Pecs steps into the spotlight

<p>A church without a steeple; a near-Mediterranean climate far from the Mediterranean Sea; winemaking traditions in the region dating from the Roman Empire. The southern Hungarian city of Pecs, in brief.</p>


Hungarian city boasts wineries, ceramics and Christian history photo



Bela Szandelszky/associated press


Istvan Kovacs checks his new wine with a “glass thief” in his cellar in the village of Kisjakabfalva, Hungary, southeast of Pecs.

A church without a steeple; a near-Mediterranean climate far from the Mediterranean Sea; winemaking traditions in the region dating from the Roman Empire. The southern Hungarian city of Pecs, in brief.

In 2010 — along with Essen, Germany, and Istanbul, Turkey — Pecs will also be a European Capital of Culture. Located 200 kilometres south of Budapest, it’s a comfortable three-hour train ride from the Hungary’s capital.

Pecs, or Sopiane as it was called by the Romans, has over 2,000 years of its history on display. Besides its Hungarian traditions, the city has remnants of the Roman times, dating back to around 350-400 AD and the even more visible Muslim structures left behind by the Turks, who occupied the city for over 140 years from 1543.

The Inner City Parish Church may not have an impressive name, but it is one of the most beautiful places of worship you’ll ever see.

Bela Szandelszky/associated press

Hungarian girls blow soap bubbles as they rest in the main square of Pecs, Hungary, 200 km south of Budapest. Pecs, or Sopiane as it was called by the Romans, has over 2,000 years of its history on display.

Standing atop Szechenyi Square in the city centre, the church has undergone numerous transformations since the Middle Ages and you’d be forgiven for not recognizing it — because it looks like a mosque!

Actually, the stones of the Gothic Church of St. Bartholomew were used by the Turks to build the mosque of Pasha Gazi Kassim. After the Turks were expelled from Pecs in 1686, the mosque was taken over by the Jesuits, restoring it to its Christian use.

The mosque’s minaret survived until 1753 and for a time the Baroque church had its own steeple. But the steeple and many of the additions to the mosque were removed during later restoration works.

As a compromise solution, a metallic tower some six metres tall mechanically rises another nine metres or so each time its three bells are rung.

Fragments of epigraphs with quotations from the Qur’an can still be seen on the walls and the dome rises over 20 metres above ground level of what is considered the largest monument of Turkish architecture in the country.

Bela Szandelszky/associated press

Visitors looks at the remains one of the early Christian burial chambers from the 4th century, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Pecs, Hungary. The labyrinthine set of the underground chapels, hallways and walkways first were explored in the early 1900s.

From Roman times, the most notable remains are the early Christian burial chambers, the earliest dating to the fourth century.

While archeologists have been exploring them for centuries, the addition of the cemetery to the UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites in 2000 gave the dig a fresh boost.

The remains of the Cella Septichora — an early Christian chapel from the fourth century with seven apses (vaulted recesses) first explored in the early 1900s — are now included in a new visitors’ centre which opened to the public just a few months ago.

Thanks to a labyrinthine set of hallways and walkways, the burial chambers can be seen from practically every angle: Some from the top, others from the bottom, others through a door or window, in each case the best view depending on the chamber’s features, which include frescoes and other decorations.

Other attractions in Pecs include the Modern Hungarian Picture Gallery, the neo-Romanesque Cathedral, the Mosque of Pasha Yakovali Hassan, also beautifully reconstructed, and the Zsolnay Museum, dedicated to the famous Art Nouveau ceramics, tile and porcelain makers. The museum is set to re-open in mid-September after renovations, but the city is also home to the Zsolnay factory and a shop next door where you can buy Zsolnay designs.

About 35 kilometres southeast of Pecs are the Villany Hills, whose southern slopes and valley are shielded from the cold north winds and offer a home to one of Hungary’s best-known wine regions.

Villany is also a town which is the unofficial capital of the local vineyards, which spread along a series of small villages where it seems every family has its own little winery.

The Villany-Siklos Wine Route, which winds through 11 localities, can be a methodic way to explore the wine cellars, though how methodic you will still be after the second or third wine-tasting is hard to guess.

For a more intimate experience with no loss in wine quality, you can try the wine cellars of Istvan Kovacs.

Kovacs, 63, was a young boy in Budapest when he heard a weather report on the radio that determined his future. It was a bitterly cold February day in Budapest but the announcer said the first spring blooms could already be seen near Villany.

Decades later, by then a jazz pianist performing everywhere from cruise ships to Las Vegas and Kuwait City, Kovacs remembered his childhood dreams of warmth and bought a small plot in Kisjakabfalva, a village with 300 inhabitants next door to Villany, but off the traditional Wine Route.

The Kovacs-Gressly Cellar produced its first wine here in 2001 and since then has won numerous prizes for some of its vintages.

As if striving to stretch the boundaries of the sub-Mediterranean climate, Kovacs also keeps a blooming garden which includes vegetation usually seen far from Hungary, like palm trees, banana trees, bamboo and laurel shrubs. His cellar produces some 35,000 bottles a year of red and rose wines — Portugieser, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zweigelt Siller, Kekfrankos. If you prefer white wines, then head to neighbouring Siklos and its famous Rieslings an Chardonnays.

His guest house has room for six to 15 people — depending on how comfortably you want to sleep — and besides the exquisite wines, two grand pianos on the estate give Kovacs the opportunity to play jazz, classical favourites and everything in between for the visitors.


  • Local tourism office: Tourinform Pecs. Located at Szechenyi ter 9, in the centre of town;

  • Pecs is 200 kilometres south of Budapest, the capital. There are seven InterCity trains daily from Budapest’s Keleti station, a three-hour ride. It’s also about three hours by car.

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