which adorn several buildings and monuments, such as the old central post office. These pieces of art were produced at the Zsolnay [pronounced ‘Geolnaï’] ceramics factory; Zsolnay creations were a huge success at the Paris World’s Fair in 1878. The history of the factory’s founding father, Miklós Zsolnay, certainly merits a museum, and this one is located in the oldest building in Pécs, circa 1324. A gorgeous collection of pieces of the Secessionist style conveys the cosy simplicity of this family of artists entirely devoted to art and nature. Avoiding the tedium of fashionable gatherings, they would choose instead to spend time together in the forest...
Musée Zsolnay: Káptalan utca, 2.
In Pécs, if you follow the breeze and peek beyond building doorways, you may discover cobbled courtyards dotted here and there with wild grasses and flowers. Or perhaps you will happen upon an enchanted garden which leads up to a baroque pavilion with a panoramic view sweeping over the entire city. This is what awaits you at N°17 St. Stephen’s Square (Szent István ter), at the Pécs/Sopianae Heritage House.
A city without borders at the threshold of the Balkans, Pécs celebrates its multiculturalism with concerts, shows and festivals. Current exhibitions include ‘Hungarians in the Bauhaus,’ featuring such artists as Marcel Breuer, a native of Pécs. Also, the entirely renovated museum of native artist Victor Vasarely, the father of Op Art, has just reopened.
If you plan to go to Pécs, you will want to spend time in Budapest as well! Malev Hungarian Airlines, the national airline, flies to Budapest from the UK (London, Manchester and Edinburgh) and many European cities. Return flights from London, for example, begin at £149.
UK contact number: 0844-482-2360
The Budapest-Pécs trains leave from the Budapest East Railway Station (Keleti Pályaudvar); the journey takes around 2 ¾ hours. Return tickets cost approximately € 35 / £ 30.
Where to have a drink
Pécs, with Hungary’s second highest student population after Budapest, has a broad variety of bars, music cafés and, as in the capital, courtyards of unoccupied buildings which have been transformed into nightlife hotspots. To find out where the action is, it’s generally best to ask someone, since the festivities are always changing venue. A few ideas, in any case: located on the ground level of a cinema hall, Trafik (Perczel M utca) is a bar-restaurant (the food is so-so) with a stage for small music groups. Decorated with odds and ends, Blöff (Színház tér 2) is a café with an artsy ambiance whose clientele includes the staff of the Pécs National Theatre located just next door. Zöld (Hungária utca, 42) is reminiscent of the alternative bar scene in Budapest; very inviting, it has a covered courtyard and a cellar. By the way, smoking in public is permitted in Hungary.
Where to have a meal
On the other hand, Pécs hasn’t got much for foodies to get excited about, though we did have delicious split pea and bacon soup at Aranykacsa, a good traditional restaurant. We also dined at the Enoteca Corso, one of the city’s chic establishments. The Franco-Italian cuisine (very refined and very expensive) is nowhere near as tasty as the posh decor might lead one to expect. A Hungarian artist friend has recommended Áfium (Irgalmasok útja, 2), a restaurant serving traditional fare.
Enoteca Corso: Király utca, 14
Where to stay in Pécs
Kiraly útca 5,
Tel: information (36) 72-889-400
Situated in the heart of the city in a pedestrianised street, this hotel is supposed to be a monument of Art Nouveau architecture. Unfortunately, the rooms are rather small and the fixtures and fittings - especially the uncomfortable beds - have an indefinably outmoded, post-Soviet air about them. Bountiful breakfast buffet; small sauna.