Friday, 3 January 2014

Europe Summer Series: Pécs, Hungary (Part 1)

Happy New Year! The final instalment of my previously published print articles on Central and Eastern Europe takes us to the city of Pécs in southwestern Hungary...

The bull’s head reminds me of the ornaments that used to stand on my grandmother’s mantelpiece.

It’s ceramic, with a green and gold glaze that looks almost unearthly in its gleaming smoothness.

But this is no miniature ornament - it’s life-sized and a prominent element of a fountain in the Hungarian city of Pécs (pronounced paych).

In fact there are four glazed bull’s heads on this elaborate piece of street furniture, surmounted with shields and other fine decorative elements.

Beyond the fountain, as the street opens out into a broad public space, is Széchenyi Square, the centre of this attractive city in Hungary’s southwest.

Although it’s part of Central Europe, Pécs looks somehow Mediterranean with its sand-coloured tiles and stone buildings, bright sunlight bringing them to life on this warm spring day.


And there’s even more porcelain on public display, I realise, as my wife Narrelle and I walk around the perimeter of the square, glancing up at the magnificent 1898 County Hall, a solid but elegant structure whose roof is an interlocking pattern of shiny red and orange tiles.

A mosque that’s also a church

Eclipsing that 19th century remnant, however, is the striking building set in the centre of the long sloping square, a squarish stone structure with arched windows, a large green dome, and... is that a cross or a crescent moon on top?


It turns out that it’s both; for Pécs is a city with a history of conquest. In the 16th century the city was snatched from the Kingdom of Hungary by the invading Turkish Empire, who held onto it for 160 years.

During that time they built a mosque in the middle of the square, which was duly transformed into the church after the Turks were ousted.

Nowadays the Mosque Church (originally the Mosque of Gazi Kasim Pasha) is a museum, but it’s also a symbol of the waves of cultures which have washed through this town.

But what about all the porcelain? More of that little mystery later. For now, we enter the Mosque Church, where we learn it’s been much reconfigured over the centuries.

Its decor has now been returned to how it looked in the Middle Ages, with many original Turkish elements revealed through restoration: including the prayer niche, Arabic calligraphy and coloured decorations on the walls.

It’s a beautiful interior in which Islamic elements join with Christian ones to create a fascinating whole.

Ceramics with a past

Of course, none of this has helped us solve the mystery of the shiny ceramics - but the answer is waiting for us just 200 metres north, in the Zsolnay Museum.

Established here in 1853 by businessman Miklós Zsolnay, the Zsolnay Porcelain Manufacture company became one of the world’s largest creators of porcelain in an age when it was novel, decorative and more practical than its alternatives.

After being popularised at World Fairs in Paris and Vienna, Zsolnay grew to become the biggest porcelain manufacturer in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of which Pécs was then a part.

Having then survived two world wars and a communist regime, Zsolnay’s output was revived in the post-communist economy, and the company now supplies large amounts of goods to IKEA.

Business aside, its history is on display in the museum placed within a 13th century house, just within the city’s old medieval city walls. 

Given that my perception of porcelain still belongs to the dull old-fashioned objects that once adorned my grandmother’s living room (I seem to remember a large glazed golden snail that functioned as a flowerpot), the Zsolnay Museum is an eye-opener...

[Next post: Ceramic elephants, ancient catacombs dining, "prison officer rolls", and subterranean Roman tombs......]