* Prices may differ from that shown
It had to happen eventually I suppose. Two years ago when I married the daughter of a half Hungarian I should have twigged that I would be expected to experience his heritage sooner or later. So it was that as our second anniversary dawned my in-laws requested that Vicky and I join the entire family on a vacation to the Hungarian resort of Lake Balaton. It is with a great sigh of relief that I can now report on this experience as 'Not sucking at all'.
First of all I feel that a few facts about the lake will be in order so that you can understand what makes it such a wonderful place to visit. Lake Balaton is the largest lake in Central Europe and is located in the transdanubian region of Hungary. The lake is entirely fresh water and starts off incredibly shallow making it perfectly safe to wade in with small children. Along the shores of the lake ideal bathing spots have been cordoned off into small beach like areas commonly referred to as strands. A small fee is charged at the gate of these strands, (ranging from around £1-£2 depending on the level of upkeep) and while you could conceivably enter the water anywhere it would generally be considered safer to do so from the strands as the rocky shore would make both entrance and exit dangerous without steps. Once you have paid this fee you are free to pick anywhere on the grass to relax and enjoy all of the facilities that you would expect from any other beach.
The key difference with Balaton and anywhere else though is that these facilities work out as much cheaper. The current rate of conversion is 300 Hungarian Forints to the Pound. On each strand you can expect to pay Around 300 Forints for most spirits, 400 Forints for a pint of beer, and the same for a 500ml bottle a coke. Compared to the average UK beach that is already a substantial saving; however the thrifty spender is free to pop by the local Tesco and bring along their own refreshments. This can bring the price down even further to around 450 Forints for a 2 Liter bottle of coke that should last you the whole day. Beers; including a very refreshing selection of fruit flavored beers, are even better options at around 100 Forints a bottle (about 55p) and there are no restrictions against taking these onto the strands yourself. This will free up your money for some of the many great value Hungarian snacks that you will no doubt want to try.
Fair warning to dieters should be given that Hungarian snacks lean towards tasty rather than healthy. Most are prepared with lard or deep fried, and it's no coincidence that a lot of Hungarian men are slightly larger. My favorite snack was the Langos. Langos is essentially a deep fried dough (similar to a donut but much larger) that you can have coated with your choice of toppings. My sister in law enjoyed it with Nutella, though I leaned towards the traditional topping of cheese and sour cream. Other popular choices include Kolbasz (a deep fried spicy sausage served with bread) and Giros (a Pork kebab served on Pitta) which are both highly spiced dishes full of flavor. Any of these will set you back between 500-700 Forints and are worth every penny. They were filling to, so me and Vicky usually found that we could enjoy the whole day at the beach for around £15, which included dinner and the entrance fee to the strand.
Outside of food though how was the area. Personally I felt it was a nice and relaxing way to spend our anniversary. It did get kind of busy on the bank holiday, but other than that it was nice to be able to just sit in the shade with my book and relax in peace and quiet. One thing I did find was that swimming was not the easiest thing in the lake. Playing in the water with Vicky was great fun, and her brother and sister loved every second of it, but swimming was harder. You have to wade quite far into the lake to be able to swim, and once you do the floor becomes very silty and had a lot of sharp seaweed rooted in. So swimming is possible, it was just a little weird every time I took a break to stand up. Despite how much I enjoy swimming I am not a strong swimmer and require frequent breaks; which is why I am a fussy so and so who prefers swimming pools to the ocean. Other than that minor complaint though the water had a really nice temperature that made relaxing easy no matter what temperature the weather chose for each day.
I should note on the weather front that the lake made things quite pleasant for the most part. Hungary does feature some VERY hot summers (30-40 degrees) and I do not cope well when I am hot and bothered. However because of the Lake Balaton receives around 2-3 inches more precipitation than most of Hungary, which means there's a little more cloud cover around the lake and as a result a lot less unbearably hot days. Although fair warning should be given that because Hungary is a landlocked country there is no sea breeze, and so even in the Balaton when the heat does raise it is inescapable even from the shade. Under such conditions however a dip in the lake and a cold beer can prove immensely refreshing.
