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Old July 19th, 2007, 07:29 AM   #1
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Pecs, Hungary: A Cultural Gem, with Wineries, Ceramics, Christian History

Pecs, Hungary: A cultural gem, with wineries, ceramics, Christian history
18 July 2007

PECS, Hungary (AP) - A church without a steeple; a near-Mediterranean climate far from the Mediterranean Sea; winemaking traditions in the region dating from the Roman Empire. The southern Hungarian city of Pecs, in brief.

In 2010 -- along with Essen, Germany, and Istanbul, Turkey -- Pecs will also be a European Capital of Culture. Located 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of Budapest, it is a comfortable three-hour train ride from Hungary's capital.

Pecs, or Sopiane as it was called by the Romans, has over 2,000 years of its history on display. Besides its Hungarian traditions, the city has remnants of the Roman times, dating back to around 350-400 A.D. and the even more visible Muslim structures left behind by the Turks, who occupied the city for over 140 years from 1543.

The Inner City Parish Church may not have an impressive name, but it is one of the most beautiful places of worship you will ever see.

Standing atop Szechenyi Square in the city center, the church has undergone numerous transformations since the Middle Ages and you'd be forgiven for not recognizing it -- because it looks like a mosque!

Actually, the stones of the Gothic Church of St. Bartholomew were used by the Turks to build the mosque of Pasha Gazi Kassim. After the Turks were expelled from Pecs in 1686, the mosque was taken over by the Jesuits, restoring it to its Christian use.

The mosque's minaret survived until 1753 and for a time the Baroque church had its own steeple. But the steeple and many of the additions to the mosque were removed during later restoration works.

As a compromise solution, a metallic tower some 6 meters (20 feet) tall mechanically rises another 9 meters (30 feet) or so each time its three bells are rung.

Fragments of epigraphs with quotations from the Quran can still be seen on the walls and the dome rises over 22 meters (72 feet) above ground level of what is considered the largest monument of Turkish architecture in the country.

From Roman times, the most notable remains are the early Christian burial chambers, the earliest dating to the fourth century.

While archeologists have been exploring them for centuries, the addition of the cemetery to UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites in 2000 gave the dig a fresh boost.

The remains of the Cella Septichora -- an early Christian chapel from the fourth century with seven apses (vaulted recesses) first explored in the early 1900s -- are now included in a new visitors' center which opened to the public just a few months ago.

Thanks to a labyrinthine set of hallways and walkways, the burial chambers can be seen from practically every angle: some from the top, others from the bottom, others through a door or window, in each case the best view depending on the chamber's features, which include frescos and other decorations.

Other attractions in Pecs include the Modern Hungarian Picture Gallery, the neo-Romanesque Cathedral on Dom ter, the Mosque of Pasha Yakovali Hassan, also beautifully reconstructed, and the Zsolnay Museum, dedicated to the famous Art Nouveau ceramics, tile and porcelain makers. The museum is set to re-open in mid-September after renovations, but the city is also home to the Zsolnay factory and a shop next door where you can buy Zsolnay designs.

About 35 kilometers (22 miles) southeast of Pecs are the Villany Hills, whose southern slopes and valley are shielded from the cold north winds and offer a home to one of Hungary's best-known wine regions.

Villany is also a town which is the unofficial capital of the local vineyards, which spread along a series of small villages where it seems every family has its own little winery.

The Villany-Siklos Wine Route, which winds through 11 localities, can be a methodic way to explore the wine cellars, though how methodic you will still be after the second or third wine-tasting is hard to guess.

For a more intimate experience with no loss in wine quality, you can try the wine cellars of Istvan Kovacs.

Kovacs, 63, was a young boy in Budapest when he heard a weather report on the radio that determined his future. It was a bitterly cold February day in Budapest but the announcer said the first spring blooms could already be seen near Villany.

Decades later, by then a jazz pianist performing everywhere from cruise ships to Las Vegas and Kuwait City, Kovacs remembered his childhood dreams of warmth and bought a small plot in Kisjakabfalva, a village with 300 inhabitants next door to Villany, but off the traditional Wine Route.

The Kovacs-Gressly Cellar produced its first wine here in 2001 and since then has won numerous prizes for some of its vintages.

As if striving to stretch the boundaries of the sub-Mediterranean climate, Kovacs also keeps a blooming garden which includes vegetation usually seen far from Hungary, like palm trees, banana trees, bamboo and laurel shrubs.

His cellar produces some 35,000 bottles a year of red and rose wines -- Portugieser, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvingnon, Zweigelt Siller, Kekfrankos. If you prefer white wines, then head to neighboring Siklos and its famous Rieslings and Chardonnays.

His guest house has room for six to 15 people -- depending on how comfortably you want to sleep -- and besides the exquisite wines, two grand pianos on the estate give Kovacs the opportunity to play jazz, classical favorites and seemingly everything in between for the visitors.

The best way to sample Kovacs' wine is straight from the barrel, down in one of the cool cellars carved out of the Villany Hills.

French King Louis XIV once described the wines from Tokaj, in northeast Hungary, as "the wine of kings, the king of wines," and Kovacs proudly refers to his own product as "the queen of wines," a title bestowed on it by the late American violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who once had a chance to savor both.

Kovacs would like to spread his Mediterranean garden idea to the entire village of Kisjakabfalva and challenge Villany's supremacy as the area's synonym for wine.

"This project is not a short-term plan, it's for a lifetime," Kovacs said while using a long glass tube -- a "thief" -- to sample the contents of some of the oak barrels. "But at least this wine is already selling like candy."


If You Go...

PECS, HUNGARY: Local tourism office: Tourinform Pecs. Located at Szechenyi ter 9, in the center of town; http://www.pecs.hu or 011-36-72-213-315.

GETTING THERE: Pecs is 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of Budapest, the capital. There are seven InterCity trains daily from Budapest's Keleti station, a 3-hour ride. It's also about 3 hours by car. Most tourist attractions in the city are within walking distance of Szechenyi ter, which is a 15-minute walk from the Pecs train station.

LODGING: A "pension" room for two in the city center starts at 7,000 forints (US$40) while a double room at a 3-star hotel starts at around 18,000 forints (US$100).

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN BURIAL CHAMBERS: Located on Dom ter. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (from Nov. 1, until 4 p.m.) Closed Mondays, like nearly every museum in Hungary. Inquiries: 011-36-72-224-755. Admission: 1,500 forints (US$8.40) for adults, 3,000 forints (US$16.80) for two adults with children.

ZSOLNAY MUSEUM: Located at Kaptalan u. 4, phone 011-36-72-514-040, admission 700 florints (US$4). Closed for renovations until mid-September.

ZSOLNAY CERAMICS FACTORY: Located at Zsolnay Vilmos ut 37, http://www.zsolnay.hu or 011-36-72-507-600. Guided tours in English available weekday mornings between 9 a.m. and noon, by appointment only: [email protected]. Zsolnay products can be purchased in a store next door to the factory, open weekdays 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

VILLANY WINE REGION: A 30-minute drive from Pecs. (Daily train services from Pecs, but not recommended.) The Villany-Siklos Wine Route: http://www.borut.hu. For information about Istvan Kovacs, the piano-playing winemaker who offers wine-tastings, meals, and accommodations: http://www.villanybor.hu
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