City of Peace

Pecs' central plaza -- before church let out

Pecs’ central plaza — before church let out

Eighth in a series

August 21, Pecs — The countryside of Hungary is mostly flat and agricultural, so on our way inland we passed grapevines and miles of corn, used for animal feed, and sunflowers, their faces turned dark and bent as if in prayer. Every so often, a crucifix marked the corner of a field.


Pecs is located in low hills. Emil, our tour guide, mentioned that this part of Central Europe has many apartment block houses built in the unadorned Brutalist style of the Communist period. Housing was assigned based on need: two people per bedroom. A town mayor with no children would have no special privileges and be assigned an apartment with one bedroom; a cleaning woman with six children would be assigned three. They might share the same floor.

The main town, founded by the Romans as “Sopianae” in the beginning of the 2nd century, is more attractive than the outskirts. Its biggest attraction is an early Christian necropolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which has been excavated and enhanced with an interpretive visitor’s center. No records remain of Sopianae, but based on the hundreds of brick graves unearthed in the cemetery, it had a relatively large Christian population. One of the crypts was painted with images of Peter and Paul — considered an excellent example of 4th century art. The Romans ceded the town to the Huns in the 5th century.


What interested me most was the mosque/church. Built in a traditional octagonal shape by the Ottomans, with a niche facing Mecca and Arabic inscriptions, Christians later obliterated its Muslim features, and recently, restored them. A Christian chapel is now connected to it, joined in an arch that holds the altar. Pecs prides itself on its history of tolerance. In 1998, it received a “Cities for Peace” prize for maintaining the culture of its minorities and for its attitude toward refugees of the Balkan wars.


Seated at an outdoor café, Todd and I watched the plaza fill with children and parents (mostly mothers) as the Catholic Church services disgorged parishioners. Suddenly the peace was cleaved by the revving of a motorcycle. Not the usual throat clearing of a motorcycle that’s just been started. A rhythmic and progressively louder series of roars, so loud that I put my fingers in my ears.

Until then the scene was idyllic, sipping my espresso with my husband in this city of peace. Where was the noise coming from? Didn’t the motorcyclist understand how rude he was being? Why didn’t someone yell at him to stop? The Italians would have been shouting long before.

Tipped up on its back wheel, the motorcycle zoomed by, its rider beaming. Now I saw that someone was filming the stunt. Back and forth the cyclist went, one take after another. No one said a word. People minded their own business. I did the same.

Next: The Crazy Winemaker

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