Friday, 10 January 2014

Europe Summer Series: Pécs, Hungary (Part 2)

Welcome to the final instalment of my previously published print articles on Central and Eastern Europe. In the previous post about Pécs, Hungary, I discussed the city's long connection with Zsolnay porcelain. Now to enter the museum...

The Zsolnay Museum is an eye-opener. It details porcelain’s use as decoration, but also its history as a practical architectural element, being part of drainpipes, fireplaces, and even picture frames.

There are some intriguing early 20th century porcelain artworks hanging on the museum’s walls, and some novelty pieces such as marvellous Japanese-made works that were modelled on items found within the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Elsewhere in the exhibits there’s a spinning table set with porcelain tableware, floral designs for garden use, and an elaborate golden bust of the founder of Hungary, St Stephen.

Out in the garden, sitting near a pair of ceramic elephants and soaking up the afternoon sun, I’m pleased to have discovered that porcelain is more interesting than I had expected, and also why it forms a visible part of the identity of Pécs.


Lunch below stairs

Sated with ceramics, we decide to have a late lunch at Cellarium. As the name suggests, it’s located within a cellar eight metres below ground, which we reach via deep stairs down a stone-lined tunnel.

The restaurant tables are spread throughout a series of nooks and crannies, which we discover were ancient catacombs; legend has it that 17th century locals held secret meetings here away from the eyes and ears of their Turkish rulers.

It’s a marvellous place, full of atmosphere, and we’re able to find ourselves a quiet candlelit table in a small side chamber, away from larger lunching groups. It has a low arched brick ceiling and is lined with cushioned banquettes, the tables set with linen cloths.

From the interesting menu I order “prison officer rolls”, basically segments of a pork schnitzel which has been stuffed with smoked spare rib meat and horseradish, and served on a bed of oven-baked potatoes. It’s excellent, with baked vegetables as an accompaniment.

Our excellent wine is a dry red from the nearby Villány region, whose warm sub-Mediterranean microclimate provides ideal conditions for grape growing. It’s tasty, like a fuller-bodied chianti, and perfect with our food.

What’s equally appealing is the price tag, just 1,950 forint (about $10). That’s the other great lure of Hungary - it offers similar attractions to Western Europe, but at much lower prices.

Roman tombs with a view

Our final expedition is to the Cella Septichora Centre, beneath the grand cathedral in the northwest of the Old Town.

Located underground, it’s the remains of a Christian tomb complex from the 4th century, when the city was part of the Roman Empire. Interestingly, it was never completed - perhaps the empire wasted away before the final tombs were excavated.


It’s an impressive set-up - an underground labyrinth pierced by walkways through low-ceiling tunnels leading to remnant tombs. Particularly interesting is the tomb distinguished by the painting of a jug within an alcove behind it.

There’s something haunting about this once important place that is now in ruins, having been concealed over the centuries beneath other sacred buildings.

There’s also contemporary input within the tombs. When the centre was being constructed, an artist was commissioned to create a series of works to be placed within the large open space at its entrance, provoking questions of spirituality and identity.


The most moving of these is a large angular metallic sculpture full of gaps and slots. As we walk around it, we realise that the gaps momentarily align when seen from three subsequent positions, revealing a Muslim crescent moon, a Christian cross and a Jewish Star of David.

In a place as ancient as the tombs, in a city that has been home to people of all these faiths, it seems a neat reminder of the complex roots - and diverse beauty - of Pécs.