Nature has bestowed beauty in plenty on Lake Balaton. Much of the outstanding landscape belongs to the protected area of the Balaton Uplands National Park. Those interested can ask for an expert to guide them, and see the region’s botanical and geological specialities on study trails and in displays. The most varied landscape rolls out from the Szépkilátó (“Fine Viewing Point”) close to Balatongyörök, poets have sung its praises. The wonderful variety of the landscape of the volcanic northern shore is at its most beautiful seen from the Várhegy (“Castle Hill”) in Fonyód or Balatonboglár. In a semi-circle of dormant volcanoes lies the Káli Basin. Although by car it is only a quarter of an hour’s journey from the bustling life of the shore, it is as if we had descended into another world. Above the reeds of the salt ponds water-fowl call, cowbells ring in the pastures, and there is an Arcadian calm in the small, inviting villages.
It is no accident that many film directors, artists and writers have struck camp in one of the numerous peasant houses. Around the edge of the basin, stone idols guard the peace of the land. These geological formations, formed by hot volcanic torrents of lava and by the wind, are a local curiosity, and are popularly known as the stone sea. The most beautiful is the one in Szentbékkálla. In this bouquet of rocks, reminiscent of abstract sculptures, we feel as if we are in the garden of a stone-age wizard.
The old town of Tapolca, nestling behind Szent György Hill, holds another delight for those who love the wonders of nature: the lake cave. This too was formed by volcanic activity: hot water gouged out a labyrinth of winding corridors and halls in the limestone, which were then flooded by crystal clear karst water. The visitor could be in Charon’s ferry in a mythological underworld, while rowing around the mysteriously lit, twisting waterway, except that this is an underworld from which there is a way back. The caves under the town are, incidentally, not only a tourist sight: their climate is ideal for the treatment of serious respiratory diseases. Recently a well-equipped therapeutic hotel was completed, which now offers facilities to patients taking the cave cure which are worthy of the surroundings.
The vast marshes of the Kis-Balaton at the western end of the lake were for twenty thousand years the natural filter of the River Zala, which feeds Lake Balaton. Three generations ago the Zala was diverted to feed directly into Lake Balaton, whose healthy, clear water was consequently polluted and made muddy by the river for half a century. The problem was solved by a method adopted nowhere else in the world: by restoring conditions similar to the original marsh. The huge reservoir, completed fifteen years ago, is now a nature conservation reserve, where once more birds flock in large numbers, just as they used to. One particularly charming part, the Kányavári Island, is open to the general public, for the pleasure of anglers and nature photographers.
Traveling around the area of the Kis-Balaton the ecotourist comes across another site: the Kápolnapuszta Buffalo Reserve. Formerly these animals of fearsome strength were used for the heaviest work, but gradually more docile and versatile cattle took their place in agriculture. In Europe these grim-looking animals, descended from bison, can only be found in Kápolnapuszta and Transylvania.
Keszthely is the oldest of the towns around Lake Balaton. Many of its small streets faithfully preserve the small-town atmosphere of the 19th century. For centuries, a decisive factor in the development and culture of Keszthely was the presence of the Festetics family, one of the richest Hungarian aristocratic families. Their Baroque Festetics Palace, today a museum, is one of the finest monuments in the Balaton region. Each week in the summer concerts are held in the park and the splendid rooms. The Balaton Museum is also a delight: its dioramas and show cases present the formation of the lake, the natural world, archaeological finds, the region’s folk culture, and the history of the bathing culture. The nave of the Roman Catholic church is from Medieval times, and the frescos are held to be the finest creations of Hungarian Gothic. The city hosts the summer Balaton Festival and the Balaton Autumn.
Sümeg’s parish church is dubbed the “Sistine Chapel” of Hungarian Rococo, because its walls and ceiling are decorated with one enormous fresco. Another spectacular sight is the fourteenth-century castle perched on the hill next to the town. This is one of the largest fortifications in the country, and is in extremely good condition.
