Our starting point was the car park of a lookout spot, above the village of Balatonvilágos and the shore of the lake that gave it its name. We had been dropped here with our bikes, and if everything went to plan, we would arrive back in five days’ time having completed our journey around the lake. It was a trip that had its origins in family memory. A grandmother’s story. A father’s tale of peaches and grief. A magazine article from another century. It was a long time coming.
We had never made a multi-day ride before, and although our daily distances were gentle, we set off with no little trepidation because we had no idea what to expect. It was early summer, and as we made our last preparations to leave at the lookout spot, the air was soft and hazy above the lake, the white sails of the boats down on the water seemingly viewed through a filter.
Our journey was to take us around Lake Balaton in a clockwise direction, and so our first day was spent along the southern shore, taking in holiday resorts and sleepy residential communities, passing caravan parks and bathing beaches, and all the infrastructure that has long made this one of Hungary’s most popular tourist destinations. Balaton means many things to many people, its resorts, villages, towns and camping grounds full of the memories of long summer days and nights.
During the Cold War, German families divided by the Wall and a border through the heart of their country could come together at the lake. Love stories that straddled the iron curtain began with a view across the water. Those days are long gone, but as we rode through the resorts with their strips of cafes, bars and hotels, it was evident the Germans were still coming in large numbers to join their Hungarian counterparts on the southern shore. We joined them at lunch time, finding kiosks to order Lángos and cans of shandy as deep-fried and low-alcohol fuel for the second half of a day of riding. At a bathing beach we locked up the bikes and went for a swim to the sound of Europop from a bar that had been built beneath a straw roof. It was quiet that day, but the season was coming. You could feel it.
After two days of riding, we reached the lake’s western end, and headed inland for the spa town of Hévíz, where visitors walked the narrow streets in their dressing gowns and sandals, moving between their hotel and the thermal lake. Here, the language we heard most of all was Russian, and the boutiques and stores of the town were distinctly more upmarket than those we’d passed by in the resorts over the previous few days.
The journey’s character changed again once we’d returned to the lake and turned onto the north shore. Whereas the southern side of the Balaton had been pancake flat, here the volcanic hills and the vineyards on their slopes ran down to the water’s edge. We followed the Roman road as it circled Badacsony between the vines. That evening we drank wine on a terrace overlooking the lake. It seemed so peaceful and calm, as it had for most of the ride so far, during which the only change in the lake was the colour of the water, depending on the time of day and what was happening overhead.
But earlier that day, having struggled to the top of an outcrop where a chapel commanded a view across the whole of the western end of the lake, we learned about how the Balaton could be fierce. The chapel had been built to give thanks for the survival of forty fishermen who had been caught on the ice in the 18th century and saved by a sudden, miraculous change in the wind. Six of their colleagues were not so lucky, and the small church had been built in their memory as well.
We kept riding and kept collecting stories. At the Tihany peninsula we rode up another hill to a village built around a huge Benedictine abbey and which smelled so completely of lavender it would come to us again at any point in the future when we caught the scent on the breeze. We wondered if you got used to it, living up there on the hillside. But it didn’t seem to put off the locals, for this was the richest village in Hungary, with the highest house prices in the country.
Our last night on the lake was spent in Balatonfüred, in a huge hotel built in communist times and which remained strikingly redolent for those who experienced and remembered those days, and even for those of us who only had possession of the memories second hand. We strolled through the town on aching legs, moving through the grand clinics and spa grounds where people have been coming to take the waters for hundreds of years. We wondered idly whether they might help with our own aches and pains, but decided instead for a table by the water and some more of the wine made from grapes grown on the slopes outside of town.
And all too quickly, our journey around the lake was over. There was one final climb, back to the lookout point where it had all begun and from where we had freewheeled almost the first kilometre of our journey. Our trepidation had been unfounded, and the sad part was that we were just getting into our daily rhythm when it was all over. At the lookout point we cast our eyes over Balaton once more. It would have been impossible for the lake to live up to expectations that had been built through the memories of others who had experienced this place in another time and through other eyes.
We did not find the sweet peaches. But we found plenty to take with us, the stories of the shore and of the towns and villages we rolled though, the landscape we crossed and the lake that was always in sight, off to the right, over our shoulders.
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton