Keszthely, Hungary

The signpost welcoming visitors to Keszthely, one of the largest towns on Lake Balaton, says that it’s 775 years old. And indeed, it does have a long and varied history, passing from family to family over the years. It’s hard to get my head around a whole town being bought and sold as one might buy and sell a field or a house – but why not?

Until the fifteenth century, Keszthely consisted of one street – a long one, mind you, but one street nonetheless. That’s a peculiar thing about Hungarian villages – ribbon villages as I call them. They mainly consist of houses lining one long street. I hadn’t realised this was a practice that dated back so far. Towards the end of the nineteenth century and the onset of the twentieth, the Keszthely we know today began to take shape. Tourism was strong. Visitors to the thermal lake at Hévíz stayed in hotels in Keszthely as Hévíz had yet to be developed. The town thrived.

I can’t say it ranks up there as somewhere I’d choose to live unless of course money was no object and I could choose the pad I’d renovate. That said, there is plenty to do. The town has at least thirteen museums showcasing everything from dolls to Cadillacs to ‘automatic musical instruments’ and a model of the Hungarian parliament made from snail shells. There’s also the fabulous Festetics Palace and gardens – they never old. The waterfront is particularly lovely, with regular ferries across the lake to other towns like Balatonmáriafürdő.

In town to pick up pictures from the framer, I decided to take my daily constitutional and visit the 17-hectare Helikon Park that sits not far from the shores of the Balaton. From what I can gather the land was a present from the Festetics family to the town back in 1883. The dome you can see was erected in 1921 to mark (albeit a tad late) the centenary of the Helikon Festival, a literary celebration first organised by Count György Festetics in 1817. Local teachers and students would perform plays, recite poetry, and sing songs in Hungarian, German, and Latin. The festival was short-lived. It died with the count in 1819. Fast forward to 1957 when a museum director, an economist, and the director of the cultural centre decided to try again and in May 1958, the first Helikon Festival of the twentieth century took place. All went well until the event fell victim to politics in the 1980s and interest waned. But in the 1990s, the phoenix rose once again from the ashes, this time under the auspices of the voluntary Helikon Organising Committee and the Goldmark Károly Cultural Centre. Such was its success that in 2004, it went international to include students from schools in towns Keszthely is twinned with. Some 4000 took part on the fiftieth anniversary in 2008.

I was fascinated by the dancing sycamores that line the avenue running through the park. And equally fascinated by the random statues I came across. Curiosity is a wonderful thing.



At first glance, I couldn’t see how a bust of geographer  Cholnoky Jenő ended up in Keszthely. He was born in Veszprém in 1870 and died in Budapest 80 years later. But then I read that he pioneered one of the earliest scientific studies of the Balaton and edited the Balaton Review. And, for lovers of trivia, he was the first person to project colour slides in the country – he’d made them himself by painstakingly painting his black-and-whites. He was an explorer at heart and a talented one at that. He wrote his first book at the tender age of 12 and when he was 17 he wrote and illustrated (with 105 drawings) a two-volume imaginary travelogue from Rijeka to the Rhine. When he was 26, he got funding for a study trip to China. He sailed on The Imperator on 3 December 1896 arriving in Shanghai via Suez, Bombay, Colombo, Singapore, and Hong Kong, at the end of January in 1897. What an adventure that must have been. His was a solo expedition. From when he left Trieste to when he returned, 19 months (579 days) had passed. He spent 237 of those days in the field and walked about 6000 km. His task:

To study the delta region of the large rivers of the Chinese plain, and of the causes and conditions of the changes in the Yellow River and Yangtze Riverbeds.

He’s one worth reading up on.

Kitaibel Pál was a botanist, born in what was Nagymarton (present-day Mattersburg, Austria) and died in Pest. He, too, was an explorer of sorts, travelling the Hungarian countryside covering some 20 000 km in his lifetime by foot or by coach and horse. Back in those days, botany was studied in conjunction with medicine, if at all. Kitaibel started off in Law and the moved to medicine so that he could study his passion: the natural sciences. His gravestone (note duly made to self to go find) is inscribed with the following testament to his life:

Magyarország flórájának ritkaságait felkutatta, a hazai föld természetét ismertette, forrásainak titkait felfedte. Nem kevésbé derekassága, szerénysége, erkölcsössége lelki díszévé váltak. Örülj Magyarország, aki ilyen fiút adtál a világnak!” | “He searched for the rarities of Hungary’s flora, described the nature of the Hungarian land, revealed the secrets of its sources.

