If you’re staying in Hungary long enough to venture outside of Budapest, Lake Balaton may well be your next stop. You should be aware that Balaton is a schizophrenic body of water, split north and south into two very different personalities. If you’re traveling with kids, or simply looking for a more ‘authentic’ Hungarian experience, chances are you’re going to want the north shore.
Hungarians revere Lake Balaton as their very own inland ‘sea,’ and it does indeed sprawl over a large geographic area. In fact, it is the largest body of water in Central Europe, and draws flocks of visitors (particularly Germans, who find the area comparatively inexpensive) in the summer months.
For someone used to the cool, deep, clear lakes of northern New England, Balaton takes some getting used to. Its water is a murky, milky green color, and as the lake has an average depth of three meters (10 feet), in most places – particularly on the south shore – you need to slog several hundred meters along an unseen, sole-sucking mud bottom to get to a depth where you can actually take a plunge. One of the strangest sights on the lake is to look out and see the shimmering shapes of people far offshore, standing in water only knee-deep.
The south shore is generally dominated by large hotels, flesh-filled beaches lined with stalls selling plastic bric-a-brac and fried dough, and somewhat down-at-heel summer cottages. Siofok, the largest resort on the south shore, thumps through the sticky summer nights with clubs, teens, and a whole lot of silicone. It is the kind of place many people might characterize as ‘brash,’ and the landed gentry might sniffingly pronounce ‘vulgar.’
The north shore is a very different place. Rolling hills punctuated by the conical mounds of ancient volcanoes define the landscape, and tidy traditional villages draw a more mature crowd. One of these villages is Tihany (pronounced TEA-hine), perched atop a peninsula that nearly bisects the lake and is surrounded by its deepest waters. (Still less than 12 meters (40 feet) deep, but at least you can swim right off shore.)
Tihany is centered on a baroque Benedictine abbey built in 1754 atop a much earlier structure dating from 1055. Beneath the church, you can visit the 11th century crypt which houses the tomb of King Andrew (András) I, who founded the original abbey. From the church grounds you get sweeping views of the lake, which presents an ever-changing kaleidoscope of color and contrast as the shadows of passing clouds and the white sails of boats skim its surface.
Being largely a tourist town, Tihany has its share of souvenir shops, but these generally sell high-quality local ceramics, woodwork, and linens as opposed to the south shore’s Chinese imports.
There are excellent walks on the peninsula, which is part of the Balaton Uplands National Park, including a loop that skirts a small pond popular with wading birds and takes you up on a ridge that provides views of both the lake and the village of Tihany. Waves of vineyards undulate on the slopes of the hills, wildflowers bloom in profusion, and the forests hide ancient church ruins and hermitages carved into the faces of cliffs.
Daytrips are easy from the peninsula, and just north of Tihany, Baltonfüred offers a lovely lakeside promenade in the shade of towering plane trees, as well as some historical buildings, wine-tasting rooms, and nearby vineyards, most notably the Figula and Jasdi wineries.
South of Tihany lies the Kali Basin, which offers excellent walks along dolomite and limestone ridges, around bogs housing rare and endemic flora, and through seven small villages where traditional life still thrives. At the southern end of the basin, vineyards have cloaked the volcanic slopes of the truncated cone of Badacsony since Cistercian monks planted vines here in the Middle Ages, and wine is still the area’s main product. Try the local Pinot Gris (Szürkebarát in Hungarian, meaning ‘grey monk’).
Where to Stay:
Tihany Tourist offers a decent selection of rentals, as does Houses.hu, and you can sometimes find deals at Booking.com. Avoid the larger hotels and opt instead for a self-catering house or apartment, or one of the smaller B&Bs and inns.
Where to Eat:
Just outside of town you’ll find the Ferenc Pince Csarda, which serves up good Hungarian food and excellent local wines. It also has a lovely terrace with views of the lake, and grassy areas where the kids can wander. Highly recommended.
Imagine your grandmother was a Hungarian peasant and incorrigible packrat, monomaniacally devoted to everything kitsch. She decorated the Kakas Csarda restaurant. The upside is that the knickknacks will divert your kids for hours, and the traditional Hungarian dishes are very well made. Highly recommended.
Lake Balaton is probably not a place you’d travel thousands of miles to visit, but if you’re in Hungary for an extended period of time the north shore of the lake is absolutely worth putting on the itinerary.
Tihany, with its history, its natural beauty, its wildlife, and its picturesque village, is worth placing at the top of that itinerary.