At the beginning of this trip, all I knew about the end was that I would fly from Budapest to Washington, spend four nights there, and then take Amtrak home. How I’d get to Budapest was something I’d figure out later. Maybe the train from Zagreb? (Perhaps it had improved since 2004…) Maybe traveling north from Serbia via a couple of southern Hungarian towns with Art Nouveau architecture? I took along a few pages from Lonely Planet “Hungary” covering part of the south, just in case.
After I saw the lovely buildings in Subotica, just over the border in Serbia but clearly a legacy of Austro-Hungarian occupation, southern Hungary became even more enticing. When I ran out of time to visit the Istrian peninsula, and found the train from Sarajevo to Budapest, I added Pecs to Szeged and Kecskemet as stop-offs on the way to Budapest. I didn’t have any guidebook pages for Pecs, but remembered reading about it before I left. I’d get off the Budapest-bound train in Pecs, take a bus over to Szeged, and then ride the train again to Kecskemet and Budapest.
It turned out to be an inspired decision, especially where Pecs and Szeged were concerned. Both towns had undergone excellent renovations, and in both towns I stayed in brand-new, interesting small hotels. Given the unexpected hassle of the train trip from Sarajevo, I was especially relieved to check into an en-suite room in the Hotel Arkadia, which I had found on agoda.com, a site I more often use for Asian hotels.
But I would have put up with much less comfortable digs in exchange for the town itself. Small enough to be walkable, with a long main “square” amply provided with benches, it still boasted plenty of photogenic buildings. And a remarkable cathedral. Not so unusual on the outside, I was blown away by the interior, literally covered with decoration. I was reminded of Albi, whose cathedral was plain and forbidding on the outside, and a kaleidosope of color on the inside. I was tempted to return to Pecs’ cathedral for Sunday mass, so I could see the place lit up, but wandered the streets instead.
Then there was the 16th century Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kassim, dominating the main square. A reminder of the years of Turkish occupation, it had been converted to a combination church and museum. The Jakawali Hassan Museum was also housed in a 16th century mosque, but a much smaller one, and with a much quirkier exhibition. The main room was walled with mirrors, and I became somewhat disoriented. I had hoped, in true ecumenical fashion, to also visit the large 19th century synagogue, but it was closed and I had to settle for photographing the exterior.
Besides the buildings I visited a couple of museums. The ethnographic wasn’t especially interesting, but I had a nice time at the Zsolnay ceramics museum, the firm having been responsible for much of the tile work decorating buildings of the late 19th and early 20th century. Unfortunately, their fountain, one of Pecs’ signature sights, was covered over for the winter.
I ate well in Pecs, too, notably at Susogo, next to the National Theater on the main pedestrian street. Here I progressed from coffee outside, to lunch inside, which impressed me so much I made a dinner reservation. A nice touch for solo diners was the wide-screen TV, fed by a camera in the kitchen, supplementing the view of the action in the street below. But the main attraction was unquestionably the food, notably a couple of soups and a duck breast with foie gras.
I didn’t need the covered fountain to tell me I had arrived in the off season – the evenings were cold, and the souvenir shops a little short of customers. But that was fine with me. I did see one small tour group, clearly on an excursion from a cruise ship, and a number of independents, but I suspect that the town has yet to really make it onto the tourist circuit. See it now!