In terms of scenery Hungary is a very picturesque country. As you drive along the roads of the Balaton you will find many large gardens decorated with a wide assortment of colorful flowers, as well as vegetable gardens and grape vines at nearly every house. A quick peddle boat ride on the lake really brought out just how picturesque it all was, including some impressive views of the mountainous peaks on the north shores of the lake.
Other than chilling out by the lake what else can you expect? The truth is that you won't find all that much more. This is a destination for lovers of chilling out and is totally unashamed of that fact. Balaton is around 100 miles from Budapest where you would generally go for the night life, which makes regular journeys impossible. However it's just close enough that if you wanted to book a night in a hotel you could easily jump on a train to enjoy sightseeing in this aesthetically pleasing city.
If you would like a more local option then the Balaton is home to Heviz; the world's 2nd largest thermal lake. Heviz was an impressive place to visit as it is one massive sulfur lake 160 ft. deep. The water is filled with a variety of microorganisms, is slightly radioactive, and believed to have a healing effect on many common ailments. It is naturally heated by volcanic vents under the surface and as a result is very relaxing to float in. I rented out a rubber ring as Vicky did not want to risk me sinking to the bottom, but found floating there quite relaxing. It was a little creepy to be able to see my feet through the crystal clear water and still be unable to make out anything but blackness beyond, but I had my rubber ring and felt settled. In all honesty I feel that a more traditional spa where you can sit on the bottom with your head over the water is preferable, but still could not claim not to have enjoyed my 3 hour stay at the Heviz spa.£9 for that three hour pass I would highly recommend Heviz as an essential visit for anyone staying at the Balaton.
A passing mention should also be made to the delicious local wines. We were fortunate enough to experience a few wine festivals during our stay, and could therefore sample some of the local bottles. You probably won't have that chance, but I would urge you to buy a few of the local white wines as they are cheap and very tasty; even for someone like me who does not like the taste of white wine. Oh, and you'll no doubt want to try a shot or 2 of Palinka as well. The local drink of choice can be brewed from a variety of fruits and spices and has a very pleasant burning sensation on the throat. However remember the days heat, and strength of the drink, before deciding how many shots to try.
That's about it for Balaton. It's a wonderful chilled out holiday at a great price in a picturesque part of the country. If you want high adventure and nightlife then stick to a big city, but if you want to relax with your head in a book and the occasional leisurely swim, then there are few places to offer this kind of value for money. Just remember, if you're a grumpy old so and so like me about slime then make sure your hotel has a pool and your holiday will be perfect. However even without that luxury, and limited time spent swimming, I found the Balaton to be a very relaxing place to stay.
Balaton was as popular a destination as the Romanian mountains or Praha for Eastern Europeans during the Communist times. Now with cheap flights from Germany and UK, there are plenty of options to get there quickly. I spent a week or two there last summer at a campsite on the shores of Balaton close to Keszthely.
The campsite was typical for anywhere in Europe.. German and Dutch kids running riot whilst their parents sit with the dog outside of their campervan! The weather was beautiful but the mosquitoes incredibly irritating. I have to admit, I didn't know much about Balaton and we just decided to stop there on the way to Croatia from Vienna. The lake (at least where we were).. was filled with thick mud and midgies.. not that it bothered me but my fiance wasn't too impressed and the dog struggled to get back out and when he did... the Golden Retriever was no longer Golden!
The reeds were also a bit irritating but what can you do with nature? Just swim a bit further out! Keszthely was a good looking town with nice architecture and it had a reputation for liveliness but it seemed dead to us and our neighbours agreed. The Hungarians were pleasant, even if they did insist on speaking German to us. Pedal boats and cycling were available and there was a good choice of cycle paths.
The Lake itself is beautiful and I found the surrounding area pretty cheap. I'm not sure if I'd go back, there are too many other places to visit but it's certainly worth a stop if you are going past it.
If you are travelling by train, Kezthely is easily connected to Budapest and Zagreb.
Forget Budapest, Lake Balaton is Hungary's chief tourist location attracting hundreds of thousands visitors each year, from Hungary and abroad. And its hardly surprising given the variety of activities available on and around Europe's largest freshwater lake.
