The cultures of kings

The ancient city of Pecs is preparing for a year-long party as a European culture capital, writes Christina Pfeiffer.

The good citizens of Pecs, a sleepy city in Hungary's south-west, will spend the next year negotiating a frenzied program of festivals and scaffolding. The mantle of 2010 European Culture Capital, which Pecs (pronounced paych) will share with Essen, Germany, and Istanbul, brings with it a massive injection of funds for reconstruction.

An investment of 34.6 billion forint ($221 million), a large percentage of it from the coffers of the European Union, has been earmarked for building works that will transform this city of 160,000 residents into a showcase of Transdanubian culture. The city, in the heart of the Baranya wine-growing region, 200 kilometres south of Budapest, is famous for its Roman burial chambers, medieval churches, Ottoman mosques and museums.

It will have a new 6 billion forint conference and concert centre, seating capacity, 1000; a new 4 billion forint South Transdanubian Regional Library and Knowledge Centre; and the city's signature Zsolnay pottery factory will be transformed into a contemporary 41,000-square-metre art space of craftsmen's living quarters, exhibition halls, studios, creative workshops and rehearsal rooms.

More than 70 public spaces will be spruced up before the end of the year and there are sweeteners for owners of neglected buildings to renovate their properties before next year.

It's not likely the building work will be finished until early 2010 but, even so, the celebration has already begun. More than 200 festivals, concerts, performances and exhibitions will be staged this year in the city's historic churches, squares and parks, starting with the Pecs Spring Festival, which ends this week. There are open-air theatres, music and literature festivals throughout summer, a rock marathon, the World Opera Competition in July and the Balkan World Music Festival in November.

When travellers aren't listening to music, there's a wealth of history to explore. Two thousand years of Roman, Ottoman, German, Croatian and Hungarian cultures give Pecs its layers of complexity. There are remnants from Roman times dating from AD400; Muslim structures left behind by the Ottomans, who were in the city in 1543; and grand buildings from the Austro-Hungarian monarchy that followed. Close ties with musicians from Vienna and Germany's Bauhaus architectural school have influenced music and architecture. And the fig and cypress trees that grow here, and the poetry of Janus Pannonius, are a connection to the Mediterranean region.

The Ottoman army first occupied Pecs in 1526 after Suleiman the Magnificent defeated the king of Hungary in the Battle of Mohacs. Back then, the city was a major ecclesiastical centre. The Ottomans soon transformed it into a western outpost of Islam: churches became mosques, cathedral spires became minarets and the sloping central square became a noisy bazaar. They did such a good job that 150 years later, another Ottoman ruler, Suleiman II, called Pecs "heaven on Earth".

I take a walking tour with Zsuzsanna Szilagyi, a guide who points out fascinating examples of the city's cultural intermingling. In the Inner City Parish Church, a Catholic church in Szechenyi Square, Szilagyi tells me that during the Middle Ages the area was occupied by the Gothic church of St Bartholomew. The Ottomans tore it down and used the stones to build the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kassim, which the locals call Dzsami. After the Ottomans were expelled in 1686, the mosque was taken over by the Jesuits, who turned it back into a church, adding a chapel and sacristy, tearing down the minaret and the Turkish entrance.

Advertisement

She points out hints of its exotic past: a curved mosque-like dome shape, Ottoman windows, two remaining prayer cabins facing Mecca, fragments of quotes from the Koran on the walls and a unique symbol of a cross rising above the Turkish crescent moon on top of its cupola.

We visit the Early Christian Necropolis of Pecs (known as Sopianae during Roman times), an archaeological find inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2000. At its heart is the Cella Septichora, a collection of Roman underground burial chambers from the fourth century.

Pecs is renowned for its museums. Post-impressionist art fans will love the museum dedicated to the works of Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka (1853-1919), considered one of Hungary's greatest painters. Kaptalan Street is known as Museum Street, housing the Zsolnay Museum, Vasarely Museum, dedicated to Pecs-born Paris-based Opt Art master Victor Vasarely and the Renaissance Stonework Remains.

We stroll past statues of artists, musicians and philosophers. Each statue prompts a tale from Szilagyi. A marble statue of Endre Ady, the 20th-century Hungarian poet, is on the castle slopes; a bronze statue of Kosztka hides among the trees in the park facing the Csontvary Museum; and the statue of Zoltan Kodaly, a composer, is on Szent Istvan Square. Franz Liszt's statue, commemorating the composer's 1846 visit, is on the balcony of the Archiepiscopal Palace. Liszt wrote the Esztergom Mass here and composed his first piece for an all-male choir for the Pecs Choral Society.

It's easy to see why Pecs was chosen as a European Capital of Culture. All that remains is to make sure the building works go to plan.

Christina Pfeiffer travelled courtesy of APT.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

The nearest international airports are Budapest and Vienna. Swiss International Air Lines charges $1350 to Vienna or Budapest, flying a partner to Asia and then Swiss with a change in Zurich. Austrian Airlines has a fare to Budapest for $1738, flying a partner to Asia and then Austrian with a change in Vienna (fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, excluding tax). Trains from Budapest to Pecs take about 21/2 hours. APT's Black Sea Voyage includes a tour of Pecs. The eight-day cruise costs from $2495 a person, twin share, including accommodation, tours and all meals. Call 1300 656 985 or see aptouring.com.au.

Staying there

Hunguest Hotel in the Mecsek Mountains, a 10-minute drive from Pecs, has views of the city; rooms from EUR65 ($125); see www.hunguesthotels.hu. Boutique Hotel Sopianae is near the main square, rooms from EUR85. See hotelsopianae.hu.

For more information on cultural events, see pecs2010.hu.

Comments