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Surprised by Pecs

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.

One side of Pecs' main square

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.

Roof of the Post office

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.

Organ in Pecs' Cathedral

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.

Pecs' Synagogue

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!

The Cathedral Crypt

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No, this is not going to be a piece about how sorry I was to be heading for Hungary. I was actually rather pleased… Not that I regretted visiting the Balkans, which I had found always interesting and sometimes beautiful, but I was ready to rest up a bit.

Ottoman era house museum in Sarajevo

This would be the second time I had arrived in Hungary by train, the first being an unfortunate journey from from Zagreb to Budapest back in 2004. The fast train I had expected morphed into a slow train that stopped at every station. The old-style carriages with non-AC compartments, a hot day, and the hours we spent traversing the southern shore of Lake Balaton, a blue vision of coolness out the window, added up to misery.

My go-to site for all things train is seat61.com, and Mark Smith had nothing much to say about the Sarajevo-Budapest Intercity I would take to Pecs. No doubt all would have been well, except that that the railway workers in the Republika Srpska had gone on strike. Where’s that? That’s part of Bosnia. Actually, saying it’s part of Bosnia is shorthand as the country is properly known as Bosnia and Hercegovina, but almost half of it is the semi-autonomous Republika Srpska, the area ethnically cleansed by the Serbs during the war.

Thanks to the strike, my direct train journey involved three trains and one bus. When the train from Sarajevo reached the internal border with Republika Srpska, we got off the train and boarded a bus – only one was needed as there were less than twenty of us. A couple of hours later, at the international border with Croatia, we got off the bus at an isolated station, crossed the tracks and boarded a second train. At this point I figured I was set for the rest of the journey, but no. At the Hungarian border the remaining passengers, less than a dozen at this point, were kicked off the train again.

Turned out we had to wait for the southbound Budapest-Sarajevo train to arrive, and for its passengers to clear immigration, before we able to board the third train of the day. I believe that the people going through to Budapest had to change trains yet again in Pecs, but I was so glad to arrive I didn’t hang around to find out. I was too busy tracking down the (helpful) Tourist Information office.

Central Pecs

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