Badacsony is the most famous wine-growing hill of the Balaton region. It is here that the grapes which go to making Badacsony Pinot Gris and Kéknyelű are grown. On the southern slope of the 437 m basalt hill hikers can sample the excellent restaurants and wine bars. At the summit the Kisfaludy Lookout offers a memorable panorama. Down below, not far from the harbour we find the house of József Egry, the painter of Lake Balaton, which is now a museum in his memory. The region hosts the Badacsony Vintage Days.
One of the most obvious points in the landscape of the northern shore, just as it is on the map, is the Tihany Peninsula. The community of Tihany, which is conspicuous for miles thanks to its twin-towered church, has existed for nearly a thousand years. The deed of foundation of the Benedictine monastery, which was established in 1055, is the oldest surviving written Hungarian text. Of the original building only the Romanesque crypt survives, and above it stands the beautiful Baroque monastery church in which organ concerts can be heard in the summer. The entire area of the peninsula is protected, and special sights include the Inner Lake (good for fishing), the cones formed by geysers, the Aranyház and lavender fields. The museums of Tihany are: the Benedictine Abbey Museum, the Open Air Ethnographical Museum (peasant farm house and house of the fishermen’s guild) and the Doll Museum.
The Káli Basin is truly one of Hungary’s most beautiful part, it’s natural, geological and historical wonders are outtanding... Several basalt cones emerge from the level of the basin (Hegyestű, Kis-Hegyestű, Lapos-Hegyestű, Kereki Hill etc.). In the middle of the basin, dolomite and limestone ridges cross wetlands and surround the 15-hectare-large Kornyi Lake. The block fields near Salföld, Kővágóörs and Szentbékkálla (some of the prettiest villages around the lake), where millstones were cut and carved for hundreds of years, are geological values famous throughout Europe. The most beautiful is the rocky ridge of Szentbékkálla, which has survived almost intactuntil the present day.
The many church towers of the seven villages, the wine cellars and the signs of a variety of agricultural work, vineyards, meadows and ploughlands, constitute a special landscape in the Káli Basin.
The interpretation and show centre of the Balaton Uplands is being built at Salföld, where it is surrounded with the relics of popular village architecture, vineyards, medieval buildings, churches, ruins of long deserted villages, bog meadows and lakes. Work started in 1994. The Directorate builds a show-farm for breeding the ancient domesticated animals: Hungarian gray cattle, water buffalo, "racka" (twisted horned) sheep, and "mangalica" (curly bristle) pig. The farm is on the site of a former cooperative manor.
Since the Káli Basin became a protected area, local governments of the region have been able to preserve their old and historic buildings more effectively. The National Park Directorate has maintained pastures, mown fields, cut the vegetation around the ruins of old buildings, and cleaned several springs. Village tourism is increasing in the area. Reconstruction of the vineyards on the hills requires hard work, and restoring the reputation of the wines of the Káli Basin is yet to be accomplished, but what has been achieved so far in nature conservation and landscape protection is an encouraging start.
Although Balatonfüred got its name not from the baths (”fürdő”) but from the quails (”fürj”), it was here that the Lake Balaton bathing culture was born in the 17th century. At first it was visited for the carbonated spring water, but in the second half of the 19th century, when bathing in Lake Balaton had become fashionable, the lake’s first bathing house was constructed here from red pines. Balatonfüred is a town of “firsts” in other respects too. It was here that the first steam boat, named Kisfaludy, was built in 1846, and set out on her maiden voyage; later the first yachts were also made here; and the first stone theatre producing plays in Hungarian once operated here. All this opened a new era in Hungarian tourism history. It is a good idea to start your stroll around Balatonfüred in the two-hundred-year-old Gyógy tér (“Health Square”), by the famous spring, then walking along the park (more than a hundred years old) and the waterside promenade called “Tagore sétány” you come to one of the most beautiful harbours of the lake. In addition to the unusual shape of the nearby Kerektemplom (“Round Church”), its frescos and paintings are also of interest to tourists. A few minutes from here is the villa of one of the princes of Hungarian literature, Mór Jókai, which today is a memorial museum.
