As I got to the top of Tihany hill and wandered through the clifftop gardens, the Hungarian girl on the bench, bespectacled and clutching a shopping bag, was looking out over Lake Balaton. She smiled at me politely as I passed and then went back to her reverie. The day was overcast, not a single boat or swimmer on the water, and the lake’s translucent enormity was unblemished. Only the fringes of spume lapping at the rocks below gave any sign of motion. Colours were icily commanding: silver clouds billowing down like silk ceiling drapes, the dormant volcanoes on the far bank a wavering stripe of carbon, the sky above them a comfortless blue which changed, as your eyes moved over it, from mauve to stone. Bar the narrow cylinder of sunshine which fell like grace on the far shore, Balaton was as forbidding as a glacier, impassive and untouchable as a Virgin Monarch. I could understand the girl’s entrancement with the scene, and felt it myself: a kind of ecstasy of the sombre. Like the girl, I too would stare and stare.
I had come to Lake Balaton, the landlocked Hungarian ‘sea’, with a long-held curiosity. This vast, carp and pike-laden lake, Europe’s largest outside Scandinavian and at the continent’s very centre, is the country’s summer resort of choice, drawing Germans and Austrians as well. Surrounded by dormant volcanoes and vineyards, with resorts of every kind and calibre, and activities from yachting to horse-riding, wine-tasting to ‘dental tourism’, Lake Balaton, with budget airlines flying from London almost to its banks, now looks set to be a coming place for the British. To see the lake in all its different moods, I was here to cycle the Balatoni Körút, a 160 mile cycle route that encircles Balaton through invigorating landscape, stopping off for gulyas soup and promenade-strolls as I went.
My first stop had been Badacsony, Balaton’s premiere wine-resort, green and hilly, where the weather had been more benign. Though the lake could ripple or become as choppy as the sea, on this day, with the sun beating down on it, Balaton was spread out like a vast turquoise tundra, movement playing over it not in waves but in great, steadily gliding patches like wine spreading over a linoleum floot. Yachts glid across with infinitesimal slowness. A swimhatted old man with dugs did his day’s slow crawl, while by a clutch of reeds a blonde in a bikini twitched a fishing rod. I had been warned the water might be oily (it wasn’t) or smell (it didn’t). Instead, a good 25 degrees, it made for a relaxing bathe as I waded in and let the silt on the lake’s bottom bubble up through my toes. Other than the sounds of paddling, all was quiet. It was a kind of visual silence more restful than staring at the sky.
The ride to Badacsony had been vivid. There is something gorgeous about a vineyard landscape, a sense of the fineness of life being nurtured mysteriously but abundantly all around you. I had stopped off to buy some grapes for elevenses at a makeshift roadside stall, devouring them pips and all in my thirst and hunger faster than seemed possible. Now, after my swim, it was lunchtime, and Badacsony’s fast-food industry was booming. Away from the lakefront, where the promenade stretched far out into the harbour and archaic chugging craft bore holidaymakers away on pleasure trips, wooden shacks with names like ‘Alapozó Falatozó’ had hot-cabinets with food that intrigued: not cheeseburgers or hotdogs but glistening rusty-coloured wurst, pork knuckles, roast gooseliver, breaded carp with tails and head intact. Elderly Hungarians, men with ex-pugilist faces and brushed back white hair, women with chunky arms and hair a peroxided fluff, stood in tobacco-smoke canopied queues. They were waiting, I saw, for langyos, deep fried slabs of volcanically bubbling dough served on fat-stained paper and topped with sour cream and grated cheese. The nutritionist in me protested, but the traveller won, for there is something vaguely uplifting about the Hungarian indifference to health. With their fiery liquor, noxious black coffee, fat-saturated foods and ever present tobacco, they have a dashing and devil-may-care quality, as though galloping out defiantly at the massed cannons of heart disease, emphysema and thrombosis, with never a thought for the danger.
It was in Badacsony that I went to the house of Jószef Egry, a local painter who died in and devoted his whole life to capturing Balaton’s every mood: Balaton sundering husbands from wives who wring their hands futilely by the harbour as the lake, like a devouring mistress, claims their men. Balaton in Autumn, the only living, unblemished thing in a devastated landscape, or Balaton at dusk, when the sun’s descent evokes not a twee celebration of accidental beauty but a hint of horrors to come. Fishermen, some doomed to return as dangling corpses, huddle anonymously on its banks, dwarfed and marginalised by the torrid expanse of the eternal lake which becomes, in the next painting, a miraculously reviving source of light. Egry’s work not only enriches your trip round the lake – which has as many moods as the sea does – but is also an object lesson in how much can be extracted from just one thing.
Badascony, with its promenade and hillside wine-cellars, was a civilised place, though it was difficult to imagine what would remain were all the tourist cafes removed. Would all Balaton’s villages and towns seem so centreless, so dismantlable?
Luckily, after a day’s cycling from Badacsony, past formal geranium-striped gardens with their national memorials and swans bobbing at the lakeside, I came to Keszthely, a student town, and all my more optimistic visions were realised. Keszthely was exactly what I’d been hoping for from Balaton – one of those elegantly faded spa-towns, with fountains, tree-lined pedestrian avenues, and neo-classical architecture, a blend of gourd-like pillars, facias cherubbed and garlanded, turrets like phoenix eggs. Faded and with a pleasing patina of neglect, it is town-planning whose sophistication and almost masochistic idealism has now passed onto other things – the shining silver trays at the cafes, with their shotglasses of fizzy water and delicate finger jugs of milk, or the striated gateaux (on one I counted thirteen separate layers) or the crisp efficiency of the waiting staff. Keszthely was the consummate place for sitting and writing postcards and feeling, as your pen scratched and the ornate fountains whispered and gurgled and the whipped cream capsized into your hot sugared coffee, that you were living in a dream of Central Europe.
