The Balaton (aka the Hungarian Sea) is a tale of two lakes. The summer version sees the 592 km² body of water full of sailboats and bathing beauties. Its strands are full to capacity as locals and tourists bake themselves to a crisp as the smell of lángos and the pisztráng competes with Ambre Solaire. Keszthely, the largest city on the shore, sitting as it does on the lake’s westernmost tip is no exception. It heaves and burps tourists of all sorts, lots of them local. Keszthely has three strands: the Városi and Helikon strands near the ferry pier and the Libás strand further to the northeast. Even though planned to accommodate 1900 people, which would give sunbathers at Helikon Strand 10 sqm of space each, I have my doubts. Balaton strands at the height of summer view from above are like postage-stamp albums.
But in February, when the temperature hovers at about 2 degrees and the sun peaks out intermittently to check that all is well, it’s a different story. A much nicer story.
Two magnificent buildings sit facing the water at the between the Városi and the Helikon strands, one clinging vainly to its glory days and the other looking all the better for its decrepitude. My thoughts immediately went to renovation and I made quick note to buy a lotto ticket. What I wouldn’t give to own such a place and to have the wherewithal to do it justice.
The water was smooth enough and the birds were plentiful. The swans were out in all their glory and some silly humans with a suicide wish were throwing bread at them. I didn’t stay around long enough to see what would happen when the bread ran out. Swans aren’t known for their placidness. And I’m sure I’ve seen signs urging people NOT to feed the birds. [I’m still carrying the emotional scars of a seagull attack in St Ives a few years back and I blame some well-intentioned tourist for their forwardness.]
The Varósi strand bathhouse (szigetfürdő, or Island Bath), with its decorative entrance, dates to the late 1800s. I had little trouble conjuring up images of old geezers tipping their hats to parasolled ladies, of wives strolling arm in arm with their husbands, of nannies pushing heir-laden prams. It’s all rather period-like.
Off to the left, a pier leads out to the ferry terminal where the Kisfaludy steamboat first arrived in 1846, heralding the birth of boat traffic on the lake. Until it retired in 1887, the boat would ferry prisoners of war, aristocrats, and salt across the Balaton. A heady mixture. In 2015, a replica of the original Kisfaludy took to the waters, this time as a floating museum that includes an exhibition of nineteenth-century boating and a library. Today, ferries run from May connection the city with Balatongyörök, Szigliget, and Badacsony on the lake’s north shore, and Balatonmáriafürdő, Fonyód, Balatonboglár, and Balatonlelle on the south shore. Fishing season opens at the end of March and by then, the pier will be lined with rods and reels and anglers who live in hope of catching something other than hayfever or a cold.
Poised at the edge of the lake is a life-sized statue of Csik Ferenc, journalist, doctor, and Olympian, winner of two medals (gold medal in the 100 m freestyle event and bronze in the 4×200 m freestyle relay) in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin . (Remember the one where Jesse Owens gave Hitler something to think about?) Csik died during WWII, aged 31. A short but glorious life – a little like the calm that descends on the Balaton in winter/spring.