The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
How to holiday in the Hamptons of Hungary
A former communist holiday spot, central Europe’s largest lake has carved out a new identity as a chic summer getaway, finds Jamie Fullerton
I am floating in the world’s largest swimmable thermal lake, bobbing alongside moustachioed, barrelchested gents and ladies wearing steamed-up glasses.
Signs in the complex built over Lake Heviz advertise massages, but the atmosphere is more golf course 19th hole than fancy health spa. If you don’t feel like a rubdown after your swim, a different menu offers pints of lager.
Dating back to the late 18th century, the spa town of Heviz lies near the western end of Hungary’s Lake Balaton – a tourist destination that is famous to Hungarians and Germans but little-known elsewhere, despite being the largest lake in central Europe.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when Hungary was under communist rule, Lake Balaton saw a surge of trade union-organised tourism, but it has since carved out a new identity. Many dreary holiday units have been repurposed into modern hotels. Local wine culture has matured, and dance music festivals around the lake’s 120-mile shore have attracted new generations of visitors. Some are even calling it “the Hamptons of Hungary”.
“If you’re in New York, it’s very high status to say, ‘I have a house in the Hamptons’,” says Liszkay Mihály, owner of Liszkay Vineyard Estate, on the northern side of the lake. “If you’re in Budapest, it sounds very good to say, ‘I have a house on Lake Balaton’.”
Liszkay’s estate, where he produces award-winning red wine that can be found in many of the region’s restaurants, encapsulates the exclusive side of modern Lake Balaton. With its decadent outdoor pool and luxurious guest rooms, the mansion is regularly rented for high-end weddings.
The nearby village of Tihany is another hotspot. It’s a charming picture of rural Hungary: hill paths flanked by thatched-roof cottages, nature trails and reed-ringed lakes. Weathered stone barns reveal an agricultural past. At the village’s Echo Etterem restaurant, set on a ridge that offers panoramic views, tourists convene on the balcony, selfie sticks aloft.
Kiss Attila takes tour groups to Lake Balaton with his company My Personal Budapest. He explains that other than the car ferry connecting the north and south shores, motor boats are banned from the waters, to preserve the environment and tranquillity. He’s more of a windsurfing man anyway, having first visited Lake Balaton as a child in the 1970s: “Under communism there was little choice – we were landlocked, we couldn’t travel west and going to the sea was expensive.”
Attila was one of many Hungarians visiting the lake thanks to government or trade union-subsidised hotel rooms, or through children’s “pioneer” camps. These camps “were like a communist version of the Boy Scouts, but for the last years of communism the ideology wasn’t so strong... We could just have a free holiday.”
And just as the Hamptons means summer for many New Yorkers, for many Hungarians, there is still an instinct to head to the lake when the sun appears. “Traditions keep people coming,” says Haász Gabriella, the chief historianmuseologist at Balaton Museum in Keszthely on the west coast of the lake. “Balaton was the easiest way to spend a good holiday with sunshine and warmth, and to relax. Now pensioners from Austria, Germany and the Netherlands also invest here.”
I end my trip in Szigliget, one of the area’s loveliest spots. The stone wall of the village’s hill-top castle, completed in 1262, offers the most impressive views of the lake, which spreads out like a vast blue carpet. Despite the lake’s tourism reputation being forged in a bygone era, in its new incarnation it looks certain to endure.