2019 Grateful 40: Kis-Balaton Tour

I’ve driven the road from the village to Sármellék and on to Balatonszentgyörgy often enough to comment repeatedly on the dead trees and reed fields that follow it on either side. I knew the Kis-Balaton (Little Balaton) was once drained to increase the amount of available agricultural land in the area but when the Balaton waters started to suffer because of it, it was reflooded to act as a much-needed filter for the lake that is the backbone of Hungary’s domestic tourism.

Read more

Hitting the spot

Where has the summer gone? Is it my imagination or is time flying by ever so quickly, much quicker than years ago when it seemed as if we’d all the time in the world to do whatever it was we had to do. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of the aging process. Or perhaps it’s because many of us don’t have weekends any more. With growing expectations from employers that we be online and available nearly 24/7, the days blur into weeks and the weeks into months and the months into years.

Some time ago, a colleague decided to take two weeks’ holiday. He told the boss that he’d be unavailable. He was going somewhere to switch off: no laptop, no smartphone, no connection to anyone other than those he was with. He wanted a break. The boss was a little piqued. Surely he could find time in the day to check his emails? And if it took an hour to answer them, was that too much to ask? My colleague needed to get with the programme. To come in line with twenty-first-century living. He needed to live up to expectations. But my colleague was adamant. He got his two weeks.

Not being part of the structured work system, some might argue that I’m on a permanent holiday. I can work from wherever I have an Internet connection. The downside is that I’m always working and rarely, if ever, am I completely offline for more than a couple of days. My choice. My lot. My decision. But summer has a way of being summer. In Ireland at the start of the season, I was basking in a cool 14 degrees when friends in Budapest were melting in 40. At breakfast one morning I noticed how everyone was in their summer gear – sundresses, shorts, t-shirts, sandals – even though it was cold and wet outside. No matter the weather, summer is summer.

I know I’m in summer mode when I start to plan everything I want to do over the three months or so from June to August. I make a list of places I want to visit, seasonal restaurants I want to try and other summer-dependent spots I want to take in. The plan being that once tried and tested, I can then take my summer visitors to enjoy them, too.

But invariably, there are some gems I discover too late, just as they’re about to close, their money made, their season over.

A friend of mine recently spent 11 days walking around the Balaton – some 244 km. She’s a natural researcher and had done her homework before turfing up to some village or other. She wanted to discover the best of what’s out there so that she could then share her finds. Two in particular are worth noting. For next year.

The lakeside village of Vonyarvashegy is on the north shore of the Balaton and is home to about 2000 people. The strand is well-tended, a lovely open spot offering access to the lake for people with disabilities. Popular with German tourists, it has a bigger-than-usual restaurant offer, perhaps the smallest of which is The Spot Grill & Bar. In its third year of operation, this little gem opens from 21 May to 10 September, offering trout, chicken, salads, and the requisite Balaton burgers. Probably tired of people dithering between ordering a burger or a langós (both summer favourites), the chef decided to join the two and instead of a burger bun, has encased the patty in a langós. Genius. The desserts, both of them, are seconds material. The tiramisu (the Italian pick-me=up) could have come from Treviso, Italy, and the cheesecake, served in a glass, is delicious. The cocktail list is decidedly upmarket with the Cosmopolitan made from cranberries – something hard to find in Hungary. Added to the excellent food, the simple décor, and the fresh feel of it all is the excellent service. Robert has it nailed – always available, never intrusive, and very helpful. The Spot could hold its own just about anywhere. Class all the way.

The much smaller village of Káptalantóti swells in size for the Sunday market, Liliomkert. Hundreds of visiting tourists and summer residents (mainly German) descend on the place, turning the village into an obstacle course and the local fields into parking lots. With everything from a jar of honey to a kitchen dresser on offer, the place is a mecca for those looking for a piece of Hungary to take home. Nestled in the heart of the Badacsony wine region, the village has several vineyards of note, my current favourite being the Sabar Borház.

