I'd like to propose a new sister city for Madison -- Pecs, Hungary. It's surprising just how much the two cities have in common.
Both cities are the capitals of their regions (Pecs is the capital of Hungary's Baranya county), both have about the same population and both are fun college towns, full of young adults.
Like our esteemed UW-Madison, the University of Pecs is one of the most famous in its nation. Both cities also have many attractions. Pecs has so much to see, in fact, that the European Union has named it "Europe's Cultural Capital" for 2010. This honor is given to a European city that deserves a chance to showcase its culture. The city receives a subsidy and a year of recognition.
Pecs has centuries' worth of culture to show off. The city was the site of 2nd century Roman wine colonies called Sopianae. During the Middle Ages, this settlement acquired the Hungarian name Pecs. Since then, Pecs has been a part of the Ottoman and Austrian empires. Although it was formerly a part of the Eastern Bloc, there's much more to see than the occasional gray communist-built apartment complex.
Pecs is easily reachable from Budapest, Hungary's capital, most conveniently by taking a three-hour train ride. Don't let the time deter you, though, as the ride is a good way to see Hungary's varied landscapes, either in the comfortable seats or in the restaurant and bar car of the train.
A roundtrip ticket runs between $14 and $19 (3,000-4,000 Hungarian forints), with discounts available for tourists and students. Train information can be found at the bilingual Web site www.elvira.hu.
After arriving at the station, downtown Pecs can be reached by bus, taxi or by a 15-minute walk. Once there, most of the city's sights are within easy walking distance.
Perhaps due to its Cold War-era isolation from the West, Pecs has remained undiscovered. That's one of the city's best attributes -- no lines for historical sites, low prices and a large dose of authentic Hungarian culture.
The city might be especially attractive to young people, because Pecs has a large population of university students, the majority of whom are adept at English. I usually found the people, especially the students, welcoming and eager to speak with me.
In addition to the friendly atmosphere, the nearby vineyards give the city great-tasting wines to sample. Pecs is surrounded by three of Hungary's major wine-producing regions -- Villany, Szekszrd and Mecsekalja. The Mecsekalja region directly west of Pecs has been producing wine since the Romans first settled there 2,000 years ago.
Like Madison, Pecs also has several breweries, including the famous Brewery of Pecs, whose Szalon beers have become popular throughout Hungary. Pecs also has an exciting nightlife for a city of its size -- also like Madison's, but much less expensive.
A new club, Traffik, near the main cathedral, is very popular among students. Nearby is the small but fun Papucs. The large, multi-room club Sorhz is a weekend gathering point for young people.
Like most European countries, in Hungary the drinking age is 18, establishments can stay open until dawn and extremely strong absinthe is legally available for the more adventurous.
Of course, don't let partying prevent you from seeing the beautiful city of Pecs by day. Given its history, Pecs has many beautiful buildings, historical sites and a spectacular university campus.
Let's begin with the oldest site in the city -- an Early Christian cemetery, which dates to the 4th century. Contained in its chapel, crypts and mausoleums are subterranean chambers with marvelous stone sculptures and frescoes. The cemetery is immediately adjacent to downtown Pecs, within easy walking distance.
Like Madison, many of the best sights to see in Pecs are in the downtown area, and most of the hotels are here as well. One of the most beautiful hotels in Pecs is the Hotel Palatinus, with intricate carvings on its exterior and outdoor wooden patios.
Hotel Palatinus is on Kiraly Street, which is a lot like our State Street -- restricted to pedestrians and full of small shops and restaurants. There are many charming little lanes, courtyards and squares that branch off from the street, and several fountains to be found as well.
Kiraly Street leads to Sznhz Square, which contains the gorgeous National Theater, built in the late 1800s. Its uniquely Hungarian combination of Eastern and Western architectural styles as well as the sculptures adorning the facade makes it a must-see. Theatrical productions are still performed inside under the numerous balconies.
At the opposite end of Kiraly Street lies the picturesque Szechenyi Square, from which one can see the former mosque of pasha Gazi Khassim, built in the mid-1500s. It was converted to a church after the Ottomans were driven from the city in 1686, and now has both Muslim and Christian decorations under its large dome. Attractive building facades dating from the 1700s surround Szechenyi square.
Immediately to the northwest (and a short walk away), one can see the four towers of the Saint Peter's Basilica, which residents often refer to as, simply, "the Cathedral." Its impressive stone exterior is complemented by a beautiful golden interior, completed after the church's restoration in the late 1800s. This restoration was necessary because of structural problems and because the church was used for decades as a storehouse by the Turks, who also destroyed its Christian relics.
Be sure not to miss the Mary Chapel, which contains numerous frescoes, a 16th-century Dutch carving in alabaster depicting the life of Jesus, and relics from the 18th and 19th centuries as well. Pecs also has many museums, often showcasing the work of its native artists. Also, the Zsolnay Museum showcases pieces from the Zsolnay Ceramics Factory, such as their exquisite, world-famous vases. The factory is located in Pecs and owned by the Zsolnay family, long-time residents of Pecs.
As for the University of Pecs, it was founded in 1376 by the Anjou king Louis the Great. The university has about 35,000 students, and the campus is enjoyable to walk through, full of historical buildings, parks and, of course, young people -- quite like the campus of UW-Madison.
Pecs truly has something for everyone, and a Madison resident would soon notice the two cities' many similarities. These shared features make Pecs not only a great tourist destination but also an excellent sister city.
\ On the Internet
For more information about Pecs, check the city's Web site, www.pecs.hu/english/index.php.