Lake Balaton is situated some 50 miles south west of Budapest and measures about 77 kilometres in length. Its width is anything between 1.5 and 14 kilometres. The average depth is a shade less than three metres and swimming is possible generally between May and September
It is surrounded by beautiful countryside and a series of interesting resorts and villages. The southern shores are more popular with families and are more like "beach resorts" while the northern shore makes fine use of the rich soil it has inherited from the ancient volcanoes which once lined the lakeside. Here you'll find a selection of fantastic spa resorts and some wonderful vineyards, many of which are open to the public for tastings.
I travelled to Balaton by train from Budapest, disembarking at Balatonlelle, a small town about halfway down the southern shore. The train service stops at every resort and many of the small villages all the way down the length of the lake. Train services also serve the bigger resorts on the northern shore but there are fewer stations.
The area is ideal to tour by car, allowing the visitor to go a liitle further from the lake as desired.
Once at the Lake there are plenty of opportunities to hire bicycles or go pony trekking to get around. There are numerous boat services which can take you across the lake or up or down as you wish. The area is especially popular with hikers and walkers.
Most of the spas are found on the northern shore of the lake. The best knwon and msot highly regarded is the one at Heviz, a few miles away from the twon of Keszthely. The resort opened at the end of the eighteenth century and is like a lagoon just off the lake; in fact it is the world's second largest thermally heated lake. The temperature of the water is usually around 30 degrees Celsius, regardless of season and so powerful are the properties of the water reputed to be that the visitor is limited to twenty minutes in the water in any visit (it may also be related to the fact that the waters are slightly radioactive!. The mud is said to be just the thing for "locomotive disorders". A pier goes out into the lagoon with a shop, treatment rooms and a bar at the end of it.
The resort has its own luxury accommodation but there is plenty of choice in local hotels, at campsites and in the many private rooms availabe in the area.
Prices at the spa are very reasonable and much cheaper than similar resorts in other European countries. We spent an afternoon there at the cost of only 500Ft (roughly £1.50 - can you believe that! ). The spa is open daily from 8.30am - 6.00pm. As well as having a short bathe, most visitors tend to just sit and relax on the wooden walkways alongside the water, perhaps enjoying a beer or dipping into a book.
This is the other well-known spa town on Balaton and its centre is at Gyoay ter (Healing Square) where the hot springs pump up water which comes out of taps in several parts of the town. Its a rather genteel town, though perhaps one which trades on faded grandeur; there is a small promende where the local elders spend the day alongside the various statues of poets and artists who used to come to the area. Unfortunately, only patients at the nearby "State Hospital for Heart Diseases" are able to bathe in the waters at Balatonfured.
Theer are five distinct wine areas around the Lake each with their own speciality wines. I will not describe them all here but there will be a link at the end of the review directing readers to the best information I have been able to find.
Under the Communists wine-making was part of the country's "planned economy" whereby all industries were given absurd quotas for production. As was all too common with the planned economy this had a disastrous effect on wine production and it did not recover until the 1990s. Hungary's wine manufacturing now has an enviable reputuation and the Balaton region attracts many visitors each year for this alone.
As well as the larger vineyards, there are many small production sites dotted around the area and around Csopak in particular visitors should look out for small cellars offering tastings. These are normally signposted from the main roads. Many private homes also have their own wine press and we were waved in off the street by people inviting us to tatste their wine and perhaps to buy a few bottles - travelling with rucksacks means you have to curb your enthusiasm and be a little realistic unfortunately...The Csopak Kisterermeloi Pinceszovetkezet (trying saying that after a couple of glasses) is a co-operative which bottles wines for the smaller producers and then sells them to the public - this place is definitely worth a visit!
The Basdascony region along the northern shore of Balaton is synonymous with great wine production and benefits greatly from the rich soil left by the volcanoes. The chief wines produced in the area are Rielsling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Traminer and Muscatel.
Wine bought locally should cost between 1 and 2 Euros - we didn't get ours in wine bottles with decorative labels though - it came in a recylced water bottle! Not that we minded - we drank it in our room that night!