The enterprising local tourist board has organised a hop-on, hop-off wine bus that leaves the village 7 times daily every two hours to visit local vineyards.  A daily ticket will set you back 1500 ft. A must for next year. This year, I settled for a stop-off at Istvándy Winery. The restaurant was booked solid, which is no wonder, considering that everything on the menu is locally sourced – even the beef, which come from the herd of grey cattle looking over the fence. The panoramic vista of the Balaton and the vineyards is stunning. And, testament to the attention this family-run business pays to its customers, those of us sprawled on picnic blankets (supplied) on the hill below the restaurant didn’t feel the slightest bit cheated. As we ate our toasted sambos (mangalica pork and trout were the two on offer that day), sipped our grape-juice fröccs (so tasty I could actually fool myself into thinking I was drinking wine), and enjoyed the view, it struck me that life couldn’t get much better.

The summer is nearly over. The cool evenings are setting in. And as the autumn raises its head over the parapet, I can enjoy my favourite time of year knowing I have a head start on what I’ll do in summer 2018.

First published in the Budapest Times 8 September 2017


The royal Balaton

My geography is terrible. My Hungarian geography is particularly bad. Add that to a horrible sense of direction and the countless times I’ve gotten lost in life are easily explained. I’d take a simple left or right over east and west any day, but even then you’d have to tell me which way to face.

I cannot fix the shape and direction of the Balaton in my head. I want to stand it on its end, vertically. Otherwise the whole North/South shore thing simply doesn’t make sense in my peculiar world of logic. Perhaps this is why I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been down there … or is it over there? See what I mean?

When you take all this directionally challenged, geographic ignorance and put it behind the steering wheel of a car, you get disaster. I’m fine driving on my own. But when others are in the car with me, what little navigational sense I have switches off. I state clearly that I am simply driving. Others have to navigate and make decisions. But it rarely works well.

I thought we were going to see Keszthely. They thought we were going to the Balaton. The fact that Keszthely is on the Balaton is immaterial. I was thinking a wander round the town; they were thinking a swim. And as all of us are staunch believers in  the capacity of divine inspiration to replace verbal communication, we ended up in Szigliget, the first signpost we saw after tempers frayed and sensibilities unravelled. The afternoon was in danger of spiralling into a chilly silence that would have done away with any need for air conditioning.

IMG_5106 (800x600)

The village lies in the shadow of Szigligeti vár, the ruins of a castle built around 1260 atop a 242 metre hill. It is said that King Béla IV donated Szigliget to the Benedictines from Pannonhalma so that they could build a castle which then passed into royal ownership. The panoramic views of the Balaton and Tapolca are stunning and more than worth the hike up the hill and the steps up to the oldest tower.  One of the few castles in Hungary to never fly the Ottoman flag, its soldiers managed to maintain its independence for 150 years. While some say it was blown up on the orders of Emperor Lipót in 1702, I have it on local authority that it was felled by a lightning strike. You choose.

BT 2016 22
IMG_5097 (800x600)

What stones lefIMG_5116 (800x600)t are beautifully showcased with tri-lingual signs (Hungarian, English, and German) explaining what once stood where. The chapel, now restored, is simple and lovely and given to quiet contemplation of how the world has changed in the 755 IMG_5118 (800x600)years or so since people first knelt to pray inside. With its Baroque kitchen, weapons display, and schoolroom, the place provides quite an insight into times past. It’s not difficult to imagine how things might have been.  But if you don’t have the imagination needed, you can IMG_5095 (800x600)download an app that will do it for you. (That puts the smart back into smartphones.)

There is also a 2-3 hour study trail that takes in the castle and the village, with points of interest (everything IMG_5100 (800x600)from wildlife to volcanoes) noted on signposts along the way. Afterwards, to cool down, Szigliget strand provides respite for the sweaty traveller. Hitting it at 5pm as we did, the day before the season officially opened, we had the place practically to ourselves. Heaven.

Admission is 600 ft (concessions 300 ft). The castle is open seven days a week. From 9am to 7pm in June. From 8am to 8pm in July and August.  Worth a visit, if you’re in the area.

