Mystery Train to the City of Five Cathedrals and a Crescent- A Weekend in Pécs

I don’t always travel first class, but when I do, I don’t. The glorious rail transportation company of Hungary (or as we frequent travelers fondly call it, k@&va MÁV) is offering discounts for online purchases, because you obviously need more incentives not to go to their ticket office and wait for an eternity and a day while an irate middle aged woman is wrestling with an irate stone age machine to issue your ticket, possibly in the wrong direction. This makes the difference between first class bought online and second class bought the hard way negligible. It’s a no brainer, especially in corona times, when the less populated first class carriage might offer an extra cushion of social distancing.

With first class tickets in hand, we arrived at Keleti station early on a balmy summer’s Friday. What could possibly go wrong. Yet the atmosphere on the platform was tense. People kept walking up and down, as if they were looking for something. Soon, we discovered what they were looking for. The first class carriage. It was nowhere to be found. A harassed MÁV employee was giving timid explanations, while a little old lady, Miss Marple on The Case of the Missing Carriage, was victoriously postulating that they simply sent us the wrong train. None of the carriage numbers matched whatever was on the tickets.

Soon we were rolling through the verdant pastures of southern Hungary while the ticket inspector, heroically keeping her cool while the straps of her mask were viciously pulling at her ears, as per her own account, was struggling with a stone age machine to give us a certification about the subpar services we were being provided. The atmosphere slowly settled, and after a while we were completely absorbed by the sight of deer and rabbits frolicking in the vast fields awash with the red of blooming poppies. The regular jostling and rocking of the train was accompanied by another mesmeric sound, that of the second ticket controller tapping her fiercely long plastic nails onto her phone’s screen, likely absorbed by a session of Candy Crush.

After about two and a half hours, our train, the Zengő IC, sped through a longish tunnel, signaling that we had entered the Mecsek hills, surrounding the city of Pécs. Their highest peak is the Zengő, with an elevation of 682 metres. And that’s the story of our train’s name right there. All other surprises for the day were pleasant. The main train station in Pécs is a beauty, recently restored, squeaky clean and with art deco touches. I have long held the view that in Central and Eastern Europe the general state of a town’s train station is a window into its soul, and a town with a clean and well maintained station cannot be a bad town.

Slowly making our way towards the city centre the blog’s industrious co-photographer noted striking similarities to some of the Croatian towns he’d seen, especially in the fondness for colourful rooftop tiles. Pécs’s tile frenzy is further explainable by the fact that it is the hometown of the Zsolnay ceramic factory, founded back in 1853. Their innovative production methods and designs were highly praised towards the end of the 19th Century, and their frost resistant building decorations were a staple of Hungarian secessionist architecture. I’m personally a bit conflicted over Zsolnay porcelain, as it’s frequently too ornate in the same vein of Germanic kitsch that ultimately bred garden gnomes but am relieved to know that it’s evolving with the times and it’s now also one of the suppliers of IKEA.

Pécs is of course also close to the Croatian border itself, and home to a large population of Slavic descent, as the many surnames ending in some form of ‘ić’, ‘ich’ or ‘ics’ attest. The roughly 170 kilometres of southbound distance from Budapest give it a distinctly Mediterranean feel as compared to the staunchly temperate-continental capital. It is Hungary’s fifth largest city, with a population of around 150 000, but its feel is more bustling and cosmopolitan than that of similarly sized cities in the region, thanks in large part to its popular university, which attracts both Hungarian and foreign students.

Pécs’s precursor is the Roman settlement of Sopianae, which became the capital of the Valeria province and a centre of early Christianity. The number of its churches gave the name to its medieval iteration, mentioned in documents as Quinque Basilicae (five cathedrals), leading to the German Fünfkirchen, still used today, and in a convoluted way to Pécs as well. Although many would feel tempted to consider Pécs a cognate of Slavic settlements named with some form of the word peć, oven, it is more likely that Pécs is a corruption of the Turkish beș, five, which must have been used for referring to its five cathedrals, although later the official Turkish name also became Peçuy.

You may be tired of so much etymology, but for Pécs, it makes sense. It is one of those cities that wears its many layered history with elegance and pride. Roman ruins lie close to Turkish tombs and a 19th Century beer factory- still in operation today, it naturally makes Pécsi Sör and prides itself with having always respected the Reinheitsgebot- the German beer purity law. Squares are overseen by cathedrals, synagogues, mosques- so much so that the central Széchényi square (for no Hungarian settlement, from the tiniest village to the capital, is complete without a Széchényi square) is overseen by the Downtown Candlemas Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as the Mosque of Pasha Qasim. Currently it is consecrated as a church, but it also houses a museum, although due to some coronavirus restrictions being still in place, we could not visit it in either of its functions. At the top, the cross stands intertwined with the crescent.

