The old couple on the train said that Pecs was the most beautiful town in Hungary. "It's the light," she said, leaning forward and straightening her long floral skirt, "it's like the Mediterranean."
He, hugging a salami as if it were a baby, pushed his glasses back up his nose and contradicted her. "No, no, it's the people. The people are so happy because they live there. They know they're living in the best place in Hungary." The two proceeded to exchange a series of heated mutters in Hungarian. "Anyway," the salami man said, looking defeated, "it's really beautiful."
Pecs is Hungary's southernmost city, a four-hour train ride due south from Budapest, not far from the Croatian border. It's in a beautiful setting, squeezed up against forested hills on one side, the other end of town blending into vineyards which produce some of the country's best Chardonnay.
It is one of the most culturally enriched cities in Europe: established initially by the Romans, conquered by the Magyars, then seized by the Ottoman Turks and finally settled by Germans 300 years ago. It's also in a forgotten corner - so far south it's largely free of the crowds of German and Austrian tourists who are turning the towns of the Danube Bend and Lake Balaton into a kind of central European Costa Brava.
Everywhere in town, there were girls and women carrying small bunches of flowers. At the Szechenyi Ter, the central square, two young women in matching silk blouses and perfectly white skirts were sitting on a bench, each holding a small bunch of pansies. "We wait for boyfriends," said one, giggling a little and flicking back a lock of chestnut-coloured hair. You're giving them flowers? "Yes, why not? Flowers are beautiful, no?"
I wandered around for five days with an innocent look on my face, thinking this could be the one and only time in my life a woman would give me flowers. But it didn't work.
Because of its southern location, Pecs is considered the "Midi" of this landlocked country, and since the fall of Communism a cafe culture has sprung up. In the Rozskaert, a garden cafe nestling in the shade of lime trees by the imposing cathedral, I had a superb venison goulash, flavoured with fiery paprika, and some glasses of Egre Bikaver, Bull's Blood wine - the only red wine strong enough to match the food.
The central square is dominated by what used to be one of the finest mosques in central Europe, the mosque of Gazi Kassim Pasha, built by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century. It has since been turned into a Catholic church, but it was plainly a mosque from its domed outline and structure, and is all the more striking for this. The Hungarians generally destroyed all traces of the Ottoman invasion.
The town square tends to leave visitors architecturally bemused. Buildings from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries are jumbled together. …