Pécs in the spotlight as a European Cultural Capital
There has never been a better time to visit the city I was born in than 2010, the year that Pécs is one of the European Cultural Capitals. With the designation Pécs received European Union funds for a major renovation and renewal project involving many of its squares, buildings and parks, as well as for building a new concert hall, library and cultural center.
This was my first visit to Pécs since the city was reborn as a European Cultural Capital. It was a beautiful, sunny October morning and I started my day at Mecsek, my favorite café located at the top of Széchenyi Square. The square itself and the buildings surrounding it encompass all that Pécs has to offer: history, culture, architecture and the arts. Rising above Pécs, clearly visible from Széchenyi Square, is the Mecsek mountain range lending the city its slopes and near-Mediterranean climate, far from the Mediterranean Sea. This city, favored by the ancient Romans, Hungarian kings of the middle ages, Turkish conquerors and the Habsburgs, is over 2000 years old. Throughout the course of history Pécs became a multicultural city melting together many different cultures and their values. Today it remains ethnically diverse. Hungarians, Croatians, Germans, just to mention the biggest ethnic groups, live here and are the reason that Pécs was named the ‘Borderless City’.
The most significant building in Széchenyi Square, and in Pécs, is the Gazi Kasim Pasha Mosque, known today as the Inner City Parish Church. The original gothic church was converted into a mosque in the 16th century by the occupying Turks. Arabic decorations and inscriptions from the Koran are still visible in parts of it today. At the end of the 17th century, after a 150-year rule, the Turks were defeated and the mosque was restored back to a church once again.
County hall, richly decorated with Zsolnay ceramic tiles, is one of the most beautiful buildings in Széchenyi Square. The famed Zsolnay tiles can be seen on the roofs and walls of buildings throughout Pécs, since Zsolnay himself was born in the city and the Zsolnay ceramic factory is also located here. The Zsolnay fountain, commissioned by the city and made with the use of Eosin invented by the Zsolnay Company, can be found at the entrance of the square. Another famous tenant in Széchenyi Square is the Nagy Lajos Gimnázium. Its history dates back to 1367 when Louis I of Hungary founded the University of Pécs, the first university in Hungary and one of the first universities in Europe.
From Széchenyi Square I continued my walk along Janus Pannonius Street, a narrow street leading from the mosque to the ancient part of Pécs. The street was named after Janus Pannonius (1434-1472), bishop of Pécs and humanist poet, whose given name refers to Hungary’s ancient Roman name, Pannonia. The hundreds of padlocks on some of the wrought-iron fences along Janus Pannonius Street are another noteworthy sight. For decades couples in love have been coming here to literally 'lock-in' their feelings for each other. The street ends at Szent István square, home to the largest early Christian burial chamber found outside Italy. Long before the Hungarians the Romans ruled the city and it was called Sopiane. In the Cella Septichora, an early Christian chapel from the fourth century, the visitors center’s multistory set of hallways, walkways and viewing platforms allows visitors to view the burial chambers from around A.D. 390 and the remains of the Roman city walls from all angles. Frescos depicting scenes from the bible and other geometric and floral patterns can be seen in these burial chambers. The earliest Christian place of worship excavated here is a chapel dating back to about 275. In 2000 all of these early Christian cemeteries were recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Near the Roman remains are the ruins of the medieval castle wall (The Barbican) that encircled the historical old city and the neo-Romanesque Cathedral on Dóm tér. Pécs has been a bishopric since 1009, declared by St. Stephen, the first King of Hungary. From here I made my way back towards the main square along Káptalan Street, often referred to by the locals as Museum Street, as almost every house here is a museum: the Vasarely Museum houses works by the Pécs-born pop-artist, the Zsolnay Museum showcases the history of the famous ceramic factory and the Gallery of Modern Hungarian Art displays the works of famous Hungarian visual artists from the 19th and 20th centuries.
After crossing Széchenyi Square, I continued my walk on Király Street, the city’s most popular pedestrian precinct. As I walked towards Pécs’s National Theater, a baroque-style building built in 1895 and beautifully renovated, I was somewhat surprised to see how touristy this area has become. The street, named after Király József (József King) a former bishop of Pécs and not a king, is lined with baroque-style buildings from the Habsburg era, including a church and a former monastery of the Pauline order dating back to the 1700s. Despite all the baroque architecture along Király Street, my favorite building remains the Hungarian Art Nouveau-style Palatinus Hotel built in 1914.
There are many restaurants and outdoor cafes in Király Street, however I would recommend a restaurant called 'Az Elefánthoz' located in nearby Jókai Square. This small square has a medieval feel and the restaurant’s patio is a great place to take in the atmosphere.
Pécs never fails to charm and it’s certainly worth a side trip from Budapest.
Pécs is about a three-hour drive from Budapest. Highway M6 is the quickest route. Trains run from Budapest's Déli Station. Buses leave from the Népliget bus terminal.
Things to see and do around Pécs
If you are a wine connoisseur, definitely make the trip to the nearby town of Villány, the center of one of Hungary’s top wine regions. Famous for its full-bodied and spicy reds, the Villány Wine Region produces many award winning vintages.
If you are interested in Christian relics, visit the church in Máriagyűd. The small village of Máriagyűd, officially part of the town of Siklós, is located 15 miles (25 km) south of Pécs just off route 58. With its history dating back as far as the 12th century, it is the most popular catholic place of pilgrimage in South Transdanubia.
If you need to relax and regenerate your energy, visit the thermal baths in Harkány. With around 180 years of history the spa and open-air bath of Harkány is famous for its medicinal water. Also located on route 58, Harkány is 17 miles (28 km) from Pécs.
If medieval castles pique your interest, visit the nearby city of Siklós. The medieval castle built atop a hill is one of Hungary's best-preserved castles from the middle ages.