It’s the place to holiday in the summer for Hungarians and many Germans, yet it’s barely been heard of off the continent. Perhaps this is why, despite the modern hotels, speedboats, a golf course, pretty cellar restaurants and excellent vineyards, Lake Balaton appears to have changed little in 60 years ago. Strolling along its banks on a quiet afternoon feels a bit like being caught in a time warp.
It’s an authentic central European experience that belongs to another era and a welcome escape from modern life, especially when accompanied by a piece of poppy seed strudel.
The south side of the lake caters to a more boisterous crowd who want to head out and party at night, while the northern shore retains the charm of years gone by and is home to some lovely historic towns and sites.
Interestingly, Balaton was the scene of many a family reunion after the Berlin Wall went up in the ’60s as Germans living on both sides used the region as a meeting place to holiday and see family.
These days, swimming is an ever-popular pursuit, but you can also spend your time above water on one of the many lake cruises, sailing or motorboats on offer.
Even though the “sour water” tasted of metal and the “sulphur water” was reminiscent of egg, drinking from the public taps that spew out natural spring water will apparently make you healthy.
Every year a significant chunk of the visitors to Lake Balaton come for the health benefits.
Apart from the springs (there are dozens of them) there’s also the incredible Héviz Lake — Europe’s largest thermal lake. Covered for most of the year in pretty pink and white water lilies, it has an average yearly temperature of 33˚C and is said to have healing powers.
There’s also a stunning turn of the century pier that adds to the spectacle created by the hundreds of bobbing people clutching rubber rings to stay afloat. It’s weird, but wonderful too.
On the town
Down by the lake there are cute resort towns, such as pretty Balatonfüred, perfect for a stroll. The pedestrianised main street in Keszthely, on the western side of Lake Balaton, is lined with shops and grand cafés where you can sample delicious Hungarian cakes.
The town is also home to the incredible Festetics Palace. Built in 1745 and extended during the 19th century, it is now a museum. The extraordinary 90,000 volume-strong Helikon Palace Library that’s inside is well worth a look.
A visit to the Tihany peninsula, which sticks out 5km into Lake Balaton, is another must. There’s a fabulous view of the lake from the village of Tihany as well as the Abbey church and monastery perched above the village, where the remains of King Andrew I are interred.
There’s a good reason why the Balaton region is sometimes referred to as the Tuscany of Hungary. The local boutique vineyards make world-class wine and many have great value cellar door specials. The owners also seem quite happy to let you taste to your heart’s content.
Particularly interesting are the indigenous grapes not found anywhere else in the world, such as the wonderfully dry white Badacsony Kekneyelu.
The vineyards are generally located in the hills behind the lake so you get a charming view to go with your ice-cold glass of rosé.
Food for thought
Typical of central Europe, Hungarian cuisine does tend to be a little on the heavy side. Think dumplings and lots of meat and goose, although you’ll get some good fish around Lake Balaton. Paprika is the spice of choice and you’ll see it in loads of dishes and even on the table as a condiment next to the salt and pepper.
Desserts are where the real fun happens in Hungary, from the classic doboz cake (a layered chocolate cream cake with toffee on top) to delectable cherry and, of course, poppy seed strudels.
» Samantha Baden travelled with the Hungarian National Tourist Office (020-7823 0411; www.gotohungary.co.uk) and Ryanair (www.ryanair.com), which offers one-way flights to Balaton Airport from £49.90.