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Kezthely (Hungary)

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      12.06.2011 08:30
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      Keszthely - the capital of Lake Balaton

      The great thing about Lake Balaton is the diversity of resorts and entertainment/activities based on its shores. Siofok is popular with a young crowd who party all night and spend the day sleeping it off; the Tihany peninsula is a mecca for hikers and nature enthusiasts and Fonyod is an ideal destination for families. Down at the westernmost tip of the lake, Keszthely (pronounced Kest-hay) is the second largest town (after Siofok) on Balaton and has a reputation for being the cultural centre of the Balaton region.

      I had imagined an elegant spa resort with lots of attractive and well maintained eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings so my first impressions were not good; it probably didn't help that it was raining and the whole of the main town square was being dug up. It also didn't help that it was a Sunday and the tourist season hadn't officially opened. Balaton has a short, fairly rigid season though Keszthely manages to fare better than most because it's a university town.

      We arrived by train from Balatonfured, a journey of about ninety minutes, changing in Tapolca. You can train it down Budapest in about four and a half hours or drive in slightly less. The other option is to fly into nearby Fly Balaton airport though Ryanair no longer fly there from the UK and most flights are from German airports. Another option is to drive up from Zagreb in Croatia, or fly to Pecs in southern Hungary and drive from there; alternatively you could drive in a few hours from Vienna or Bratislava.

      The relationship between the town and lake is an odd one. I had expected the town to cluster on the lakeside but it's actually a five to ten minute walk from the lake to the town centre through a residential area of handsome old villas. We stayed in one of them ourselves having spotted a sign on our walk from the train station towards the town centre. We probably picked the whackiest accommodation in Keszthely, a flatlet on the ground floor of a slightly ramshackle villa belonging to Eva, an artist who can be described in polite terms only as a 'character'. If you prefer your accommodation to be more 'formal' there are plenty of hotels of various grades, some of them right on the lakeside.

      Hungarians must know instinctively where the lake is because it's not sign-posted at all from the town centre. It's almost as if the lake is an optional extra to Keszthely - you might go, you might not. Instead, the chief attraction of Keszthely is the magnificent Festetics Palace, a Baroque masterpiece in what is today the centre of town. It was built in 1745 for Count György Festetics. Today some eighteen of the hundred and one rooms are open to the public including the stunning library. Also within the beautiful grounds of Festetics there's a museum of coaches housed in the old stable block. The Count was the founder of the Georgikon College, Europe's first agricultural college which was located in a splendid manor house. There's still an agricultural college today though it is housed in a newer building but the original site is now a museum of farming.

      Keszthely is a town of museums. The Balaton Museum is unfortunately closed on Sundays and Mondays (the days we were there) which was disappointing as it was somewhere I was really interested in seeing. This museum looks at the lake from a number of perspectives including the geology that created it, the wildlife in and around it and from a historical viewpoint, looking at some of the people throughout the centuries (and millennia) who have settled on the shores of the lake.

      Just off the main pedestrianised shopping street there are four museums covering rather diverse material, although they all belong to the same private enterprise. One is a 'Nostalgia Museum': we didn't visit this one but we enjoyed looking at the windows that line several metres of the main street as they were crammed with things such as old toys, collectibles and kitsch food packaging. Nor did we visit the doll and toy museum though it too looked like fun. No, we visited the Szexpanoptikum which is housed in a cellar accessed through a courtyard off the main street. This hilarious little place contained a pretty shoddy exhibition of nookie-related carvings, etchings and prints as well as some very bad dummies in various types of period dress, engaged in sexual positions that should come with a health warning. Almost as hilarious as the terrible waxworks is this excerpt from the English page of the museum's website "Access is only 16 years of age, prudish and we hope that young age babbitry rated themselves shy away from us".

      I could hardly be described as a keen shopper but Keszthely's shops are worth a look if you're a bargain hunter. Look out for shops with a British flag outside or on the sign because these stores stock major British high street brands (Marks and Spencer, Dorothy Perkins, Next among others) at cut prices. It's much more fun though to look at the graduation photographs from the various high schools; all the graduates get dolled up for the occasion - Keszthely's hairdressers and make up artists much rub their hands with glee at this time of year - and the photographs are all put on a specially made board and displayed in a shop window. I am genuinely sorry to poke fun but the sight of some of the most facially challenged kids caked in make up is hilariously tragic. Over the course of three days we found it was impossible to grow bored of checking out these graduation portraits.

      As exciting as it is to go shopping for end of line clothes or experience the delights of the "sexy museum" as we named it, you probably ought to get down to the lake at some point. Go to Keszthely at the right time of year and you might want to use one of the three "beaches"; it should be noted that beaches in Balaton might have some artificial sand, but are really just sections of the shore where it's possible to get into the water without having to battle a few metres of rushes first. There are usually facilities like toilets and a snack bar as well as the opportunity to hire deck chairs or loungers; normally, though, Hungarians turn up with mountains of freight for one day at the lake. If the idea of swimming in the soup doesn't fill you with excitement then you could take a boat trip instead. We took an hour cruise which turned out to be merely a way to keep warm and dry as it was far too windy to sit on deck and, besides, the boat took a route right down the middle of the lake landmarks on the shore were a dot in the distance and there was no commentary.

      Should you get bored with the delights of the town and want to look further afield for entertainment you've actually picked probably the best area of the lake. The spa town of Heviz is a short drive away. There's a thermal lake which is something of a geological rarity (the only similar one is in New Zealand) which people have been visiting since Roman times because of the healing properties of the water although it was up to those entrepreneurial Festetics to realise the true commercial potential and turn the place into a "spa". Elsewhere there's a safari park, some caves that you row into, various castles and fortress ruins and a high ropes centre. It's no wonder that the tourist board for West Balaton say it's "the place lacking boredom". Seriously, we liked the place so much and found so much we'd like to do that we're looking at how we can go again but later in the season.

      I liked Keszthely a lot; it's a pretty little town with a lot going for it and it's a great base for exploring the western end of the lake. We ate well and prices are generally very reasonable; the further west we moved down Balaton the better the food became and although I expected prices to rise slightly at Keszthely with it being a bigger town, I was pleasantly surprised at what great value we found.

      One thing to be aware of is that although this is a very touristy place, few people speak English - even younger people - so a smattering of German (or else a great deal of improvisation and a Hungarian phrasebook) is useful. People were generally friendly if not particularly helpful. Can you believe that a place like the Festetics Palace that attracts thousands of visitors a year has no toilet for visitors? To make matters worse very few bars open on a Sunday so it takes a while to find somewhere with a toilet.

      Thoroughly recommended - for a day, a few days, a week, a quick visit to the Festetics Palace. I really liked Keszthely.

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