When I went to visit Pécs (pronounced Paych) the 5th city of Hungary I expected to find the grey uniformity associated with decades of communism. As if to prove me wrong the guide started her tour of Pecs by pointing out the brightly covered roof of the town hall, glinting in the sun, defying the long years when the colourful tiles had been covered over.
Today it has more in common with its Austro-Hungarian background, and is an unspoilt, effervescent place situated in the south west of the country. Just 20 miles from the Croatian border and a two and half-hour journey on the fast train from Budapest.
The Mecsek hills surrounding Pécs produce a warm and dry microclimate, perfect for the fresh fruit, vines and hops which is more reminiscent of the Mediterranean, than the “Gateway to the Balkans” as it is also known. The wide streets and squares are home to some unusual museums, although I later found out that a large part of its heritage lay underneath my feet.
Pécs was an important settlement in Roman times, (when it was called Sopiana), and there are chapels, mural paintings and graves being uncovered all the time. The ‘numbering’ of the burial chambers goes in the course of their discovery. The first one was found – and preserved in 1782 while the last one No. 24, in 2005. Now it is listed as an UNESCO Roman world heritage site and was nominated as European City of Culture in 2010.
The leafy street of museums includes one dedicated to the famous 1960’s Pop Artist “Vasarly” known for his typical black and white optical artworks. (Names are a problem in Hungary as it is the only European country that uses the family name first and birth name second).
Pécs is also home to The Street, a 1970’s sculpture by Erzsébet Schaárs in which a long avenue lined with windows shows individual white figures looking out. A spooky portrayal of individual isolation in the world. The Janus Pannonius Museum is dedicated to Kosztka Tivadar Csontvary, the famous Hungarian Painter whose work include, what seemed to me, some colourful but slightly disturbing pictures painted in 1904, of Jerusalem and gatherings around the Wailing Wall.
In 1367 Pécs housed Hungary’s first university, and even today it remains a large student metropolis with the present Janus Pannonius seat of learning, playing a significant part of city life. Wine and beer are extremely cheap here as well as good restaurants, although the thick meat soups and dumplings that constitute a typical meal, does mean that vegetarians diets are not particularly well catered for!
In the coutryside outside Pécs I visited the Míves Tojáső Folk Museum in Zengovárkőny which specialises in reviving the ancient art of egg decorating using ritual and sacred symbols going back to prehistoric times. Originally only the dye from boiled red onion skins was used and painted onto the shell with a special nib. Then bees wax was then applied. After the demonstration I visited the museum itself which showed a stunning collection of decorated eggs from all over the world.
In another part of the scenic countryside, can be found the Villány -Siklósi wine route, named after the two main villages in the area. Here the tradition of viniculture and viticulture stretches back thousands of years. Red wines dominate, but there are many excellent examples of all vintage wines. Up to 592 overnight guests can be accommodated around and about and there is plenty of food to accompany the drink, and even pony and traps for those wanting to arrive in style.
I went wine tasting at Malatinszky Mansion Vineyards where the produce was of an outstandingly high standard. Then, feeling merry, went on to visit the Polgar winery where the long corridors lead to wine vaults containing literally hundreds of bottles, stored for celebrities and wine collectors from all over the world.
Where to stay in Pécs
Hotel Palatinus: This grand art-deco building offers all modern comforts and facilities.and is situated in the historic inner-city, in the walking street directly opposite the main Széchenyi square. Restaurant with vegetarian kitchen. Special offers available www.danubiushotels.com
Hungarian National Tourist Office Tel: 020 7823 0411