Curious to know who Berzsenyi Dániel was when he was at home, I wasn’t at all surprised that he was yet another Hungarian great. The farmer poet, Berzsenyi is said to have been the poet ‘who first successfully introduced classical metres and themes in Hungarian poetry’, or so the Encyclopaedia Britannica says. He published just one collection of his poems in 1813 and a country squire of sorts, he wasn’t big in the literary circles. Some four years later, another Hungarian poet, Kölcsey Ferenc, judged his work rather harshly and that put an end to the farmer’s poetical aspirations. Kölcsey, who spoke at Berszenyi’s funeral, apparently bitterly regretted the loss to Hungarian poetry.  This verse is from a poem he wrote about Keszthely describes the golden shores of the Balaton and the quiet Helikon.

This interesting plaque warrants more attention. I’m not quite sure of its significance but the quotation is from the Hungarian poet Dukai Tákach Judit, who was related to Berzsenyi by marriage. A small word, indeed. I read that Berszenyi ‘wrote to her’ explaining ‘his views on the social and cultural equality of women’ – that I’d like to read.  But back to the mysterious excerpt from her poem, Serkentés a magyar múzsához:

Oh múzsák, ne féljétek a fegyvert. A békével van magyar földön lakhelyetek. | Oh muses, don’t be afraid of the gun. You have peace on Hungarian soil.

I have a vague notion that I’ve come across this same quotation on a military statue in Nagykanizsa … but I could be imagining things. The first line az elődök útját követve translates as following the path of their predecessors. Other than her taking part in the early Helikon Festivals, I can’t find a link to the town or a reason for choosing these two lines. If any has any ideas, I’d love to hear them.

The beautifully carved gates at one of the entrances to the park are marked on either side by what appears to be excerpts from the laws of Hungary written by Werbőczy István in 1517, he who authored Hungary’s Customary Law. I see a reprint for sale online that is being billed as a book that

… having reached the significance of the most prestigious source of domestic law, was needed by the legislature, the judge, the jurist, and everyone at all who dealt with the law, either in practice or in theory.

He, too, had quite the life. Appointed guardian of King János’s son in the event of his death and then poisoned by the Pasha of Budapest.

And while these people and their lives are fascinating, the houses that surround the park fascinated even more.

What might it have been like to live in one of these back in the halcyon days, with a key to the front door, of course. What was life like back in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Keszthely? Parties at the palace, plays at the new theatre, walks along the promenade. I wondered if any new statues would be added to the park in the next 100 years and if so, who would make the cut? A solo expedition to China wouldn’t be worth much whack these days… nor would covering 20k miles to map and record new flowers, nor even being poisoned to death. But back then… wow. And what would be the twenty-first-century wow! equivalent, taking account of inflation? I wonder.



PS. Walking the promenade I noticed a monument I’d not seen before. That’s not to say it hasn’t been there for years – it’s simply that I never noticed. I can’t imagine why though… oh dear. Anyway, it’s a tribute to the Phoenix, the largest galley that ever sailed the Balaton. When the Festetics arrived in town at the beginning of the eighteenth century, they quickly saw the importance of being able to navigate the Balaton. With the Turks gone, the towns and villages came back to life. Viticulture was all the rave on the north shore, while the building stones from Zala on the south shore were much in demand. Salt was another commodity in high demand. And so the galley.


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5 Responses

  1. Packed with facts and cool trivia! I love the bonkers idea of the model of Parliament made with snail shells. I mean… duh? Not a single factoid that I’ve ever heard before – excellent!

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5 Responses

  1. Packed with facts and cool trivia! I love the bonkers idea of the model of Parliament made with snail shells. I mean… duh? Not a single factoid that I’ve ever heard before – excellent!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.