IMG_5077 (800x600)

First published in the Budapest Times 3 June 2016

Úgy áll ott a várrom,
mint öreg király fején korhadt koronája.
Ajtónak, ablaknak nyílásán áttör a
nap fénye, s az a fény a távolból
mintha drágaköve volna a koronának.
(Eötvös Károly)
There stand the castle ruins
like the decayed crown
on the head of an old king.
Through door and window breaks
the sunlight, and from a distance the light
is like the jewels in the crown.
(Translation: Bernard Adams)

Moving to the Balaton

I have an aversion to debt. The thoughts of having a mortgage brings me out in a cold sweat. And I know that if I ever move, I’ll need one, which in and of itself is enough reason to stay where I am. I’d love to live beside some water – preferably the sea, but I’d settle for a lake. I’d like to look out on some large expanse of water, with maybe a few sailboats bobbing along the horizon. I’d like to wake up to the sound of seagulls and the smell of salt air.

The few times I’ve been to the Balaton or Palić lake in Serbia, I’ve spent hours looking at what’s for sale in the way of apartments and houses. I’ve daydreamed about living there – off-season of course, as the tourists would do my head in.

Siofok9siofok10I was in Siófok yesterday, visiting friends. Their villa looks out on to the lake. It’s been in the family for generations. And I had a real dose of house envy. I could walk out their front door, cross the road, and be in the water in less than two minutes. I could sit on the terrace, drink a cold wine, and look out at the sailboats. And if the mood took me, I could walk the ten minutes it would take to get into town and enjoy the best of what Siófok has to offer.

But there’d be the damn mortgage. And my aversion to debt.

Siofok1 (800x533)Siofok3 (800x533)The house is set in two separate two-bedroom apartments, each with its own kitchen and bathroom. There’s a smaller, 40 sq m house at the back that also has the same, so plenty of space to live, and plenty of space to rent.  And there’s parking for 2-3 cars and a lovely back yard. And did I mention how close it is to the water?  My imagination was having a field-day. I could do the whole B&B thing. Long-term lets during the mad summer days when Budapest empties and everyone goes to the Balaton. And I could live there off-season with a few select weekend guests for candlelit suppers and walks by the lake. Maybe take in a writer or artist in need of solitary sustenance and the occasional after-dinner chat.

And then reality set in . What I want to do is travel, not settle. My pied-à-terre in Budapest will do me nicely as I plan where to next.  I’m not quite ready for that house on the water. Give me another ten years or so though and things might change.

In the meantime, my friends are selling their place. The asking price is a little too good to be true (I think they’re short-changing themselves, but then again, what I know about real estate could be written on an aspirin). But it is true. I trust them. If you’re interested, check it out at . If you buy it, don’t forget to invite me down for an off-season weekend or three.



Guaranteed to make me smile

As the temperatures soar, my levels of tolerance drop. There is a direct correlation between how hot it is and what sort of mood I’m in. There’s also a direct correlation between how hot it is and the number of invites I receive to go places and do things. Those who have suffered the brunt of my intolerance know to keep clear of me if it goes above 35°Celsius and I’m nowhere near water.

I can’t help it. I’m just not built for hot weather. My sense of propriety switches off. My ability to let stuff wash over me is drowned in a sea of irritability. My more temperate ‘whatever’ is replaced by a three-letter initialism beginning with the same W. The best of modern minds have failed to find a solution for my weather-related bouts of short-temper. I watch the temperature like fishermen watch the tide and I, too, know when it’s time not to go out.

There is hope though. I’ve found one thing that is guaranteed to right the balance, to restore my usual equilibrium no matter how hot it is. And Hungary, at this time of year, has it in abundance. It’s a sunflower – or even better, a field of sunflowers.

IMG_3076 (800x600)Ever since I saw the poster for the 2005 movie Everything is Illuminated, with Elijah Wood (Jonathan Safron Foer) standing in a field of sunflowers, I was captivated. I was a couple of years in Hungary before I ventured to the hinterlands of Budapest and saw an actual field of the beauties for the first time. Last week, driving down to Somogyvámos, I had to stop half a dozen times to marvel at the sight.

IMG_3071 (800x600)I used to wonder what all the sunflowers were for. Despite the myriad flower stalls dotted around the city, I’m not exactly tripping over these yellow darlings. And there aren’t enough football fans in the country to eat all the sunflower seeds produced (for those of you who haven’t been to a football match involving a Hungarian team, you can tell where the Hungarian fans were sitting – not because of the discarded sweet wrappers or empty beer cans or cigarette butts – you can tell because of the carpet of sunflower seed shells they leave in their wake).