Veszprém is built on five hills, and Castle Hill dominates the scene in the centre. The deep ravine valley of the Séd stream is known as the symbol of Veszprém, and is spanned by a finely arched viaduct. Cobbled paths, and streets leading to steps wind up the hills and down into valleys. The old houses which line them have recently been reconstructed, and the town has almost exactly the same appearance today as it did in the 18th-19th centuries, when it was built. Those who live here wake each morning to the melody of countless church bells. They call it the city of queens. And not for nothing, for it was the duty of the local bishops to crown the monarch’s wife. It was here that the crown was placed on the head of the last Hungarian queen, Zita, in 1916. The first Hungarian king, Stephen, and his wife, Gizella, founded the first bishopric of the country here. The queen built the first cathedral here in 1001, the Cathedral of St. Michael, of which the Romanesque sanctuary and crypt can still be seen. Today’s cathedral was rebuilt over it in 1910, in a neo- Romanesque style. Here, a bone of the upper arm, held to be a relic of Gizella, is kept. One of the finest Baroque buildings is the bishop’s palace. Beside it, the life-size frescoes in the thirteenth-century Gizella Chapel are amongst the oldest frescoes in Hungary. Veszprém has a zoo with the finest location in Hungary is in the valley under the viaduct.
Magyarpolány is a village near Veszprém has been awarded the Europa Nostra prize. The former village centre has 83 old and finely restored listed buildings. The Calvary, erected at the end of the 1700s, is also a famous monument. The painted wooden statues line the 153 steps to the chapel of the Virgin in Labour.
Zirc is the centre of the Hungarian Cistercian order, is also known as the capital of the Bakony Hills. The abbey and monastery built in 1100 were destroyed during the Turkish conquest, but the order rebuilt them. Today, the abbey next to the double-towered Baroque church contains special codices, books, and journals. Amongst the valuable carved furniture of the library (a monument in itself), the intarsia table deserves special attention, being made of wood of many different colours, all from the Bakony region. In the Abbot’s former residential quarters a natural history museum has been installed, showing the fauna and flora of the region. Zirc is also famous for its arboretum. In this fine park, 600 types of tree and shrub can be found. The oldest oak tree is 400 years old.
Herend china is one of the most famous Hungarian specialities. It is known far and wide, and buyers collect it. The china factory, founded in 1826, produces hand-painted delicate, elegant, china, and these products have won prizes at world exhibitions. The pattern of the butterfly painted with bright colors was first shown at the world exhibition in London in 1851, and has since become the trademark of the factory. Queen Victoria immediately ordered a dinner set for Windsor Castle, and so the florid butterfly motive has borne her name ever since. In the trade centre next to the factory a mini workshop has been set up, where anyone can try their hand at making china. The largest collection of Herend china in the world can be seen here.
Pápa’s Baroque city of schools is known as the Athens of Pannonia, for the great and mighty of Hungarian literature and science have studied here. The Reform Church secondary school houses the Pannonian Reform Church History Collection, the library and the archives too. The Catholic church, built in the 1700s, is the largest church in Pannonia. The oldest blue-dyeing workshop in Central Europe still operating today can also be found in this town.
Siófok is one of the biggest towns around the lake. It is a typical party town, so I don’t think it’s a good choice to visit in case you want to get in touch with history and culture, but being the main city of the lake, I wrote a few words about it too: Its resort and villa area was built at the end of the 19th century as the greatest tourism undertaking of the time. The world-famous composer of operetta, Imre Kálmán, is a son of Siófok, where there is today a museum in memory of him. In the spirit of the cult of Kálmán, for two months each summer an operetta gala evening is held each week. In the Catholic parish church organ recitals and master classes are held. With its huge discos, Siófok is a place of “pilgrimage” for young people. Their overriding favourite is the Beach House, built on the Nagystrand (“Main Beach”) a couple of years ago, with sports during the day and rock concerts in the evening. The town hosts the season-opening festival at Whitsun and the Golden Cockle Folklore Festival.