I first heard of Tapolca when I worked on Marton Laszló’s autobiography shortly after I first came to Hungary. It’s the town where he was born and where he started sculpting. Given that we were separated by a lack of language (his English was no better than my Hungarian), we communicated mainly in sign language over neat glasses of palinka, with his wife interpreting as needed when it came to the book itself. He even made me chicken soup one time I showed up to his flat with a set of reviews carrying a heavy cold. He died in 2008 and was a truly remarkable man.
Anyway, I digress. When I looked the town up on the Web, I saw that its No. 1 attraction was not the Marton Laszló Four Seasons sculpture but rather the Lake Cave.
Open to the public for more than 100 years now, this series of caves stretches out 15 metres deep underneath the town. About 5 km long in total, the waters crisscross in a convoluted system that features the Lake Cave – the one I visited. The first boat trip through the cave was taken in 1937. The air is about 90% humid and the water temperature about 20°C. The high calcium content is good for curing respiratory diseases; I obviously wasn’t down there long enough to nullify the effects of smoking 🙂 but it would be an interesting course of treatment. The 73-step descent down under was quite spectacular and for a brief moment, brought the catacombs of Malta to mind.
Mine was the last boat through that day. I had thought I’d have a partner in crime to row/paddle while I got to take some photos, but circumstances contrived to make it otherwise. So I had to multitask.
Pretty certain that the chap helping me into my tin tub of a boat said to hang left, I did just that, but was careful not to lose sight of the couple in the boat in front of me, just in case. The water was only knee-deep, so if all came to all, I was confident that I could just tow myself back to base. Mind you, this was an option I hoped I wouldn’t have to exercise. Twice I nearly lost my paddle and almost capsized in my mad grab to hold on to it.
While I was struggling with this multitasking, I was reminded of the blond who couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Not alone had I to watch the roof in case I banged my head and was knocked unconscious, I had to steer the boat down the centre of the narrow channels and balance it and take photos and remember to breathe. Gum-chewing would have over-tasked a system already on the verge of burnout. At one stage, I couldn’t hear myself think as I bounced from wall to wall, my little tin boat making quite the racket as it scraped off the limestone walls, all the while I cursed an absence.
The English-language site of the BFNP (Balaton-felvidéki National Park) calls it a torturous cave system and I for one agree. That limestone may look soft and pillow-like but it’s as hard as a… rock? The cave was formed in Sarmatian limestone 13.7 million years ago… get your (sore) head around that one! It was quite amazing to think that there I was, cursing like a Moore Street fishwife, beneath walls that have heard a lot worse than I could ever have come up with. And if they could talk!
I was a little disappointed afterwards that I didn’t spot any of the Phoxinus phoxinus – the small fish that live in the cave – but then I was too busy bouncing off the walls to notice.
Well worth a trip if you’re in the neighbourhood.