About a half a million hectares is given over to sunflowers in Hungary on which more than 40 different types of sunflower are grown. And hybrids aside, if you take the time to walk among them, you’ll notice how each one is slightly different – some look sad, others thoughtful, others deliriously happy – they’re the most human of flowers. The crop is primarily harvested for oil: hot pressed, extracted, crude, and refined sunflower oil. And it’s used in feed for animals and humans alike, and in cosmetics (such as Hungary’s famous Helia-D).

IMG_3078 (800x600)In fact, Hungary is the world’s eighth largest sunflower producer in the world. The tradition has been handed down through generations and sunflower oil is known in the industry as folyékony aranyat (liquid gold). It is said that back in the 1800s, the Russian Orthodox Church had a long list of things that couldn’t be eaten during Lent, including butter and lard. But the sunflower – and its oil – was a relatively new find, and so hadn’t yet made the list. When the Russians discovered they could the oil to cook, the flowers literally blossomed.

So, if you want to ask something of me when the temperatures are tipping 30, try first calming the stormy waters with a sunflower or three.

First published in the Budapest Times 1 August 2014

Attitude kills?

Last weekend, I did what hundreds, if not thousands, or indeed hundreds of thousands of Budapest city dwellers do every Sunday in the summer – I drove back from the Balaton.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADriving in Hungary at the best of times can be unnerving. Patience is not a national virtue, at least not for those sitting on a few tonnes of metal, with a steering wheel in their hands, and the potential for speed underneath their feet. Üllői út is a favourite inner-city racetrack for boy racers and I have lost count of the number of times I’ve had my daydreams interrupted by the screech of tyres and the clash of gears as cars built for autobahns forget they’re driving the korut.

I’d heard tell of the nightmare that many endure coming back from a weekend’s R&R but I’d never experienced it first-hand. We left Fonyód about 3.30 pm to avoid the traffic, hoping that no one else had the same bright idea. And we did fine at first on the motorway until, when doing the requisite 110 (or was it 130?), I rounded a curve to be met by the flashing tail lights of the car in front of me. Thankfully there were enough chevrons between us to avoid collision but I swear I nearly had a heart-attack.

As we crawled forward, I waited expectantly to pass a crash or a police check, or something that would explain the sudden slow-down of traffic. But nothing. Five minutes later, we were back on track and it was full speed ahead.

Then it happened again, and again, and again. And I can’t for the life of me figure out what was going on. I thought it might have been merging traffic from the on-ramps, but no. I thought it might have been a speed camera, but that wouldn’t explain going from 110 (or was it 130?) to 40 in two seconds flat. But what did suddenly make sense was the high number of accidents on that road each summer. This sort of erratic driving can’t be good for the nerves, and after a weekend baking in the sun, who has every brain cell alert and engaged?

I had time, as we inched along, to clock the cars and noticed that many city cars (compacts and economies in rental-car terminology) were competing, or trying to compete, with high horsepower vehicles that could probably outrace most cop cars, given a clear road and good conditions. This unequal power match leads to more unsafe driving.

I was in an immaculately kept 18-year-old Honda and when I moved to an empty left lane to overtake a Fiat contemporary, I suddenly had an Audi A7 up my ass. He came out of nowhere and was so close to my tail it was personal, intimate even, if not obscene. I was tempted to brake and see where he’d end up … but it wasn’t my car.

Nearer to Budapest, a BMV flew up the on ramp and diagonally crossed four lanes seamlessly. No indicator. No rear-mirror check. Just a bald, arrogant claim to the road that said more about his personality (and yes, it was a he) than anything. And again, the number of fatalities began to make sense.

According to the International Road Traffic Accident Database, Hungarian motorways are 8 times more dangerous than UK motorways, and twice as dangerous as Belgian and Austrian motorways. In contrast, in Germany, where there are no speed limits, it’s twice as safe to drive as in Belgium or Austria and three times as safe in Hungary. So if it’s not speed that’s killing people, could it be attitude?

First published in the Budapest Times 25 July 2014

Aging…like a good wine

‘Do you mind me asking how old you are? he said. ‘How old do you think?’ I replied. ‘I can’t see how you could be older than 35 or 36’ he said.

