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quarta-feira, 24 de fevereiro de 2010

Pécs: Hungarian rhapsody in a European Capital of Culture

Nigel Tisdall tunes into the charms of Pécs, which is currently enjoying a year in the spotlight as a 2010 European Capital of Culture.

By Nigel Tisdall
Published: 12:13PM GMT 23 Feb 2010
1 of 3 Images
Pécs in southern Hungary, is pronounced 'paitch' Photo: Corbis

Back in 1985 the EU only had 10 members. Today there are 27, and now even countries hoping to join, such as Turkey, get invited to the party. This year the honours have fallen jointly upon Istanbul, Essen and the Ruhr, and, er, Pécs in southern Hungary. No, I'd never heard of it either – so if one purpose of this jamboree is to draw attention to Europe's overlooked cultural jewels, then something has already been achieved. Pronounced "paitch", the capital of southern Transdanubia pipped Budapest and several rival cities to a title that doesn't just bring a chance to beam with pride, suck in curious tourists and have your streets dug up for three years. The citizens of Pécs will also get tangible benefits, notably a new concert hall, library and cultural quarter, along with the customary spruced-up parks and museums.

But should we all rush there? Well, sadly, there are no direct flights, although it is straightforward enough to wing on down to Budapest, then take a two-hour minibus transfer south to Pécs. And while this self-proclaimed "Borderless City" (a reference to a multicultural heritage that includes significant German, Croatian and Romany communities) is certainly engaging, it is probably best combined with some days in the Hungarian capital or as part of a regional tour that also takes in the surrounding lakes, forests, spas and castles.

One key lure is the Mediterranean climate – spring comes early and summers are hot. Another is the local wine, with the full-bodied reds from Villány particularly worth befriending. The non-Eurozone prices are also welcoming – a bottle of the very acceptable sparkling wine Fünfkirchen, made to commemorate a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1991, costs a mere £3.50. A tasty dish of stuffed cabbage, served in a relaxed garden restaurant such as Minaret, will set you back all of £4. Hungarian fare tends to be robust, with formidable portions, the menus a bewildering jumble of goose legs, catfish, purple cabbage, mashed onions and dumplings – along with the delicious lecsó (a stew based on peppers, onions and tomatoes) and oddities such as "Bachelor-Getter's Soup" (the secret ingredient, girls, is sour cream with dill).

Southern Transdanubia is a land of agricultural bounty, particularly famous for its almonds – which only barely excuses the over-life-size statue of Elvis lurking in the basement of the Marzipan Museum, sculpted with 103kg of the white stuff. Far more appetising is the banquet of local produce on sale at the city market, where genial stallholders sit contentedly beside colourful volcanoes of plums and apricots, thread up long necklaces of paprika, and sternly guard prize forest mushrooms as if they were key exhibits from an autopsy.

So what does it mean when your home town, which has just 153,000 residents, suddenly becomes a European Capital of Culture? "It's a way for Hungary to introduce itself to the world," suggests Csaba Ruzsa, managing director of Pécs 2010. "We're expecting a 12 to 15 per cent increase in visitors, but intend to keep things relaxed." A formidable calendar of events has been organised offering everything from the seemingly obligatory puppet festival to a presumably brief world conference devoted to haikus. Key exhibitions will look at Hungary's substantial contribution to the Bauhaus style and the work of avant-garde painters known as "The Eight", who flourished in the decade leading up to the First World War.

This is a city where the more you look the more you find. In its central square, Széchenyi tér, the emblematic copper-domed Mosque-Church stands as a reminder of the 143 years Pécs spent under Turkish rule. Nearby, a monumental synagogue opened in 1869 struggles on with a congregation of just 300 worshippers – before the Holocaust, it was 4,000. In the depths of Cella Septichora, a well-displayed set of early Christian burial sites that forms a Unesco World Heritage Site, biblical faces stare up from the depths of time. Find a moment, too, for the Csontváry Museum, which celebrates the singular vision of a mystical Slovakian painter lauded by Picasso. Another venue is devoted to a local hero, Victor Vasarely, the "father" of Op-art, while the excellent Zsolnay Museum tells the story of the city's renowned ceramics factory, which produced the iridescent tiles that adorn many glamorous buildings surviving from the glory days of Austro-Hungary, including a palatial post office built here in 1904.

Chat with the locals and it soon becomes clear that Pécs' selection as a Cultural Capital simply reflects the rich world of a university city where something is always going on, be it a festival, noteworthy exhibition or series of concerts. Its year of fame is only one of many topical issues affecting life in a thriving provincial centre – such as an outlandish proposal to cover over Király utca, its principal pedestrian street, and the constant debate as to which cukrászda (patisserie) serves the best cakes. Is it Virág, where you can unleash your forints on a creamy white kozáksapka, shaped like a cossack's hat, or a chocolatey lúdláb (goose leg)? Or maybe its close rival, Mecsek, where the afternoon treats include the popular, caramel-topped dobos, named after the esteemed Hungarian confectioner who created it in 1884, and the classic, walnut-filled Eszterházy?

As I dutifully set to work with my cake fork, I can only agree that, while the annual European Capital of Culture roadshow can at times seem a somewhat tired and tiresome affair, if it encourages us to take a bite of somewhere new, it surely must be worthwhile.

Getting there

Malév (0844 482 2360; ) flies daily from London Gatwick to Budapest: return fares in April cost from £90 including taxes. Travel4you (00 36 72 215 694; ) offers shuttle transfers between the airport and Pécs, from £26 one way.

Where to stay

Hotel Palatinus (00 36 72 889 400; dates from 1915 and couldn't be more central, but is gloomy - from £43. In the hills above Pécs, the rooms at Hotel Bagolyvár (00 36 72 513 213; are cheerily decorated on folkloric themes, plus there's a popular restaurant with fine views, from £53. Hotel Kikelet (00 36 72 512 900; is a lofty 1936 Bauhaus-style gem that's had a contemporary makeover – an outdoor pool makes this a good choice for high summer, from £100. Rates are for a double room in April with breakfast.

Further information

Hungary (Lonely Planet, £15.99) is an up-to-date guide, or contact the Hungarian National Tourist Office (00800 36 000 000; For a programme of cultural events during 2010 see

It's been 25 years since that great funding juggernaut known as the European Capital of Culture programme hit the road. Athens was the first city to start the civic chest-beating, followed by Florence and Amsterdam. Perhaps you remember Glasgow in 1990, or Copenhagen in 1996, when the Danes staged one of the best shows to date. I sincerely hope you recall Liverpool (2008), while last year it was – oh, come on! – Vilnius and Linz.

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