Hungary: A city with Pécs appeal
Away from the Hungarian tourist haunt of Budapest, Willie Dillon discovers the charms of Pécs -- a bohemian haven with magical museums, quirky parks, and wine you can bathe in
It's midday on a busy and deliciously warm Saturday, and, in a prime spot across from Murphy's Pub, a busker dressed like an American cowboy is skittering out a lively tune on the banjo. It's a Kerry polka.
If it wasn't for the tell-tale line about the weather, I might be describing a street scene in Dingle.
But it's reasonable to assume that most of the passers-by have never heard of Dingle -- or Kerry for that matter -- because I am standing in the magnificent Széchenyi Square in the centre of Pécs, a gem of a city in south-western Hungary, 200km from Budapest and close to the Croatian border.
They told me that Pécs was a multicultural spot, but this isn't quite what I was expecting. It goes without saying that the banjo player is a local.
This is alternative Hungary, a place where Irish visitors rarely venture. Of the 30,000 Irish people who flock to Budapest every year, only about 10pc visit any other part of the country. For those eager to discover more about this Middle-European nation, whose roots go back to the 9th century, Pécs -- more than 100 miles from the capital -- is a very good place to begin.
But first the name. To our ears, Hungarian is a difficult language. It's nearest linguistic relation in Europe is Finnish, another famously impenetrable tongue. So Pécs is actually pronounced like 'page', with a soft 'g'.
After emerging from the cloud of Communism in the late 1980s, it endured a further period of difficulty due to its proximity to the conflict in the Balkans.
But you could say that Pécs has now started to flex its tourism muscles. It received a major boost when it was chosen as one of last year's European Capitals of Culture.
For a city steeped in history, culture and art, it was exactly the kick start it needed. The accolade sparked a €120 million programme of physical regeneration. The results can be seen most clearly in the central square and the surrounding pedestrianised streets, which are full of character and renewed architectural splendour.
The dominant landmark in Széchenyi Square 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 when the Turks were driven out in the 17th century, but the building was preserved.
Today, both cross and crescent sit together above the dome. Locals regard it as a symbol of the city's multi-ethnic character.
Pécs, with its Mediterranean climate and a population of 160,000, is Hungary's fifth-largest city. Most of the tourist attractions are within easy reach of the central square. For that reason and more, it's an ideal spot for a weekend break.
It sits on the edge of a resurgent wine-growing region, and the forests and lakes of the Mecsek hills are almost within walking distance of its downtown streets. And some two hours' drive away is Lake Balaton, Central Europe's largest lake, often referred to in landlocked Hungary as the Hungarian Sea.
An initial surprise is what the planners have done to one of the city's grandest structures, the beautiful early 20th-century City Hall. It is possibly the only major civic landmark in all of Europe whose street frontage includes a large McDonald's restaurant and the aforementioned Murphy's Pub. Try to imagine the Mansion House with a side-entrance chipper.
The City Hall sits on the corner of Király Street, a popular place for tourists with its attractively informal restaurants, many with canopies for outdoor dining and snacking, and young, lively -- but not garish -- bars. It's pleasant in an international touristy kind of way, but thankfully without the kitsch and tat which characterise such streets in other holiday cities.
Beyond the city centre, the elegant streets are 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.
But the real delights of Pécs are its history and culture. The city streets are dotted with modern sculpture. The central Káptalan Street is popularly known as Museum Street because of the quality of its art galleries. A highlight of my visit is a major exhibition of works by The Eight, an acclaimed group of early 20th-century Hungarian avant-garde painters.
Names such as Róbert Berény and Lajos Tihanyi mightn't ring 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.
Pécs may be a little off the regular tourist track, but it's a rewarding detour with many highlights.
Visit the local Unesco World Heritage Site of the Necropolis of Sopianae, situated in the heart of Pécs close to the Catholic cathedral. It dates from the early 4th century and includes some 17 burial chambers in which archaeologists found hundreds of graves and numerous Roman artefacts.
The site is also rich in ancient murals. For ease of access, everything is fully enclosed within a recently built visitor centre with walkways between the chambers.
Don't miss the Zsolnay Centre either, where you don't have to be a ceramics expert to appreciate the incomparable artistry on display. Between 1870 and 1910, the family-owned Zsolnay factory 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 expat in the US, can be seen here. The intricate detail and beauty of the work is quite extraordinary.
Some 30km from Pécs lies the centre of the local wine region, the village of Villány It's a great day out with plenty of cellars offering tastings and restaurants galore to wash down lunch with local labels.
The four-star Gere Crocus Hotel (0036 7249 2195; gere.hu), run by one of the main wine-growing families, goes one step further at its vinotherapy spa. Extracts of the vine are used in all their massage and beauty treatments and you can even soak in a wine bath.
Nearby, you'll find one of the most astonishing collections of outdoor sculpture in Europe -- in a huge disused limestone quarry. The Nagyharsány Statue Park near Villány is a very large field with dozens of monumental stone creations. It's tucked away in the Hungarian countryside, with no gift shop and no café -- just fresh air and wonderful art.
Back in Pécs, the city's favourite picnic spot is Tettye Park, a ten minute stroll from the centre. The air is filled with birdsong and the sound of organ music coming from somewhere I can't quite pinpoint.
In a little clearing behind the Modern Hungarian Gallery, I find a cluster of organ pipes, about six-feet high, nestling amid the greenery. It's a veritable Baroque jukebox.
I tune in and sit back to the sounds of Hungarian rhapsodies in the mid-afternoon sun.
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