Now, Balaton may be a freshwater lake but, with Hungary being a land-locked country, this is where Hungarians come to the "seaside". The resorts of the southern shore are most like beach resorts as we know them and are very popular with families, just as British seaside resorts are.
Siofok is the most popular resort with families; the train passes right through the town and you get a good view of the shore and the beach area as well as the main shopping area. Siofok has numerous camping areas, lots of hotels and plenty of self-catering accommodation in the form of chalets. As the main resort, all ferry services around the lake take in Siofok as one of their stops.
On the negative side for me Siofok is the Balaton equivalent of Blackpool and is full of noisy bars and burger joints as well as shops selling cheap naff souvenirs. It is also home to several strip joints and "titty bars" (this is how they're advertised - if you didn't know these are bars where the young ladies serving behind the bar are topless)!- as are several other towns on the shores of the lake.
The beaches at Siofok are actually grassy banks with concrete jetties with steps leading to the water. The shallow waters here mean that it is ideal for families. As well as the obvious beach activites, there are all kinds of water sports - canoeing, dinghy sailing, water skiing as well as funfairs rides for the kids. Accommodation in Siofok is mainly hotels serving the package market; it is not so good here for the independent traveller and my advice would be to head further down the coast.
Further down the coast is Balatonlelle, where we spent a night at the gloriously smelly Hotel Tiffany - a larger hotel usually frequented by German pensioners on coach trips. The sulphurous smell of the tap water pervaded the entire hotel but it somehow seemd just right for this legacy from the Communist days.
Balatonlelle is quieter and much more genteel than Siofok but ,of course, this comes at a price. Visit in the off season and you'll find the place pretty much closed for the winter. Believe it or not mid-September is the off-season. We tried knocking at several houses advertising rooms available but there was no-one at home, hence resorting to the Derby & Joan Hotel.
There is a large marina at Balatonlelle which is worth a walk around - the boats look wonderful with their masts moving in the breeze. We arrived on a Friday afternoon as city dwellers were arriving from Budapeast for a weekends boating. I felt quite envious watching them unpack boxes of food and wine from their cars and loading up the boat. The fair was closed for the winter but there were afew eating places open; as it was so cold and windy we tucked ourselves in the corner of an outdoor eatery and warmed up with piping hot bowls of hearty bean soup (don't tell my other half but there was meat in it!!!!).
At Balatonlelle there is one private and one public beach, neither great but ideal for families to relax given the range of facilities and activities.
Through the nineteenth century Lake Balaton was a popular draw for Hungary's (and those of European countries) aesthetes - artists, writers, poets all used to flock to the lake, in particualr to the Festetics Palace at Keszthely. It is a fantastic neo-Baroque building, the highlight of which is the mirrored ballroom - it was here that Hungary's first "salons" were held where the countries intellectuals would meet to to discuss issues of the day.
The Palace is open to the public all year round and entrance costs around £2.25. The building itself was beautiful but once you have admired it there's not much on offer unless there is a temporary exhibition going on.
If you're still hungry to learn, why not try the "Marzipan Museum", the Wine Museum or - and we found this to be by far the best - the Balaton Museum which has exhibits and displays going back thousands of years looking at the changing fortunes of the lake and for the people living around it over the centuries.
At Alsoors my recommendation is to stay at the former "Miners Holiday Home" (I'm a sucker for these "Commie" institutions) which offers very cheap accommodation in a small town which depends on tourists for its income. In fact, in the high season, tourists outnumber the locals. They come mainly to see the "Turkish House", a relic from the days of the Ottoman Empire; its an amazing Gothic manision which was inhabited by the Turkish tax collector (booooo!). Its only open to the public in the height of summer but from outside we could see its terrifically bizarre turbanned chimney.
I recommend a trip to Kali Basin where a collection of old peasant houses have been bought by an organisation wishing to stop local crafts and traditions disappearing and the houses have been wonderfully restored as a tourist attraction.
