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Monday, May 2, 2016

April 2016: Pécs Plus

We are in Budapest for most of April and May. Mid-month we took a three-day trip south to Pécs with plans for a few outings from there. The city is the fifth largest in Hungary with a population of about 150,000. The Romans pushed out the Celts in the 3rd century and set up a provincial capital here, then called Sopianae. The Magyars arrived and developed Pécs into a regional diocese in 1009; Hungary’s first university was started here in 1367.
The invading Ottoman’s turned things upside down in the 1500’s. Most Christian inhabitants were driven from the city, the churches transformed into mosques. In 1686 Louis of Baden liberated Pécs from the Turks and it was slowly repopulated with immigrants from Germany and Bohemia. There was a cultural renaissance in the 18th century; Hungary’s first public library was established here in 1774. Pécs continues to be a centre of learning.

It is an easy 2 ½ hour drive south from Budapest down the well maintained M6, we arrived just after noon. Our base here is a very nice, recently refurbished boutique hotel, the Adele, at Mária utca, 15.

One enters the old town from the north, along the well restored walls, down Hunyadi ut to the
Prayer Niche
largely pedestrian Széchenyi ter. The northern anchor is the circular Gazi Kasim Paha Mosque. Built in 1579 on the site of a Gothic church, it is the largest mosque in Hungary and a key Turkish monument. After the occupation it was converted into the Inner City Parish Church, but with the calligraphy at the entrance, the painted archways and the tucked away prayer niche there remains an Islamic patina.
Széchenyi ter

We were last in Pécs in the 1990s when the area around the mosque was still a haphazard roundabout. It has since been replaced by the very pleasant traffic free square and the promenade of Irgalmasok, which flows southward. We stopped for lunch at the much raved about Hotel Platatinus on Király utca. If one squints, you can see the beauty of this art deco edifice, but it is rather shabby on inspection – the scruffy food and service in perfect harmony.
Afterward, we viewed the exquisite Holy Trinity and János Hunydai Monuments that share pride of place with the mosque in Széchenyi ter; and further down Irgalmasok, the Secessionist 1853
Zsolnay Fountain with this renowned factory’s trademark blue-green porcelain glazing.
Zsolnay Fountain

The neo-Renaissance synagogue, constructed in the 1860s stands in Kossuth Ter as a sad memorial; 5,000 were herded from here in 1944 by the Arrow Cross government and went to their deaths in Auschwitz.  West from here, we also saw the 16th century Jakovali Hassan Mosque, converted into a Catholic Church in 1714, but the original minaret still stands in silent defiance. In 1975 it was transformed into a museum documenting the Turkish occupation.

St. Peter's Cathedral
Heading back to Széchenyi ter it was then to the northwest corner of the old town wall and Dóm tér. St. Peter’s Cathedral stands majestically centre stage. A church has been on this site since 1009, and through fires, looting by the Mongols and other catastrophes has morphed from Romanesque to Baroque to its now Gothic appearance; four corner towers reach for the sky. The interior has elegant chapels in each tower, and wonderful frescos along the ambulatory walls
St. Peter's - Interior

The adjacent Szent István tér is another peaceful square, with two tranquil fountains and a wonderful tree shaded walk.

Dinner was simple and adequate at Jókai Bisztró in Jókai ter. After one more stroll in the in Széchenyi ter’s antique street lamp lit twilight, it was off to bed.

We were up to a nice day and a good buffet breakfast. Our first stop was outside of Siklós, which is the southernmost town in Hungary and a half hour further south of Pécs. The Siklós Castle is the best preserved medieval fortress in the country, dating to 1294. Miraculously it survived without destruction by the Turks or the Habsburgs. There is a small Gothic chapel with two impressive frescos from the late 15tth century, and a compact museum housing a medieval collection of Battthyány family heirlooms.
15th C Fresco

It was then east to the pretty village of Villány, another famous wine region in Hungary; we visited producers Gere, Bock and Malatinszky.

Our final stop was to the battle memorial of Mohács. On August 29, 1526 over 14,000 Hungarian fighters were annihilated by the Turks, lead by Sultan Suleiman I. This site was finally   commemorated in 1976, sixteen years after the ancient mass graves were first discovered.
We arrived to an empty parking lot and met the curator outside tending some flowers. This lovely and educated woman gave us a small private tour of the museum and walked with us around the grounds, which are punctuated with strange carved totems, and mounds marking mass internment sites.
The history here was that the barons had been revolting from the king’s rule; which eventually had these same landed elites fighting among themselves for power and plunder. For much of the beginning of the 16th century there was little focus on the defence of Hungary and its common interest; taxes fell and the army and its infrastructure deteriorated. Thus the army was understaffed and poorly equipped against the onslaught of the well compensated, well supplied Turkish forces – and all paid the ultimate price. Hungary sank into a long period of decline and the defeat, even today, haunts the Hungarian psyche.
Mohács Memorial

Every time I visit one of these memorials, like our visit to Normandy, I’m filled with the sadness of ghosts. So much waste and sacrifice.

After this visit we returned to Pécs and took in two disappointing museums: the Csontváry and the Vasarely. I have come to appreciate both these Hungarian masters, but the exhibits were sparse, gloomy and very lightly attended. Public museums in lesser cities struggle under financial pressure because they lack the mass audiences and big benefactors that the key global art venues enjoy. Who knows if these smaller institutions will survive in the future.

We had early evening drinks at the Fötér Bár overlooking Széchenyi ter and then dinner, again at Jókai Bisztró. We were quickly to sleep.

Hertelendy Kastély
After breakfast we decided to take one more excursion instead of going directly back to Budapest. We had read about a Relais & Chateaux property in Kutas-Kozmapuszta that we were curious about; it was less than 100 kilometres northwest of Pécs; just south of Lake Balaton. Hertelendy Kastély has only 14 rooms and offers a complete array of luxury amenities in the heart of the Somogy hills: a wonderful pool, a spa and wellness centre with medicinal thermal waters, horse stables, a grass airstrip, an Olympic quality skeet field, tennis courts and more. Unfortunately, we learned from the general manager that it no longer is a hotel or within the Relais & Chateaux brand; it now only hosts banquets, weddings and other larger private parties. Too bad, it would have provided a great weekend break.

Lake Balaton
After the visit, we continued north to Szántód on the south shore of the Balaton and took the car ferry across to the picturesque town of Tihany. The town sits on an elevated peninsula jutting into the lake, it forms its narrowest point and provides postcard panoramic views.  The site dates to 1060 and King András. The current Abbey Church, built in the middle of the 18th century, still holds his tomb; the interior is laid out in the Baroque and Rococo styles and is exquisite. The adjacent museum is also worth a visit.
Abbey Church - Tihany

We drove along the northern shore until we reached the M7 and were back to Budapest by the early evening – in all a wonderful trip.