Ottoman rule lasted, with some minor interruptions, from 1526 to 1686. While in many other cities of the region the traces of Ottoman occupation have been almost completely wiped out, Pécs still preserves another mosque besides the one in the main square, the Yakovalı Hasan Paşa Mosque (currently being renovated, but otherwise a functional place of worship) and some smaller monuments, such as a fairly unassuming Turkish fountain and the türbe of Idris Baba, fascinatingly located in a small garden close to both the maternity ward and the brewery. In one of those ironies that history often serves to those willing to study it with open minds, the city was pillaged and almost completely destroyed by the Hungarian troops that were trying to wrest it back from the Ottomans. Of the medieval fortifications only one tower still stands, the Barbakán. In its close proximity you can also explore the ruins of the early Christian necropolis and the Cathedral, originally built in the 11th Century, though the surviving version that we see today is its 19th Century overhaul. The entrance to the Barbakán gardens comes adorned with a statue of Franz Liszt leaning out from a balcony- in further Liszt references, Pécs Zoo is the home of some cotton-top tamarins, small New World monkeys known in German speaking countries as Lisztaffe, Liszt monkeys, probably due to the unexpected sense of humour of a German scientist who saw a striking resemblance between their crest and the hairstyle of the esteemed composer.

Many of Pécs’s attractions lie along a comfortable axis spanning the central Király and Ferencesek streets, which also happen to be the hub of bars, restaurants and terraces. The all-conquering and thus very Ottoman hunger of the blog’s industrious co-photographer found some exquisite answers in Pécs, which gets his whole-hearted seal of approval. For breakfast, we warmly recommend the aptly named Reggeli, which besides delicious breakfast platters also serves fine freshly squeezed juices and excellent coffee. For lunch/dinner, we were planning to go for different things each day, but couldn’t, because Balkán Bistro was simply too good and absolutely deserved our second coming, well, going, but that would not be a pun then. Their menu is slim but exquisite, focusing on cross-national and cross-denominational Balkan meats (Turkish köfte, Sarajevan and Serbian style pljeskavica) assorted with the quirkier flavours of the Mediterranean, such as mint or pomegranates. The drinks list also draws inspiration from the Balkans, with Croatian and Slovenian beers and wines, and Bosnian brandies plus a quince liquor that still has the industrious co-photographer swooning. The décor is on theme but sober, and the waiters a monument of politeness. Pécs also has a contribution to our unofficial map of excellent Negronis: Pláne, almost directly across from Reggeli on Király street.

The quality of cocktails is reflected not only in their immediate taste upon consumption, but also in the nature of their aftermath. We really counted on them being the good sort, as we had an arduous climb in the evening, back to our hotel on the hillside, quite appropriately named Bagolyvár (Owl Fortress). Tucked away among lush vegetation, it is an atmospheric Transylvanian themed complex with a restaurant, a hotel and some bungalows overlooking the garden and small vineyard. It also gets the Ottoman hunger seal of approval for the breakfast, which can be consumed on a cool terrace with a great panorama of the city.

The breakfast was followed by yet another arduous climb, past the ruins of Tettye, all the way to the Zoo and then the TV tower, which was completed in 1973 and with 197 metres is still the tallest structure in Hungary. Since we are hapless explorers, as demonstrated by some of our previous exploits, we did this the wrong way: went on the road instead of the hiking trails- should have taken a hint though, since the roads have no sidewalks- and got sunburned. So, children of the class of 2020: go for the shortcuts and always wear sunscreen. Up in the tower, which has an entrance fee of 1100 forints and a lift that whisks you up to the viewing platform, we were again proven that the Negronis were of the good sort when we were just mildly nauseous discovering that it has no windows, and you can simply stare into the decidedly scenic, but somewhat ominous abyss.

Given coronavirus (and time) constraints, we had to skip some of the usual Pécs treats such as the Zsolnay cultural quarter or the Csontváry museum, but we had no regrets, as we will most certainly be back- the industrious co-photographer is still dreaming of the köfte, and also, unrelatedly, is in awe of the two hippos at the zoo who went, within five seconds, from death-like lethargy to an Usain Bolt-esque speed belying their bulky frames when they felt the smell of fresh food. (Ok, so the two things might be related after all.) It will probably please our readers to know that on the way back our train, the Sopianae IC, had a first class carriage. It was occupied by us and a friendly gentleman who did however have what seemed to be a mild case of Tourette’s, and apologetically cursed all his way to Budapest.

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