Who needs cosmetic surgery if those looking at you have felt the effects of a few good wines. Down in Köveskál this weekend, we stopped IMG_4457 (800x600)by the Pálffy vineyard and partook in a wine tasting. At the table next to us sat four youngish Hungarian lads who were, as they put it, nearly at the top of the mountain while we, on our first sip of an olaszrizling, had just started our climb. They helpfully translated what our host, Pálffy Gyula (who bears more than a little resemblance to Irish actor Gabriel Byrne), was telling us about each wine we tasted and contributed to what was a very enjoyable way to pass a few hours. Apparently he moved back to the area in 1998 to continue the family wine-making and take over his paternal grandfather’s vineyard and has been making steady progress ever since in his efforts to help restore the reputation of the Káli Basin wines, a region which once supplied the House of Árpád kings.

Such was the love of wine present that we learned not just about those from his cellar. We learned that 2006 and 2009 were excellent years for Hungarian reds. That the Patricius 1999 Azsú was one of the best sweet wines ever to be bottled and that a Szekszárd merlot was worth trying. And if ever in Eger again, that the Gróf Buttler Pince is the place to go.

IMG_4452 (800x597)Sitting in this modern cellar late on a Saturday afternoon, sampling ten of the wines on offer, I was surprised to see the walls reflect in the glass tables and wondered briefly if the wine was having an effect. Was I drugged?

But Pálffy doesn’t use any pesticides, herbicides, or chemicals. He is guided by nature and uses traditional craft methods. Currently, the 4.5 hectares are given over to Riesling, Pinot Gris, Traminer, Furmint, Juhfark, and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and more recently a variety of Syrah has been added.

IMG_4454 (800x600)My first place vote went to the Köveskáli Törökugrató Rosé 2010 with the Késői Szüretelésű Tramini 2008, a félédes (semi-sweet) white coming in a strong second. This surprised me as I’m not generally a fan of sweet wine. The Furmint and the Siller tied for third (siller is quite popular in Hungary – being a little more than a rosé and a little less than a red. I’ve heard it called a Missouri wine in deference to the Missouri Compromise Line 🙂 ) I can’t say that I’ll ever be an expert. I don’t have the bandwidth to take on a whole new vocabulary. Yet I thoroughly enjoyed tasting these wines, and taking notes about what I liked and what I didn’t like. And, even better, we didn’t have to agree. It’s all a matter of personal taste.

In a fascinating travel article on Balaton wine, Bruce Schoenfeld quotes veteran winemaker, István Kiss:

Before I leave, Kiss opens a bottle of Kiralyfurmint from 1978 that has been in his cellar for at least two decades. It has the seal of the Communist government on it—a faded paper collar, all tones of gray now except for a stripe of sky blue, picturing a shield and a star—and it looks to be in nearly pristine condition. Poured into a glass, the wine is such a bright gold that it practically glows. “Wine is the only product in human life that can bring back the years,” Kiss says, holding his glass to the light. “The 1978 sunlight is in this wine, and the great rains, and the cellar’s coolness. The wine can bring back all these tastes. Smell this wine and go back twenty-eight years.”

Alongside bringing back the years sits wine’s contribution to making memories. I’d never heard of the Tramini grape before last weekend but now each time I see it, I’ll revisit in my mind’s eye that late afternoon/early evening spent at the Pálffy pince. Laden down with bottles, we made our exit, happy to have had the experience and happier still with the wine-filled chocolate that caught my eye on the way out. Now, there’s a man who can think outside of the box. Wine AND chocolate AND good company? What more could a girl ask for?

If you’re in the vicinity, drop by and say hi.

Pálffy Pince, 8274 Köveskál, Fõ u. 40.
Tel: 06-30-9275-713
E-mail:[email protected]

2013 Grateful 31

This weekend, driving around the Balaton, I was mesmerised, not by the lake or the vineyards but by the grass verges on the roadside. Column after column of red poppies sparkled with raindrops mixed in with purple fireweed, white daisies, and blue cornflowers. I was struck by the fact that none would sell in a flower shop – no one would pay for these weeds – and then immediately got to thinking about how silly we humans are.

