It's interwoven with intrigue and drama, to be sure, but the tapestry of Hungarian history also glistens with two distinctly civilized pleasures: fine art and great wine.
An Art and Wine Itinerary featuring Southern Transdanubia
Hungary you'll find these two things in abundance, beginning in
Budapest, which offers cultural treasures literally at every turn.
Vineyards may no longer be found in the capital, but you can get
acquainted with the full range of homegrown wines at the House of
Hungarian Wines, situated among the historic surroundings of Buda
Castle. Here you can not only explore exhibits on the 22 wine growing
regions of Hungary, but sample some of the 400 wines which they produce
At the foot of the Mecsek Hills, just two-and-one-half hours by train south of Budapest, is Pécs (pronounced PAYCH), Hungary's fifth largest town. Even if it were not graced with a Mediterranean climate, the genuine warmth of Pécs would win you over. It may be 2,000 years old, with the ancient Roman burial vaults to prove it, but this is an easygoing place. Student life animates the city, which is fitting when you consider that Hungary's first university was founded here - in 1367. A richly textured past suffuses the city with a gentle sophistication, from its delightful shops and restaurants to its wealth of cultural treasures.
Founded by Romans under the name of Sopianae, the town became the largest one in the Roman province called Pannonia Inferior. In 1009, nine years after he converted the pagan Magyars to Christianity, King Stephen founded a bishopry in Pécs, which led to the city's rise as a religious and cultural center. The Turks occupied the city for a century and a half, and afterward a mix of Schwabian Germans, Serbs and Croats filtered in. This multicultural city earned the UNESCO Peace Prize in 1998 for the harmony that comes so naturally to it.
With its atmospheric
winding streets, lined with Baroque edifices, open squares and red tile
roofed buildings, Pécs is a beautiful city. Its heart is Széchenyi
Square - at once stately
and exotic, one of the most attractive city squares in Hungary. It's
anchored at the northern end by the imposing Pasha Gazi Kassim Mosque,
now used as a church but the largest Turkish structure still standing in
Hungary. A row of fig bushes in front amplifies the Mediterranean
atmosphere. At the opposite side of the square you'll find the
unusual Zsolnay Fountain, an Art Nouveau civic masterpiece of
locally made Zsolnay porcelain. It features the distinctive iridescent
glaze called eosin, named, appropriately enough, for the ancient
Greek goddess of dawn. Pause for a pastry and coffee in café Virág,
facing the square. Then make your way to Király utca, the
pedestrian-only main shopping street in Pécs. The street may be
bustling, but there's no need to rush. A short walk in the opposite
direction brings you to the mosque of Jakovali Hassan, with its minaret
still intact. Built in the mid-1500s, the mosque now houses a museum of
Turkish artwork and artifacts.
A Street of Museums
Leave ample time to explore Pécs' "street of museums", Káptalan utca. A short walk north of Széchenyi Square, this quiet, leafy avenue is packed with an eclectic array of fine arts museums housed in a series of rambling, pastel-colored medieval houses. In the Zsolnay Museum, housed in a 14th century Gothic residence, you'll find displays of some of the finest pieces of award-winning Zsolnay porcelain, which has been produced in Pécs since 1853. If it whets your appetite for more, check out the Zsolnay boutique in Pécs, just off Széchenyi Square.
The Vasarely Museum
boasts a formidable collection of works by Victor Vasarely, the Pécs
native who pioneered op-art. Nearby, the Csontváry Museum houses a
of works by Tivadar Csontváry, who Picasso once called "the other
artistic genius of the twentieth century". Csontváry's paintings
are like a mirror of Central Europe's past, fusing expressionism,
symbolism and romanticism into a colorful but haunting vision -
evidenced in such master works as the "Lonely Cedar Tree". As
you approach the nearby Modern Hungarian Art Gallery, you'll see the
striking sculptures of Pierre Székely. Inside, there are works by
important 19th and 20th century Hungarian painters. Another museum
showcases artifacts from Renaissance Pécs. Other museums on Káptalan
utca include the Martyn Ferenc Collection, featuring the works of this
abstract painter, the surrealist paintings of Endre Nemes, and the
sculptures and ceramics of Amerigo Tot. Give yourself a day or two to
absorb it all, then another day to explore the 11th century cathedral
and the eerily elegant late Roman sepulchres - which contain 104 Roman
graves and two separate burial vaults.
Time for Wine - and Surprises
After stimulating your senses with history and fine art, indulge them with an excursion to Hungary's scenic southernmost wine country: the Villány-Siklós Wine Route. The southernmost Hungarian wine country, Villány-Siklós is located 40 minutes south of Pécs, a pastoral paradise of gentle green hills, oak forests and the scent of juniper interlaced with historic cities and villages.
Romans produced wine in this scenic pocket of Europe 2,000 years ago, and today over 5,000 vineyards yield some of the finest wines in Hungary. The mild Mediterranean-like climate of the region, along with its fertile soil, helps endow the wines with their sunny southern flavor. Villány and Villánykövesd are known for their ruby-toned red wines, including Blue Franc, Blue Portuguese, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Siklós is best known for its white wines, such as Italian and Rhine Riesling, Chardonnay and Traminer.
You may wish to make your headquarters one of the charming wine pensions, such as the Cabernet, Gere or Polgár, nestled next to a dramatic double row of tiny white houses, each of which has its own wine cellar. Cabernet's kitchen in Villánykövesd turns out unforgettable treats, such as homestyle chicken vegetable soup and poppyseed cherry strudel. Down the road (the village has only one), the Kocsi Csárda is a wonderful place to enjoy an apricot or strawberry palacsinta dessert crepe and a shot or two of fruity, fiery pálinka, a robust Hungarian spirit, in a convivial tavern-like setting. In Villány, pay a visit to the Wine Museum or, even better, an actual winery.
All along the Wine Route cellars and country wine bars await travelers. Cellars throughout the villages are open to anyone interested in a tasting, and many of the cellars are home to charming and supremely affordable bed-and-breakfast style accommodations. Among the best are Bock, Tiffán, Gere and Polgár wineries. Taste some of their award winning wines: Blue Portuguese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Which will be your favorite? Only a thorough tasting will tell.
In Siklós, visit the medieval Batthyány Castle, a fortress that has resolutely stood its ground since 1190. Cross the drawbridge and enter another era as you ramble over to the 500-year-old web-vaulted chapel or survey the vineyards from atop the castle battlements. Not far from the castle gates there stands another reminder of the area's past: a small but beautifully restored Turkish mosque.
All is not antiquated on the Villány-Siklós Wine Route, how-ever. Just a few minutes from Siklós you'll come across the village of Nagyharsány, an unlikely setting perhaps for a dramatic sculpture park of international renown. It's spread out over one side of the Szársomlyó Hill beneath a striking 90-feet tall cliff.
As you look out across the lush vineyards, listen to the sounds the sculptors make as they chisel fine art out of solid rock: one can almost conjure Károly Lotheringans' soldiers battling the Turks in the valley below, centuries ago. The Southern Transdanubian landscape stirs the imagination as readily as it calms the soul - whether your tastes turn to wine, art, history or all of the above.