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Finding art and architecture in Pécs, Hungary

The fifth-largest city in Hungary, Pécs has never really appealed to me, despite others giving it rave reviews. I’ve been a few times but not to spend much time – a couple of day trips and one overnight. But himself was bound and determined to see for himself so I tagged along.

Pécs is close to the Croatian border. As its long list of inhabitants includes the Celts. I felt a little pressure to identify with it, on some level. Visually, it really is quite something. Pécs Cathedral reigns over central Szent István tér, also home to the famous Csontváry museum which houses the works of the artist Csontváry Kosztka Tivadar, one of the first Hungarian painters to gain a reputation in greater Europe. A visit to see his works of art was deemed an absolute must by two friends who know what they’re about when it comes to art. It was first on our list of places to see and I left disappointed. Certainly, the sheer size of some of his paintings is incredible as is the detail but were I to choose one to bring home with me, I’d have had little trouble deciding. There was only one – the Lonely Cedar. That said, his paintings sell for millions of euro, so what do I know?

Word has it that Csontváry was working as a pharmacist when one day, on the back of a prescription, he drew a picture of an ox cart that had stopped in front of the pharmacy door. The head pharmacist was so impressed that he told young Csontváry he was born to paint. Then, as the story goes, Csontváry himself heard someone telling him that he’d be the world’s greatest sun painter. And so he dropped dispensing and took up painting. The Csontváry Museum was founded in 1973 to house the Gerlóczy collection of his work. We wandered and looked, enjoying the sense of space as there was only one other trio in the building with us. A plus side to COVID-19.

After the first of many leisurely coffees, we wandered up and around the Catherdral, having had a quick peek inside intending to get back on Sunday for early mass. Yet another good intention paving the road to my heaven.

Every place is so well kept. Perhaps it was to do with the lack of tourists but I suspect not. Pécs has that well-kept air about it, a palpable pride. From the sun shades spanning Kiraly utca to various other shelters being erected over the few days we were there, they look after their people. And what a young people they are.  It’s a university city so no doubt there are thousands of students normally in residence. The university dates back to 1367 and attracts its fair share of foreign students, too. We ventured out our first night there, having heard the strains of laughter coming from a walled garden close to where we were staying. Csinos Presszó, Pécs’s answer to Budapest’s Szimpla Kert minus the drunken tourists, was quite the spot. It was rammed. But it was a Friday night. The next day, we went back for coffee and it was even more pleasant, with a great design shop open in the corner. Although we were by far the oldest people there, it was fun to hang out with the cool kids and relive the fashions from the 1930s onwards. One not to be missed. It doesn’t look like much from the outside but behind that heart is a welcome for everyone.

Pécs is synonymous with Zsolnay porcelain. One of the most beautiful buildings in Budapest on Üllői út by Corvin Negyed is the Museum of Applied Arts. Its stunning colourful tiled roof is made of Zsolnay tiles. And all around the city, you can find instances example of this artistry, particularly in the Zsolnay Negyed, where, had you the time, you could see them in the making. Out to eat on Friday night we happened upon Aranykacsa, a restaurant serving up all kinds of duck. Business was slow. We got chatting to the waiter who confessed to missing the students. He showed us into the private dining room and the fabulous Zsolnay wine fountain – a breathtaking piece of art and one I’d willing take home with me. I can just imagine topping up my wine glass from this waterfall. Himself, always the adventurer, had to try to a cocktail featuring the local Mecseki Itóka, a liqueur first made in the city in 1933. Potent. A tad too strong for my liking.

 

Zsolnay Negyed
Zsolnay Negyed
Zsolnay Negyed

I had another artist on my list – Victor Vasarely. Another Pécs boy, Vasarely is very well known in the field of Op-Art, a style of visual art that uses optical illusions. His Zebra piece is considered the first of its kind, and one of many I’d have taken home with me.  The original 1930s one isn’t on show … but these two would do me just as well.

Vasarely Zebras 1960
Vasarely Zebra 1950

The museum has a separate exhibition hall where an international art exhibition showcases the work of representatives of 20th century geometric, kinetic and concept art. Thus, in addition to the works of Vasarely, the works of artists such as Francois Morellet, Jean Gorin, Hans Arp, Günther Uecker, Nicolas Schöffer, Jesus Rafael Soto can also be admired.

The main square in the city, Széchenyi tér, is impressive and even more impressive with the scant number of tourists and locals wandering about. Twelve streets feed into it so from above it must look like the centrepiece of a large wheel.

County Hall built in 1897
Former Mosque of Pasha Qasim, now the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Everywhere you turn in the city, there’s something to look at. It’s walkable and especially so these days, given the absence of tourists. The food on offer is high quality and reasonably priced. We spent way too long in Blöff Bisztró on Jokai tér with friends on Saturday evening. One of the nicest meals I’ve had in the longest time with excellent food, great wine, and superb service. It’s the first time in months that I’ve felt that holiday vibe. Despite being a couple of hours from home, it felt like we were in the heart of the Med, without the sea.

Pécs is an old city with plenty going on by way of preserved ruins. Everything is well marked, well explained, well maintained. This is a city that values its tourist dollar. The baths of Pasha Memi are  a case in point:

As their religion prohibited Turkish elite from amassing earthly goods, they either used up their income entirely or invested it in the establishment of religious or educational establishments. They had mosques, dervish monasteries and tomb-chapels built. They established schools for the young. In order to cleanse the body as much as the soul, they built baths. The Turkish traveller, Evliya Çelebi wrote between 1660 and 1664 when he was a guest of the town: “The spa of pasha Memi is a warm bath in a pleasant building, and the spa servants’ hands are like the sun…” We at least have proof that the baths had floor heating. We also know that an ornamented fountain used to stand in the middle of the building and some massage benches have also been found.

Looming above the city in the Mecsek mountain range is the TV Tower, lauded as the tallest structure in Hungary standing 197 m tall. It took five years to build and more than 18000 tons of reinforced concrete. We braved the lift and climbed the last few stairs to the viewing balcony. On a clear day, and if you had a sense of direction about you, it’s possible to see Mount Papuk in eastern Croatia. There was something about the place that put things into perspective. We really are only tiny blips on this planet of hours, so insignificant in the grand scheme of things and yet so important in our mind’s eye that our worlds revolve around us.

The Crazy Tourist has a list of 15 things to do/see in Pécs. Well worth a visit. A 3-hour train ride from Budapest. Make time.

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