IMG_4447 (800x600)

When a ten-year-old child knows their Tommy Hilfiger from their Calvin Kline, one has to wonder where we have gone wrong. I know I can’t speak for everyone but I bet I’m not the only one who has chosen an expensive wine thinking it must be good if it cost so much – only to be disappointed. I’ve bought designer label stuff not because it fit or flattered but because it was a whatever.  I’ve read prize-winning books that I hated and watched art movies that went over my head and saw plays that I just didn’t get … all because I felt I should.

I doubt I’m the only one that has been caught up in a series of societal expectations – someone else’s expectations. I doubt that I’m the only one to have felt an obligation to do something I’d rather not just because I thought I should. And I doubt that I’m the only one to have forgotten that all too often, it’s the simple pleasures in life that are the ones that memories are made of.


Doug Larson said once that a weed is a plant that has mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows.  How much more interesting our world would be if more of us mere mortals were to follow their lead.

The poppy blooms for just a few days and yet in that short space of time adds a rare beauty to the world, offers the milk from which opiates are made, and the seeds that used in baking and pressed for oil. Synonymous with loss of life in war, the poppy has become a sign of remembrance. And for me, a sharp reminder that life doesn’t need to be any more complicated than I make it.

This week, as I dot the final i and cross the final t in my dissertation and get ready to pack for my road-trip, I’m truly grateful that we took the time to stop  and smell the poppies. And if my stream of consciousness takes me from the Balaton to Flanders and back again, from designer labels to opiates and cooking oil,  all the better. Isn’t that what life is? One long road-trip that brings us places we never thought we see, introduces us to people we never imagined we’d meet, and  makes us constantly wonder what’s around the next corner.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Weather too hot to handle

I was born with a limited supply of patience and I live in fear of it running out before I die. So I ration it. I use it wisely. Others may choose to squander their allotment in their youth, gradually turning into cantankerous old codgers as middle age departs and old age sets in. Not me. So adept am I at rationing my given allotment that many people think I possess no patience at all. And that’s not true. The any-season-but-summer me is patient to the point of proctalgia; but come June, I’m literally too hot to handle.

Simmering semaphore

Once the temperature in Budapest hits the high twenties, I get flustered and easily irritated. Although usually happy to repeat my limited Hungarian in palinoiac fashion until I utter something approximating the correct pronunciation, I now disintegrate into a blithering idiot if I have to repeat myself even once. My hands take on a life of their own, my facial muscles spasm, and my voice gets higher and higher until I’m practically whinnying in frustration. On any given day in winter, spring or autumn, when my patience is at its best, it might take me five attempts to pronounce the word tej in such a way that it will result in a bag, bottle or carton of milk but no matter. That’s the any-season-but-summer me, the one that’s calm, cool, and collected. But by June, when it’s 27°C in the shade, I would rather milk the cow myself than endure what the heat has morphed into humiliation. To my utter shame, albeit just once, I found myself thinking the unthinkable: why doesn’t everyone in this wind-forsaken urban heat island speak bloody English!

Parboiling prose

When it hits the thirties, I begin to lose my sense of reason. The beatific smile I usually bestow with just the right amount of forgiveness on the poor unfortunate who dares to crowd my space on public transport is but a memory. It is replaced by a withering look that is guaranteed to raise the hackles of the most complacent commuter. Forget perspiring; I’m positively glowing. By the end of my journey, complete strangers have united against me, muttering incoherently to each other, plotting my demise.  Someday, some summer, I’m sure I’ll make the headlines.

The smell of red wine makes me gag. The smell of boiling bacon makes me queasy. The combination of the two in the form of body odour wafting from a lump of lard who’s had a few glasses too many the night before and whose extras pounds are cooking in the heat, is enough to turn my stomach. I know my manners. I know better than to visibly react to something that someone perhaps can’t control. But in this heat, when I find my 5’5” frame neatly spooned into a sweaty armpit, be it male or female, I register the full spectrum of emotion from animosity to belligerence, visible for all to see.

