Hungary: Pecs

I never thought I’d be so thrilled to see a mosque. But there it was, the former Mosque of Pasha Qasim, smack bang in the middle of the Pecs’ old town, standing proud among the stately Baroque-style buildings, like it was transplanted from Turkey by aliens.

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Why, there it is!

Visitors enter via the crypt, much to the boys’ excitement. After passing by tombs and exhibits, we ascended the staircase and found ourselves in a hushed cavernous interior garnished with Ottoman-style candy cane-colored arches and colorful frescoes.

Built following the Turkish conquest of Hungary under the order of Pasha (Governor) Gazi Qasim, the mosque was constructed in the mid-16th century out of stones of a ruined church. The Catholics moved back in the 18th century when the Hapsburgs took over, and the minaret was pulled down and replaced with a bell tower.

The mihrab was still there however, and so were the Koranic inscriptions. I felt strangely moved by this refreshing amalgamation of two religions, even though spiritual piety has never been my strong point.

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Poignant.

We emerged into the broad daylight, curiosities piqued. What other surprises this bustling town and former Roman settlement in southern Hungary have in store for us?

“Fountains!!!” yelled my boys, jumping onto the mini geysers in front of the town hall for an impromptu bath session before I could issue a restraining order.

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I guess one cannot win at everything.

It was a lovely day otherwise – the sun was out and the Szenchenyi Square was teeming with people and pigeons.

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Including these two pigeon terrorists.

We stared, slack jawed and wide eyed, at the Zsolnay Fountain, a small but exquisite piece crafted from ceramic but resembling metal. The city’s claim to fame – this invention of a new-style of colorful ceramics by the Zsolnay family in 1886 – is why Pecs continue to draw tourists, who come here to marvel at these shiny, psychedelic works of art, which grace everything from rooftops to building fronts.

It was as if the spirit of Jimi Hendrix stopped by, liked the place and decided to bless it with his magical guitar-wand.

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Can I take it home with me?

After changing the kids out of their clothes, we joined other tourists for a stroll down Kiraly Utca, a car-free street flanked with galleries, restaurants and ruin pubs. The streets here were tidier and the people seemed friendlier compared to Budapest. Maybe it was because of the exceptional (and affordable) red wines that grew in abundance close by.

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Not that I drink (in abundance).

The historic Hotel Palatinus, with its gorgeous Art Nouveau facade (including more Zsolnay), serves cheap Sunday brunches on weekends in its old-world dining room.

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Unfortunately, we stayed elsewhere.

We would’ve continued our walk had the sole of my beloved boots not gone on strike and came off, leaving me hobbling around like Ozzy Osbourne after a cocaine binge. As a result, we had to stop by Oktogon, a shopping mall close to the old town, to get it fixed.

Everything was cheap there, including the extra pair of shoes I bought and the meal we had in Bellozzo, an Italian fast food joint where you order pizza and pasta from the counter and have it cooked right there and then. It was certainly far from Michelin star quality, but locals came here for a quick and convenient lunch.

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*Intermission*

I couldn’t get enough of Zsolnay porcelain so we went to the Zsolnay Cultural Quarter, which is dotted with cafes, artisan shops, museums, playgrounds and event a puppet theatre. Built on the sprawling park-like grounds of a former porcelain factory, it is a lovely place to gape at the iridescent buildings and statues created by the Zsolnay family.

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#architecturalgoals

You could watch ceramics being made, but I was more interested in the end results, lined up for sale in their boutique. I could feel my heart racing as I stared at these ravishing objet d’arts and their accompanying price tags, which ranges from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, the husband dragged me out before I could auction off my kidneys for one of the fine vases.

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Save me from this temptation!

We ended up buying some artisanal chocolate handmade by a lovely mom-and-pop duo instead because that’s the only thing we could afford.

We were lucky enough to show up on a performance day at the Bobita Puppet Theatre. Tickets for the puppet show were a fraction of prices in that in Singapore, and we skipped into a theatre filled with excited, fidgety children.

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Waitinggg.

It was unfortunate we didn’t understand Hungarian, but judging from the children’s guffaws and cheers, it was one hell of a show.

Audiences are also allowed to access the small puppet museum upstairs for free. There was an eclectic array of puppets on display here: from the more traditional marionettes, to puppets made from recycled bottles or hemp and wicker. A few looked like creepy distant relatives of Annabelle’s.

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Props for your next horror show.

There is also a room where the children could get some hands-on experience as a puppet master. Some of the puppets, however, looked really old and I could feel my blood pressure shooting up at the sight of my kids treating these irreplaceable antiques like they were cheap toys from China.

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Step righttt up, ladies and gentlemen!

We stayed in a two-bedroom apartment in a quiet suburb on Tettye Hills. Since Pecs sits close to Villany, the country’s top winemaking region, there are plenty of vineyards just a short drive away. We were just a stone’s throw from the Tuke Wine House, a charming, authentic restaurant with its own vineyard, but didn’t have the chance to dine or sample 50 local wines and champagne there because it was fully booked on both nights that we were around.

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But mom’s food ain’t too shabby either.

In the evenings, we would walk to Tettye Park, where the ruins of a 15th century summer palace-turned-Turkish-monastery once stood. Ruins – especially Roman ruins – are scattered all around the city and this park overlooking the city was no exception. With bow and arrows strapped onto his back, Mika stood where Renaissance men and Sufi dervishes once congregated and pretended he was Apollo shooting arrows at the setting sun.

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THE END.

STAY

Hotel Palatinus Located on the buzziest street in Pecs, this old world hotel dishes up plenty of history and old world charm. Most places of interest in Pecs is within walking distance from here. While rooms do not match the grand exterior, these are perfectly fine for a short stay. $

TIPS

  • If you are staying in Budapest but have more time to explore Hungary, make Pecs your first stop. Give yourself one full day to enjoy this undiscovered gem, and another one if you’re a wine enthusiast.
  • The best red wines in Hungary grow in Villany, which is a half an hour drive from Pecs, or 40 minutes by bus (which is a good idea if you’re planning on drinking). If you’re taking public transport, it is best to arrange it in advance with your hotel and always ask the prices upfront.
  • All the main sights is located within walking distance of each other in Pecs’ pedestrian-friendly old town, except for the Zsolnay Cultural Quarter, which is also a must-visit even if you’re not a fan of porcelain.
  • For a monthly lineup of events, shows (puppets and otherwise) or concerts in Pecs, be sure to visit the Tourist Information centre called Pecs Pont, right at the corner on Szenchenyi Square. The square is also a good starting point for sightseeing in the old town.
  • The little fountains of the old town offer a great respite for little children, and they would also love the free playgrounds on Zsolnay Cultural Quarter.
  • There are several wonderful museums in Pecs, including the Zsolnay Museum (not to be confused with the Zsolnay Cultural Quarter) as well as the Victor Vasarely Museum.
  • Venturing out of the tourist zones can also be rewarding. Shopping and food is cheap here, and there are several large malls a 10 to 15 minute stroll outside the old town. One-of-a-kind souvenirs however can be found at the Zsolnay Cultural Quarter.

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