The guesthouse owner looked incredulously at us as we dismounted from the minivan and it became clear that it wasn’t ours. We’d gotten the same slightly suspicious glances a few years back when we’d arrived in Giardini Naxos, Sicily, in the same carless state. Crazy, crazy folk. We’d approached Szigliget by train, on the slow, snaking route that is still only partially electrified. In between Budapest and Székesfehérvar, panic struck, as several groups of students and day trippers were planning to get off at Lake Velence. Our train did not stop at Velence. On paper, it’s an express train. In practice, it grinds to a near halt as it reaches the northern shore of Lake Balaton and proceeds towards Tapolca at a leisurely pace, like old joggers in the park, happy to be moving at all.
Everything I know about the famous Balaton summers comes from the nostalgic memories of friends and looking out the window of a train. It’s almost as if fragments of these memories would come alive as we get fleeting glimpses of resorts and villages with vaguely familiar names. Semi crowded beaches with tanned men in speedos. Stands selling ice-cream, lángos or hekk (European hake), families queuing with kids sticky from sunscreen and candy floss stuck to their faces. Motionless fishermen sipping Sopronis and listening to their radios blasting the latest domestic hits I cannot identify. Socialist summer retreats in disrepair, their stone skeletons slowly reclaimed by vegetation.
As we approached the station of Badacsonytördemic-Szigliget, the train became almost deserted. Most passengers got off at the more popular resorts, we were left with a few sleepy locals and hikers ready to take on the Badacsony bit of the Kéktúra (Blue Tour), the 1169 kilometre long hiking trail which connects Írott Kő, on the Austrian border with Hollóháza, on the Slovakian one. This distant corner of the Balaton was so alien to me, that when I called for the infamous minivan, I half hesitated over where to land the accent in Badacsonytördemic, a particularly daft thing to do, since accent is highly regular in Hungarian. Our friendly driver had problems of his own: no GPS and only a faint knowledge of where our desired address would be. He solved this conundrum admirably, by quickly calling his own private GPS, Lacika, who gave faultless directions to our destination.
Szigliget lies on a small peninsula between the Badacsony mountain and Keszthely, and, as its name attests it, was at one point an island, which became fully connected to the mainland in 1822, when the shores of the lake were regulated. Its most famous attraction is the castle, perched atop a hill overlooking the village. It dates back to the 13th Century, and offers wonderful views of the surrounding landscape, the lake on one side, and the Badacsony on another.
The best way to describe Szigliget in its pandemic limbo is a very sleepy and uneventful corner of paradise. The Shire, before Bilbo sets out and finds the ring. The vegetation is lush, vivid, fresh green punctuated by poppies aflame in the sun, swathes of lavender and roses in candy cane shades of pastel. This southern tip of the Balaton is where the dry temperate climate meets the wet temperate one, typical of Mediterranean regions, and Szigliget evidently shows the influence of the latter. All is alive, yet nothing really happens. During our two day stay we met (and were mostly unable to photograph, since nature photography is as alien to us as to the camera crew of The Grand Tour) foxes, lizards, weasels, bats, storks, and moles. Human presence, especially around the hot hours around noon, is minimal. The distant crackling of a TV set, as if bringing news from a parallel universe, unhurried workers fixing one of the village’s typical thatched roofs, a couple of elderly shoppers fretting over the type of sour cream to buy in the one of the two local stores.
A good way to discover the village is a walk along the three roads (Kossuth, Réhelyi and Soponyai) that run around it like a belt. We started our trek clockwise from the foot of the castle, bumped into the ruins of the Avasi church (dating back to the 12th Century) and climbed up to the vantage point atop the small hill that was home to another fortification, known as Óvár (Old Fortress). This we did at sunset, without much intention, as we usually do, but it rewarded us with splendid views of the lake clad in hues of soft pink and burnt orange.
For those inclined towards lake bathing, there is a typical Balaton beach as well, but I politely kept my distance. My only sustained contact with the waters of the Balaton came during my one visit to the Balaton Sound festival, on July 10th, 2010, the day of the bronze medal match of the World Cup, disappointingly lost by my freshly discovered darlings, Uruguay. Perhaps under the spell of this unfortunate outcome, I decided never to repeat it again. Of much more interest is the already mentioned Badacsony. In Hungarian geological terms, it is a tanúhegy- witness mountain. The English name is the German Inselberg, or the Abenaki (Native American) monadnock. They all refer to an isolated hill or mountain which has survived surrounding erosion. The Badacsony was created by volcanic activity and at one point peaked out as an island from the slowly retreating Pannonian sea. As such, it is an excellent location for vineyards. Badacsony wines are typically white, the two most widespread varieties are the Riesling (Olaszrizling) and the Pinot Gris (Szürkebarát). Legend has it that the Hungarian name of the Pinot Gris comes from the monks of the Order of Saint Paul, who brought it from their homeland of France when setting up monasteries in the area. As this wine variety requires a lot of care, they would dirty their white habits while working in the vineyards, so the locals started calling them ‘szürke barátok’ (grey monks).
In hindsight, having a car might have allowed us to visit some vineyards (though most still had very fickle opening hours in the wake of pandemic closures) and explore more of the Badacsony itself. Perhaps even find a bar with a TV screen showing the Euros in Keszthely. But then again, if Bilbo had set out from the Shire to find the ring in a Toyota Land Cruiser, the whole story would have lost its magic.
The direct train Kék Hullám (Blue Wave) leaves every two hours, from 7:05 AM to 07:05 PM, from Déli station, the trip lasts three hours and tickets cost between 2000 and 3100 forints. While many places were still closed, or only partially open at the time of our visit, we had excellent food at Arany Patkó Kisvendéglő (Service is, however, a bit slow and occasionally clumsy, which could account for its not so brilliant reviews) and Kikötő Étterem in the port (Service is fast and polite even when we were the clumsy ones. Both incidents involved spilling Unikum). Right across the road from Kikötő, you can have some fine cocktails and try a number of Hungarian gins at Mérce. Our hosts at Mandula Kert Vendéghaz were friendly and helpful and the view to the garden comes complete with a flock of sheep. The castle is open every day, between 8 AM and 8 PM in high season (July and August), tickets cost 1000 forints. Should you be a silly carless traveler like us, you may reach out to Szigliget taxi for a ride (they might be a bit busy during high season, so it’s worth booking rides in advance.)