Baked bellyaching

When it hits the forties, I am incapable of coherent speech. I bore myself senseless with my moaning and run the risk of alienating friends and acquaintances. Even the postman thinks twice about knocking. I’m crankier than a teething baby with her tongue caught in a rattle. I’m cantankerous, unpleasant, short-tempered, and prone to using more colourful expletives than usual. I can’t abide the heat, especially the oppressive heat of the city. It brings out the worst in me. It gets to where I can’t stand my own company and can barely tolerate anyone else’s. I’ve tried the baths, but they’re too crowded. I’ve tried waiting until evening before I venture outside but so do the mosquitoes and they’re usually famished. The overnight swings in temperature play havoc with my psyche: low twenties today, mid-thirties tomorrow. Make up your mind, weather! Even the normally tepid Hungarian coffee tastes too hot.

But there is a plus side. Although I’m not a fan of air conditioning, in my search for some reprieve I’ve discovered places I would normally walk by. Budapest is empty at the weekends with everyone either on the Island or down at the Balaton. It’s so pleasant….in the shade or in the shops. The city’s diversity, kept under wraps in colder weather, comes out in full force. Open-air music abounds and if you happen to stumble across the likes of the world famous Taraf de Haidouks (who played an amazing free gig at Magdolna tér in District VIII last weekend) you’re set up.  I may have been too hot to handle that night, completely devoid of patience, and crankier than all git out, but seeing Dinu work that cimbalom was worth every bead of perspiration and every ounce of discomfort. Even when Budapest is bad, she’s good!

First published in the Budapest Times 21 June 2010

At the Hungarian seaside

IMG_2772Well, I finally made it to the Hungarian Sea. To Balaton (or to ‘the Balaton’) as is said here. The typical Friday afternoon crawl of cars heading down to to Balaton is a sight to behold in itself. Anyone who is prepared to spend hours in traffic just to reach the lake has to really appreciate it for what it is. Apart from being the largest lake in Central Europe, with a surface covering 592 km², it’s a respite from the heat-laden capital. And it’s big:  77 km from north to south with widths varying from 4 to 14 km. It can get to 12.2 m deep but averages about 3.2 m. Water temperatures in the summer get to about 25 cm so it’s perfect for swimming. Back in the old days, it was where East met West – literally. Families from East Germany could travel to Hungary freely, and those from West Germany could get visas to visit; so it was at the Balaton that they met over the summer.

JFW brought the Elizabeth Jane over from England and she’s now happily moored at Tihany marina. The present owners bought the marina about seven years ago. It’s run for profit, to finance its not-for-profit sailing school. A lovely spot with a tiny private beach. We took the ferry across to Tihany after driving about 90 minutes from Budapest. After I had my morning sun and ‘sea’, we headed in to Balatonfüred for lunch. The town is famous for its water. People used to mix water from Whey spring, in front of the Heart Clinic, with sheep’s cottage cheese as a cure for lung disease.  Today, the medicinal waters are used to heal heart and circulatory diseases and for treating general exhaustion.   This last bit is a little ironic, considering that the lakeside was packed with tourists, local and foreign, and was far from relaxing. I so resent my water space being populated. Honestly, when I win the lottery, I’d like to buy an island so that I could read by the water in silence. Am I too young to be so crotchety? IMG_2806

 The ‘nightingale of the nation’ Blaha Lujza had her summer residence here, about 300 m from the lake. Must have been nice! She got this nickname after asking the emperor  Francis Joseph to pardon 13 Hungarian hussars who were sentenced to death.

KG and MI headed off to Tihany later that afternoon, but too much sun and the prospect of a couple of hours in the water took me back to the marina. I really, really, really want to live beside the sea. Or at least beside some water.  I could happily fall asleep every evening to the sound of water breaking on rocks or seagulls singing for their supper.

Tihany is another lovely town best seen in late evening when the daytrippers have gone home. Famous for its monastery and lavender fields, it straddles that fine line IMG_2834between kitsch and quaint. The Benedictine Monastery was founded in 1055 and the foundation charter is the earliest written record extant of the Hungarian language. Like a number of other Hungarian towns and villages, Tihany also has its ‘Calvary’ – huge, outdoor stations of the cross leading up a hill to the three crosses on Calvary. Very moving.

We had dinner there before heading back to the city and I tried the famous fish soup. I’m glad I did. Now that I’ve done it once, there’s no need for me to ever do that again!