Kis-Balaton (Little Balaton) is at the far south-western limit of the lake and is a dedicated nature reserve which has suffered setbacks over the years but is now at the heart of attempts to look after Hungary's natural landscape. Half of it was drained in the 1950s to irrigate crop land but work started to repair the damage in the 1980s, in particualr the introduction of reed beds which would filter the water and start to imporve the quality of the water in the whole lake. The reed beds are now a striking feature of Balaton and amongst them over 80 breeds of birds have made a home. The lake is hugely popular with bird enthusiasts and friends of mine go annually to Balaton with an organised group for this very activity.Y ou can join groups of watchers at the Research Centre in Fenekpuszta at Kis-Balaton.
Perhaps the most striking natural sight on Balaton is the Tihany Peninsular; at this point the land juts so far across the lake that it becomes on 1.5 kilometers wide. which is now a national park and home to an attractive Bendictine Abbey and an interesting open air museum of ethnography.
The lake and the area around it offer a wealth of possibilites for people seeking an active holiday. Nearly every resort on the lake offers watersports in one form or another although due to the geography, the best opportunities arise on the southern shore (the reeds on the northern shore inhibit access to the water). Siofok perhaps has the widest choice; there one can rent windsurfing boards and sailing boats at reasonable rates.
Most of the biggers resorts have offices advertising organised hikes and walks, horse-riding and cycles for hire. If you are staying in private accommodation, your hosts may have bicycles for rent or even free of charge (as we found at one house).
Fishing is another popular attraction at Balaton and visitors interested in this should check the website listed at the end giving practical information.
Independent tourists should have no problems just turning up in the area and getting accommodation. Even in the high season the large number of private rooms available in every town and village means that there is always something available.
The breadth of accommodation rnages from hostels (some of which are in buidings previously used by local workers) and campsites, through to package hotels and country inns which also offer delicious food.
There is also a wide variety of choice for eating from simple burger bars and pizzerias in the larger resorts to traditional country taverns and elegant restaurants in delightful Austro-hungarian mansions. As well as international cuisine, a good selection of national dishes can be had.
I have only mentioned a fraction of the attractions and activities to be enjoyed by visitors to Balaton. I'm sure one could stay weeks and still only scratch the surface of this beautiful and interesting area. But you visit Balaton for a day trip or a longer period it has something to offer everyone.
Children are well catered for, gourmets will have a fabulous time tasting wine and local specialities, hikers and walkers will be delighted with the range of walks available and there is plenty to interest historians and culture vultures. Wheelchairs users or people with limited mobilty will not find themselves challenged in getting around most of the towns and the walks alongside the lake.
The nightlife options are as varied as the daytime activities - classical music concerts in the grounds of ancient buildings and palaces; clubbing and lively bars in the beach resorts and local taverns in the villages - everyone seems to be catered for.
To be likely to get the best weather I would suggest midsummer as the optimum time to visit but sporty types may find this is less important. Watersports enthusiasts should be aware that there are often storms here between May and September - safety instructions are displayed clearly EVERYWHERE and warning lights flash to instruct people to come in to land should conditions deteriorate.
A visit to Balaton can be as cheap or as expensive as you wish depoending on the type of accommodation you slect and how and where you choose to eat. Activities, though, are reasonably priced whatever you decide to do.
Balaton is a scene of outstanding natural beauty; recommended without reservation.
www.balaton-tourism.hu - for information on accommodation, restaurants, ferry services, musuems, galleries, spas, bathing
www.gotohungary.com/regions/balaton.shtml - for information in individual twns and resorts on the lake
The area surrounding Lake Balaton in Hungary has been popular with German tourists for decades. During the Berlin Wall 'era', many families from east and west Germany, divided by the wall, travelled to the Balaton to see each other! The southern end of the lake is famous for its hot springs and therapeutic baths which give the area a very distinctive sulphurous smell! Having a Hungarian g-g-granmother, I was quite excited about visiting the area but I was so disappointed. I found the Hungarian people (generally) very rude and stand-offish - even the hotel staff. Nearly every bar in town is a strip club or table-dancing club and if you go out to the more rural places you can run the risk of being (at least) verbally attacked. Add to this the fact that 5 out of 8 people I knew had their pockets/bags picked and their wallets stolen and my opinion of Hungary and the Hungarian people could not be lower.
lake in Hungary, southwest of Budapest, the largest lake in central Europe. It has become a very popular holiday resort.