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Forget Budapest – head to the charming town of Pecs for ancient sites and a vibrant nightlife

The imposing city of Budapest has such a powerful presence that no other Hungarian city seems to get much attention.

But drive a few hours south — or travel about three hours by train — and you’ll be rewarded with one of the prettiest small towns in the country.

Hungary’s fifth largest city, Pecs (pronounced Paitch) has just 147,000 inhabitants and an intriguing multicultural past that is still evident today.

Historic: Jo Knowsley wandered the colorful Szechenyi Square, pictured, on a tour of Pecs, Hungary’s fifth largest city

With the oldest university in the country, it is an exciting city full of life, creativity and energy. It does indeed feel like a rare bastion of liberalism in a country where the government has many liberties in a stranglehold.

It was a strange time to be in Hungary. It wasn’t long after Putin invaded Ukraine; I was told those in the northeast of the country could see and hear gunshots across the border.

The atmosphere in Budapest was a bit tense. During my tour, there were some Serbian visitors (Serbia has historical ties to Russia) who created their own tensions: drunken Russian songs roar in a wine bar.

The accordionist, who struggled to keep all nationalities happy, played Roll Out The Barrel for us Brits. It didn’t have the same impact, especially since it was sung in Hungarian.

But in Pecs, with its cobbled streets, opulent buildings, mosques (of the Ottoman occupation), museums and lush nearby award-winning vineyards, it was peaceful. A small town happy in its own skin.

Wandering along the main cobbled street, Kiraly, lined by large, leafy trees, you’ll see a small section of the old city walls, along with an ancient stone coat of arms, at the start of the promenade. Old wooden storefronts are crowded with grand 19th-century buildings.

The Dubai Kebab restaurant gives the Ciao Bella Italian a boost. Opened in 1789, the Caflisch Pastry Shop, with its pastries and cream treats, is the oldest shop of its kind in the country.

'With the oldest university in the country, it is an exciting city full of life, creativity and energy', says Jo about Pecs

‘With the oldest university in the country, it is an exciting city full of life, creativity and energy’, says Jo about Pecs

The city has an intriguing multicultural past that is still reflected today, reveals Jo.  During her visit, she spied kebab restaurants and Italian eateries, as well as traditional Hungarian bakeries

The city has an intriguing multicultural past that is still reflected today, reveals Jo. During her visit, she spied kebab restaurants and Italian eateries, as well as traditional Hungarian bakeries

“This used to be an important city,” explained Pytor, a young man I met in the large Szechenyi Square nearby. ‘You can see it in all the buildings.

‘You know, in Pecs we like to get to know other cultures; there are many different people who study here at the university. It might make it a bit more mixed than other Hungarian cities. We like choice and we like to mix with other cultures.’

Pecs was first inhabited by the Celts and then settled by the Romans, who called it Sopianae, in the 4th century, and their mausoleums have been preserved under the city streets.

Climb down into the atmospheric Cella Septichora Visitor Center, now a single Unesco World Heritage Site, and you’ll find ancient tombs with vibrant frescoes of the Virgin Mary and Adam and Eve.

However, it is the imposing Szechenyi Square that provides the ‘wow’ factor in the center.

Pictured is the Pasha Qasim Mosque turned into a church - on top of the high dome are both the Islamic crescent moon and a Christian cross

Pictured is the Pasha Qasim Mosque turned into a church – on top of the high dome are both the Islamic crescent moon and a Christian cross

TRAVEL FACTS

Jo Knowsley traveled to Hungary as a guest of Visit Hungary (visithungary.com). BA flies to Budapest from £80 return (ba.com). Train tickets from Budapest to Pecs cost £18.

Renovated for the city’s period as European Capital of Culture in 2010, the edges of the square contain some of Pecs’ greatest landmarks, the 18th-century town and council chambers, the Nador Hotel and the dome of the Pasha Qasim Mosque- church.

On top of the high dome sit both the Islamic crescent and a Christian cross; a duality that is reflected further inward.

There, Turkish lamps illuminate a room dominated by an altar, behind Islamic arches, but with religious paintings on the walls. There are still some inscriptions from the Quran on the walls.

Late at night, the city tempts you with various delights.

In the Partisan bar – a modern, atmospheric place with exposed brick and wooden beams – a tall, bearded waiter brought us wine made in the nearby vineyards, while young people gathered in the dimly lit Szechenyi Square. It was approaching midnight and they had just started.

In some ways, Pecs is a postcard of a beautiful past.

But it is also lively and lively; well worth a two or three day detour from the capital’s spas, bars and restaurants.

Drive a few hours south of Budapest (pictured) - or travel about three hours by train - to take in the sights of Pecs

Drive a few hours south of Budapest (pictured) – or travel about three hours by train – to take in the sights of Pecs

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