Lake Balaton represents one of the greatest environmental treasures and a unique ecological fortune of Hungary. Its popularity results from the favorable climate and the nice landscape surrounding the lake.
According to legend, long ago, in times before history began, giants lived in the most beautiful parts of the world, which the good Lord had created in his joy. One of them, named Balaton, spent his everyday life on the spacious uplands of the Hungarian Badacsony with his daughter, Haláp. They were on good terms with the people who lived at the foot of the hill. Halap even had a playmate among them. The young human girl, however, soon grew up and left her giant playmate forever. Haláp became overwrought with sorrow because of her loneliness and she died. While Balaton was building a tomb to bury his daughter, he found a large stone. As he lifted it, he lost his balance and was buried beneath it. Water gushed forth from beneath the stone and just flowed, unstoppable. One day, people woke up and found a gently waving lake rocking the rays of the Sun at the foot of the mountains. This large water has been called Balaton ever since. People (over a million every year) often come to visit this ‘memorial’ today, which is in fact Central Europe's largest freshwater lake. They often tend to fall in and out of love here, too – this might be because of the spirit of the place. They enjoy the lake’s silky milky green water and the millions of programs offered on its shore. On any summer day, there are more than a hundred thousand people either on or in the lake. The region around Lake Balaton is also a tourist stronghold and a significant factor in the national economy, comprising approximately one-third of the country’s tourism income. As Hungary is landlocked, Lake Balaton is the Hungarians’ substitute for a coastline and therefore often called the ‘Hungarian Sea.’
Facts and figures
The more or less 10,000 year old lake is 77 kilometers long and has a surface of 600 square kilometers. It comprises about 1,800 million cubic meters of water. At average water level, the shore stretches for 195 kilometers. The Northern and the Southern shores are different in terms of their geography and as a result, they offer different experiences. The Northern shore is more romantic and richer in natural treasures. Almost the whole area belongs to the Balaton Uplands National Park. The Southern shore attracts those who fancy beaches with shallow water as well as a wide selection of events. The lake is the widest between Aliga and Almádi with a breadth of 12 kilometers, while the Tihany-Szántód strait narrows to 1.1 kilometers. Ferry services operate here, providing a quick way to cross the lake ‘by car’. The section between Révfülöp and Balatonboglár is of medium width – 5.2 kilometers – which is perfectly satisfactory for the cross-lake swimming contest held here each summer. The water is three meters deep on average. The deepest point, up to 12 meters, can be found at the tip of the Tihany peninsula, at Tihanyikut. The average water temperature during the summer is 25°C. Regarding water quality, Lake Balaton easily stands comparison even with Alpine lakes. In the middle of the lake, the water is of drinking quality. The Lake Balaton region is part of three different counties and involves 41 settlements situated right on the lakeside and 123 nearby. The Zala River provides the largest inflow of water to the lake, and the canalized Sió is the only outflow. Tourism in the region is based on a variety of activities, including biking, hunting, horse-riding, angling, sailing and extreme sports – not to mention wine, conference and farm-house tourism.
The German factor
While a few settlements at LAke Balaton, including Balatonfüred and Hévíz, have long been resort centers for the Hungarian aristocracy, it was only in the late 19th century that the Hungarian middle class began to visit the lake. The construction of railways in 1861 and 1909 increased tourism substantially, but the post-war boom of the 1950s was exponentially larger. During the 1960s and 1970s, Balaton became a major tourist destination for ordinary working Hungarians and especially for subsidized holiday excursions for union members. It also attracted many East Germans and other residents of the Eastern Bloc. West Germans could also visit, making Balaton a common meeting place for families and friends separated by the Berlin Wall. Germans still make up 30% of the tourists visiting Balaton.
The fine climate and the exquisite soil made the area around Lake Balaton one of the most significant pillars of Hungarian wine (almost exclusively white varieties) production. Balaton-felvidék (Balaton Highland) is where fiery, full-bodied white wines are produced. On the volcanic slopes of Badacsony, Pinot Gris (szürkebarát), Olaszrizling (Italian riesling) and a local white variety Kéknyelû are produced. The Balatonboglár-Kõröshegy area is best known for its light fruity wines made from Irsai Olivér, Királyleányka, Chardonnay varieties. Riesling and cabernet sauvignon are the most popular wines produced in the Csopak-Balatonfüred Wine region, while Tihany is noted about its Merlot. If you want to learn about and – most importantly – taste all the wine types produced around Lake Blaton, visit the House of Balatonian Wines in Keszthely or one of the wine festivals. In September - October, almost every settlement around the lake has a harvest festival.
41 of Hungary's 76 species of fish live in this lake. Balaton’s top predatory and most special fish is the pike-perch, which likes the stony bottom of the lake. Its boneless and absolutely lean flesh is snow-white and has an excellent flavor. Yet, Balaton’s most well-known fish is carp, with several types represented in the lake. They can even weigh up to 25 kilograms. Pike is the greediest of all Balaton’s predators; they can swallow another fish of the same breed that is only a little smaller. Other species include eels, slimy tench, crucian, silver and flat bream. Not surprisingly, fish dishes dominate the cuisine in restaurants and inns around Lake Balaton. The celebrated fish soup fully deserves its international reputation.
Lake Balaton is popular for sailing and for sailing races. The Blue Ribbon Regatta, the oldest, most traditional and longest roundthe- lake race in Europe is one of the most
important in the yachting calendar. Each year, a record number of sailing boats enter for the 145-kilometer contest to break the 10 hour 40 minute record set in 1955.
Protruding deep into the lake, Tihany Peninsula, the first landscape protection area to be created in Hungary, has a great wealth of natural treasures. Because of the picturesque location and the typical, slightly Mediterranean atmosphere, foreign tourists rarely miss Tihany when they come to Lake Balaton. The settlement and its surrounding area have been inhabited since prehistoric times. Dated 1055, the first written reference concerning Tihany is the famous deed of foundation of the local Abbey. This is the oldest written linguistic record of the Hungarian language; its original is kept in the Pannonhalma Abbey. In the middle of the 11th century, King Andrew I invited Benedictine monks to Tihany and ordered the building of the church and its monastery. The king's grave is in the Romanesque undercroft of the present two-towered Baroque style church, which hosts frequent organ concerts in summertime. Relics of the cultural heritage and civilization, reminiscent of the Abbey's golden age, are exhibited in the Benedictine Abbey Museum. The 18th-century houses of the Open-air Ethnographic Museum, the traditional rural houses of Ófalu and the Potter’s House evoke the life of fishermen. The city's most noted phenomena used to be the Tihany Echo. The walls of the Abbey reverberated words shouted from the top of Visszhang (‘Echo’) Hill. Unfortunately, due to changes in the landscape, the echo has almost entirely disappeared.
There is a small oval lake in the inner part of the peninsula, the Inner Lake. A special
feature of the local climate is that it allows figs to ripen as often as three times a year, but even more famous is the lavender, first planted in the 1920's and then spread all over. An interesting fact is that Tihany's inhabitants have the highest per capita income in the region, and the town has the highest housing prices in the whole of Hungary.
Goat Hooves, another legend
The story goes that a princess who owned golden- fleeced goats, was too proud and hard of heart so she was cursed by the king of the lake: her goats were lost in Balaton, only their nails remained, and she was obliged to answer to every passers-by. A stone, remembering the Shouting Girl, is still to be seen near the village. The waters of the lake continue washing the goat hoof-shaped shell points out of the clay around. These hooves are of course shells, or more precisely the smooth, worn off remains of the Congeria ungula caprae shells, which lived approximately 5 million years ago in the gradually sweetening waters of the Pannonian inland sea.