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I always find it interesting to learn about a place that is very famous in one part of the world but mostly unknown everywhere else. I never heard of Lake Balaton in Hungary but, besides being Europe's largest lake, it was evidently THE summer spot for Europeans, going all the way back to the Romans. With mountains to the north and and curative hot springs off the Western edge, many writers through history have fallen in love with the majesty of Lake Balaton. Our reporter Anna Lengyel spent an old-time vacation at Lake Balaton, literally soaking up the stories of those who had summered there at various times through decades past.

Memories of Balaton

By Anna Lengyel, 8/24/2001

Real Audio Listen on 8/27          help Need audio help?

We are in the middle of a yachting race on the lake. This is one of the excitements Balaton offers. The lake is shallow and when it is windy, it gets really, really rough. Hear? Right now it is hard to believe how calm, how velveteen, how smooth this water can become again, the minute the wind has dropped. The ever changing surface, the ever changing colors of Balaton...

Peter: "Well, Hungarians are so, they are so infatuated with Balaton."
Peter is from England. For thirty years he and his Hungarian wife, Andrea, have regularly holidayed at Balaton. Right now it is afternoon, the air is hot and we are sitting on their terrace on the hillside sipping wine.
Peter: "One year we were taken to this magnificent place...acre and a half. With a vinyard, with this beautifully designed presshouse and...it became mine! I became the wineman who was able to go in with the pipette, and draw the wine.. It's a marvellous place to be!"
It is, indeed. Wherever you look, there are volcanic hills. The soil is actually red. Perfect for wine production. The vinyards around us run down as far as the coastline. And deep below us there is the lake glittering - inviting us for a swim.

Looking at these happy holiday makers, it is hard to believe that it was once quite a privilige to be able to get to this place. We are talking of the early fifties as Andrea, Peter's wife remembers it.

Andrea: "You must remember how terribly, terribly rare it was for anyone like us to go on holiday at all. It just did not figure. But one day, my mother came home absolutely delighted and said: kids, we are going on holiday, and guess where? God, we were ecstatic...And she said: Balaton."
Well, this Hungarian sea has seen a lot. It witnessed government-supported mass tourism - part of the communist ideology - which meant that everything was simple and cheap. Shabby pavillions lined the beaches selling their two or three kinds of meals or snacks. In the limited number of restaurants the waiter was an absolute king. You had to ingratiate yourself to him to get a table. But sunshine and the soothing lake were guaranteed, and people were content.

And then, when the wall in Berlin was built, Hungary and definitely Balaton witnessed many dramatic family reunions. Germans living on both sides of the wall were actually permitted to use this resort as a meeting place and they took this chance, of course, even if their reunion did not last longer than a fortnight.

East German, Czech or Hungarian families often stayed under the Same roof in the locals' houses , jammed together. As for the locals they would all try to sleep in one tiny-tiny room. They'd rent off the rest of the house room by room and the holiday makers would happily or unhappily share the tiny kitchen , the Nonexisting bathroom...the balcony and so on.

Peter: "It is a steep plot, yes, and a very heavy wheelbarrow. But it keeps me fit...and then we get on the top of my vineyard...One can feel very isolated here in the positive sense of the word...the houses are not too close together and you have plenty of space in which to breathe."
Looking down from here, it seems the place has remained untouched in course of the centuries. Which is of course, not fully true. The new 'capitalism' in the last 10 years has left its traces on the settlements.
Andrea: "What is really amazing for me is that when we go cycling in tiny little villages that hardly ever had any public places other than the village pub, would now boast several guest houses, maybe a small hotel and certainly half a dozen restaurants with good food, clean kitchen and real toilets..."
Peter: I'm proud to be able to be a co-owner of such a vineyard, on a teacher's salary. In England, you know, this would be a total dream. I often refer to this place as the 'poor man's Tuscany.'"
I am sure not all Hungarians would find Balaton as cheap as Peter does. And anyway, they have discovered the joy of spending their holiday abroad - so the lake is perhaps not the absolute number one resort for locals anymore.

Andrea: "But for me the new excitement is coming back and finding all the new things every year and having to explore very happily what has been created, and of course, being reunited with my friends and i am very happy to be able to host a lot of the reunions in this wonderful place."

At Lake Balaton, in Hungary, I'm Anna Lengyel Nagy, for the Savvy Traveler.

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