But in eery descant to the place, though somehow integral to Hungary’s inner tensions, was the spiked dome of the Festetics Palace at the end of the street. It rose up atavistically, glowering over the café civilisation beneath it, as if poised for disembowelment, reminding you of influences far steelier and less Sacher-ine than those that had hailed from its Austrian neighbour. Of all the things I saw in Hungary, it was the least Western. It made you think of Emirs and impalement. Behind the heel clicking urbanity of the Habsburgs, the Ottoman past was glaring implacably through.
But it did not glare for long. Keszthely was a model of refinement, whether in the old ladies gossiping in a hush as they cracked the glaze on their Dobos torte, or the besuited university students at an inauguration ceremony, unironically clapping their bald, gold-chain-garlanded professors on stage. The sense of the past reached its peak in the opening of the Keszthely annual wine festival, to which half the town seemed to have come in traditional costume. There were men in gold- buttoned black waiscoats, long white smocks, knee-high leather boots, hats from which peacock feathers curled jauntily. Scarved, white-stockinged women with floral bodices buzzed about, dispensing local wine from earthenware flagons. Men in Hussar uniform, dashing and splendidly moustached, sat on frisky steeds, occasionally reaching down to accept a mug of it. The Keszthelyers faces – which later might be under baseball caps and wraparound glasses – translated seamlessly to the past. Looking at them, nobody could doubt that they were the descendants of those 19th century revolutionaries and poets whose statues light up every Hungarian square, or of the pipe-smoking farmworkers and their stolid womenfolk depicted in many a Hungarian painting. The procession was more evocative than a visit to any history museum – yet to judge from the lack of attendant tourists, Keszthely – reassuringly – was doing this for no one but itself.
I cycled out of Keszthely the next day, knowing that I had almost certainly had the high point of my trip. It was correct – though I admired the affluence of Balatonfüred, another resort with five-star wellness hotels, a fleet of cabined yachts for hire, and its outdoor sofas each with a cashmere rug folded over the back in case of sudden chills, it seemed vapid after Keszthely’s rooted elegance. Instead, the high points were perverse and unexpected – drunkenly dancing in a run-down village bar with the friendly locals before weaving back on my bike to my lakeside tent, or watching, on rainy days, the fishermen in oil skins perched on metal benches which stand on stilts far out in the lake, battered by the spray. Finding myself in Szántód, a one-horse dorp of a place without an open bar, I enjoyed an evening by stretching out with salami and pear brandy in front of ‘Carry On Camping’ dubbed into Hungarian, Bernard Bresslaw and Kenneth Williams roaring at each other like Arpad chieftains.
The cycle route ran for days through lush backstreets, a genuine garden suburb, in which the houses looked as though they had been built in clearings chopped into the forest. On my left was the lake, blazing periodically through the trees, and on my right the railway line, along which archaic dusty red locomotives rattled and dirged. On fine days a fleet of yachts would sail out over the lake, evoking a Finno-Ugric Swallows and Amazons. And as if to reinforce the thought I was accompanied throughout my journey, if not by Amazons, then by Balaton’s housemartins, swooping up and down in front of me, or converging, at one point, in two vast clouds careering across the sky, the thousands of birds merging without mishap, seeming to explode together like the starbust of a firework.
Notwithstanding the endless variety of accommodation – tent, wellness hotel, wine lodge, hostel, private house – and the equally infinite gamut of Balaton’s moods, I found that the old rule held good: on any trip of more than a week, whole days merge together, moments evaporate from memory, while perhaps the atmosphere of just one afternoon is so strong that you will remember it forever. This came to me one Wednesday when the rain had stopped, leaving me to cycle in solitude through the lakeside avenues, breathing the smells of sodden pine needles and listening to my cycle wheels gurgle slowly through the puddles. I wondered, not for the first time, why of all parts of the world nowhere seems to do greenness better than Central Europe. Bottle green, ivy, lime, the green of Edwardian library walls, the toy bright colour of model steam engines. And, as if happy to conform with what nature has given them, Hungarians paint the gates, railings and postboxes green too, so that they look as if sprung from the same source. Alongside the Balatoni Körút, that endless garden city, the shades recur in lush symphonic cycles, motifed occasionally by trunks with white bark, red-berried bushes, ivy shadowing the ground and climbing mossy trees in great coppery autumnal wefts. And of course by the glimpses of Balaton itself, glimmering like fish-scales through the blackened pines.
That day I didn’t cycle on uninterrupted, but stopped my bike to listen. Through the blanket stillness came the scurring of crows, the hissing of the treetops, a strange periodic thocking sound and, in the distance, the sad, bright echo of the station panpipes jingle, greeting another train. All these sights and sounds stood out crystalline and vivid in the capsule of a wet, overcast afternoon, redolent of childhood, where they seemed to grow roots in the stillness, and exhale.
R.J.Markowski’s Budapest (the first of three chapters) can also be read on this site.
More of Guy Carpenter’s photos can be seen at: http://gullwingphotography.blogspot.co.uk/