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Wine and 2,000 years of history mingle in Pécs, Hungary

A church without a steeple; a near-Mediterranean climate far from the Mediterranean Sea; winemaking traditions in the region dating from the Roman Empire - that's the southern Hungarian city of Pécs in brief.

In 2010 - along with Essen, Germany, and Istanbul, Turkey - Pécs will also be a European Capital of Culture. Located 125 miles south of Budapest, it’s a comfortable three-hour train ride from Hungary’s capital. Pécs, or Sopiane as it was called by the Romans, has more than 2,000 years of its history on display. Besides its Hungarian traditions, the city has remnants of Roman times, dating back to around A.D. 350-400 and the even more visible Muslim structures left behind by the Turks who occupied the city for more than 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’ll ever see. Standing atop Széchenyi 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 Gázi Kászim.

After the Turks were expelled from Pécs 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, a metallic tower some 20 feet tall mechanically rises another 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 more than 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 archaeologists 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 that 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 Pécs include the Modern Hungarian Picture Gallery, the neo-Romanesque Cathedral on Dóm tér, the Mosque of Pasha Yakovali Hassan, also beautifully reconstructed, and the Zsolnay Museum, dedicated to the famous art nouveau ceramics, tile and porcelain makers. At the Zsolnay factory and shop next door you can buy Zsolnay designs. About 22 miles southeast of Pécs are the Villány 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.

Villány 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 Villány-Siklós Wine Route, which winds through 11 localities, can be a methodic way to explore the wine cellars, though how methodic after the second or third wine tasting is hard to guess. (Read more)