Tag Archives: Zsolnay Museum

Pecs–or in German, Fünfkirchen

21 May

Szechenyi Square, Pecs

We would have had no idea that this invigoratingly attractive little town even existed if we hadn’t been staying on Lake Balaton in the region that our Eyewitness Guide defined as “Southern Transdanubia.”  That section of the guide gave an inviting description of the place, only two hours away by car.  During our trip to Budapest, we found out that all those Zsolnay tiles and ceramics we were seeing had been made in Pecs. So we were curious to see this place that seemed to us to be far removed from European cultural centers, but which had been selected in 2010 as the European Capital of Culture.

After driving through pleasant green hills and a host of small villages, we came into Pecs on a road like any town’s outskirts, with car dealerships and tattoo parlors. Parking in the lot of a shopping center that could have been in any Australian or Midwestern town, we walked up out of the lot’s bowels to find ourselves in front of…another synagogue!  On one of the main squares named after the great Hungarian patriot Kossuth, the synagogue was an absolute gem–still a bit shabby around the edges and in need of some repair, but we were welcomed in by the friendliest man at the entrance, and directed to a set of placards throughout the interior that gave the history of the Jewish community in Pecs, both in Magyar and in English. The story is, of course, as heartbreaking as all of the others in this part of the world: at its height, the community here numbered at least 6,000; in 1944, the Hungarian Nazis known as Arrow Cross rounded them up and sent them all to Auschwitz. Only 500 survived. The displays do tell this part of the community’s history, but also focus more happily on the contributions to Pecs by its Jewish citizens. It was all so welcoming and charming, and the 1870s interior, with painted decorations, was delightful. And look who contributed to its renovation: USC!

We then walked past the Kossuth monument–one to Kossuth seems to appear in every Hungarian town–and up to Jokai ter, one of the historic center’s squares, where we found Az Elefantos Cafe among many other superb offerings for a great lunch. It was becoming increasingly clear to us that Pecs is a buzzing, hip university town–and indeed it is! It is home to the first university in Hungary, in fact, founded in 1367, and today has about 30,000 students. We were charmed by the expansiveness of the squares and the cozy location of the town up against green hills that are now a national park.

The town’s greatest claim to fame, at least for history buffs, is its concrete evidence of the extended presence in Hungary of the Turks. As my guidebook says, “No other city centre in Hungary is quite so dominated by a former mosque as Pecs’s Szechenyi ter, yet no other city seems quite so at ease with the fact.”

The Gazi Kasim Pasha Mosque was built on the site of a Gothic church in 1579, and has a 28-meter high dome. As soon as the Turks were routed in 1702 (by “our beloved Prince Eugene,” as my Austrian teacher used to call Eugene of Savoy), the building was changed into a Christian church, and is now The City Parish Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Tit for tat! Although a “Christian” extension has been added to the original mosque, evidence of its Islamic origins remain, in some Arabic writing on the central wall, and in a prayer niche in the domed center. And there is that fantastic dome!  The Jesuits pulled down this mosque’s minaret in 1766, but there is yet another mosque converted to a church in town that still retains its minaret. Unfortunately, we ran out of time to visit that building, as with so many other sites in this fascinating town.

For us, the highlight of the visit, and the place where we spent most of our time, was the Zsolnay Museum, location of the most magnificent works of that vaunted figure, Vilmos Zsolnay (1828-1900), creator of all those tiled surfaces and roofs that we had seen in Budapest (and, it turns out, in Vienna as well). Located in the oldest building in Pecs (from the 14th century), the collections are simply mind-bogglingly prolific and diverse.


Iridescent tiles made in the 1890s.

Zsolnay began his career in the ceramics factory of his family, which made garden pots and pipes. He had always wanted to be a painter, so along with his technical training decided to apply his newly invented techniques to artistic designs and objects. By the 1860s, he had developed important new glazes for ornamental ceramics, and by the end of the century was in the perfect position to be at the forefront of the aesthetic directions that defined the Central European version of Art Nouveau, the Secession style. He became wildly popular for his iridescent glazes (shades of Tiffany at the very same time) and was known especially for a blue metallic method that one started to see in vases and tiles throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  His factory employed the best designers from Vienna and elsewhere, who produced the most elegant decorative pieces for public spaces–roof tiles, fountains, and garden ornaments–as well as the designs that defined the Secession period.  Zsolnay was lionized and received medals at every World’s Fair across Europe. The factory continued to produce the Zsolnay trademark blue-glazed objects until the end of World War I, when Hungary lost Transylvania to Rumania, and Zsolnay thus lost his source of necessary raw materials. The company is still in operation, and still produces luxury porcelain, but nothing on the scale or with the same aesthetic variety of Vilmos Zsolany’s heyday.

The diversity of Zsolnay’s experimentation with materials and styles is what impressed us the most. What was a bit depressing was that absolutely no one was in the Museum, and the guards acted like they hadn’t seen a soul in weeks.  They were also completely indifferent about the collection, and even if they could speak English, didn’t know a thing about the holdings or the building, and didn’t seem to care to learn. We decided that perhaps they were military-age students who were fulfilling their service obligation by being guards in the Museum. In any case, we can only encourage anyone who visits Hungary to seek out this extraordinary place in this elegant little town.

There was so much else to see in the town, but we had no more time.  I really recommend a visit to anyone who is in the vicinity–or make it a special stop when in Central Europe!

Bonus for the day:  on our way to and from Pecs, we saw storks in their nest!  Hungary is very proud of its stork population, the ones who return every year from their migration to Africa.  I was so excited to have one pose for me!

Finally, while some of my followers insist that I include a cat photo in all my blog posts, on this trip I only saw some funny dogs. These two were in front of a dress shop on the square where we ate lunch, and they presented a entire movie of charming entertainment as we ate.

Visit Pecs! You’ll love it!