Pécs: European Capital of Culture, 2010

A few years ago there was general rejoicing in Pécs: the city was chosen to be a European capital of culture, along with Istanbul and Essen, for 2010. Several Hungarian cities competed, including Budapest and Debrecen, but the picturesque city in southwestern Hungary nestled on the southern slopes of the Mecsek Mountains won. The town needed some spiritual and economic uplifting. After the Treaty of Trianon the city, once an important hub of transport of a much greater Hungary, became a seldom visited border town.

It was never a center of heavy industry; rather it was known for its nearby mines. First coal, important until fairly recently when the supply was pretty well exhausted. And then uranium, mined for awhile but no longer.

To this day it is difficult to approach the city either from Budapest or from Austria. There was a lot of talk but no action about building a superhighway between Budapest and Pécs. Then came the choice of Pécs as a cultural capital of Europe and at last the building of the new road couldn’t be postponed. The construction began. By now the new road has reached Dunaújváros. Predictably, there were those who argued that there is not enough money to complete the highway and that perhaps it would be better to improve the current road going through scores of little villages, which makes the trip between Budapest and Pécs (a distance of 200 km) more than three hours. But the government, according to the latest intelligence, promises to finish the construction by 2010. This highway is critical to the economic well-being of Pécs.

The city is very attractive, as this aerial photo attests ( http://tinyurl.com/338czy ). And, for history buffs, Pécs has seen its share of different cultures. Before the Roman conquest Celts inhabited the area; the Romans called the place Sopianae, meaning "marshes" in Celtic. During the Roman period the western part of present-day Hungary was called Pannonia, and this particular province was divided into four areas. Sopiane was the capital of Valeria, one of these regions. Sopianae became an important Christian center in the first half of the fourth century. An early Christian chapel was unearthed close to the Pécs cathedral.

In the early Middle Ages it was called Quinque Basilicae (five churches). The German name of the city is still Fünfkirchen. The Hungarian name of the city is most likely of Slavic origin, perhaps harking back to the Slavic word for number five. Pécs was an important religious center throughout the Middle Ages. But with the Ottoman occupation of most of present-day Hungary, the city lost its Christian character. No church was allowed within the city walls; the former churches were rebuilt as mosques. The new city was rebuilt in large part by German immigrants who arrived at the end of the seventeenth century. In the first half of the nineteenth century it was a completely German town. Most of the old families even in my childhood were the descendents of these German settlers, by then completely assimilated in language and sentiment.

Melina Mercouri came up with the idea of European capitals of culture, with the dual goals of promoting understanding and tourism. The city would have one year in which to showcase its cultural life and cultural development. Winning the yearly competition has financial rewards. A European Commission subsidy helps the designated cities prepare for the great event. Apparently for Pécs there are forty-five billion forints available for five major projects. First, according to plans the world famous Zsolnay porcelain factory will be restored and a cultural center will be built on its grounds. The second project is the construction of a regional library. Third, there are plans for a conference center and concert hall. The fourth project is a building for exhibitions. Finally, they are planning to do some beautification, including the development of several badly needed parks.

This is all very nice but as of now not a cornerstone has been laid. One director after another leaves the project because he cannot work with others involved in the work or can’t see eye to eye with the city council. The maverick mayor of Pécs, László Toller, who was the mastermind behind the original application for the European capital designation, has been in coma for about two years after a car accident. His successor, Péter Tasnádi doesn’t strike me as very capable. He keeps repeating that one ought not to worry, all these ambitious plans can be finished in two years, but I have my doubts. And I’m not alone. It seems that the government is worried in spite of all the reassurances from from Tasnádi.

Of course, I wish them the best and I would love to see Pécs become a successful and much visited European capital of culture in 2010, but I am a bit worried.