Lake Balaton in Hungary is Central Europe’s largest freshwater lake
I almost thought the glossy Hungarian Tourism brochure was custom-written for our visiting Indian group. The introduction to the country began by quoting a celebrated Indian writer-poet. “I have seen almost all the countries of the world but I saw nowhere such a beautiful harmony of the sky and the water than that I had the privilege to enjoy on the shore of Balatonfured filling my soul with rapture.” It was Rabindranath Tagore who had famously said this while visiting Hungary and it’s been a favourite quotable-quote, now happily used by their tourism industry. As an Indian I was overwhelmed at the honour accorded to one of our own and Balatonfured, the town Tagore had poetically admired, had to be on my itinerary.
Balaton is Central Europe’s largest freshwater lake, the sheer vastness giving it the fitting sobriquet of ‘Hungarian Sea’. By this lakeside stands Balatonfured, a charming all-season town and weekend destination. A host of adventure activities, including yachting and ice skating add to its popularity quotient. It’s here that Tagore arrived in October 1926, not as a tourist but a patient.
He had been invited to Budapest for a poetry-reading convention and its gruelling schedule is said to have taken a toll on his health. Doctor advice brought him to Balatonfured’s State Heart Hospital, where he spent a few weeks on his way to recovery.
On a pleasant evening I arrive in the town. It’s tranquil, pretty, and has that comforting coastal air. A string of lakeside shops are selling Hungarian souvenirs, and they prefer the local currency forint over the euro. Someone’s trying his hand at the accordion. A trio of elders and children are enjoying feeding ducks. A young man is being taught the art of angling. Don Williams’ ‘It’s gotta be magic’ is playing in the background and the endearing bass-baritone truly adds magic to the town’s merry mood.
An etching of Tagore's verse and its Hungarian translation
My interest lies in Tagore and soon I’m standing beside his sculpted bust, installed under the linden tree he is said to have planted. It’s in an open garden parallel to another dedication to him: the leafy Tagore Setany (promenade) running along the banks of Lake Balaton. In the garden I notice saplings planted by the who’s who of Indian politics. There’s Digvijaya Singh, his Opposition colleague Sushma Swaraj and a host of others. It’s Gurudev who’s brought them all here and shrunk the distance between Balatonfured and Delhi. A few metres from the promenade, across the quiet Gyogy Ter (square), is the heart hospital where he was treated. Here, too, the Nobel laureate’s memory has been lovingly preserved and Room no. 220, I’m told, has been designated the status of Tagore memorial and still carries his nameplate. Its interiors too have been left as were.
The sun’s dipped and as I move towards the lake’s pier — its entry guarded by two striking sculptures of the Fisherman and the Ferryman — all I can see is the vastness of blissful blue. The water and sky blur to create a harmonious, painterly dome. I stand mesmerised. I realise I’ve experienced my Tagore moment!
Over 800 years old, Balatonfured shows influences of Roman and Ottoman conquests, and walking through town acquaints me with architectural gems. One of these is the Kerektemplom or Round Church, from the middle of the 19th century, in neo-classical style. As I wander I come across another dedication to India. As chance would have it, Hungarian-Indian painter Amrita Sher-Gil’s retrospective is on view at Vaszary Kavezo, an elegant villa from the Reform Era that’s now an arts centre. It’s for the first time I’m viewing original works and memorabilia associated with the painter. I learn she lived a vivacious life. A quote by her — an extract from a letter to her friend — stays with me: “I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque… India belongs only to me.”
A retrospective of Hungarian-Indian artist Amrita Sher-Gil at the Vaszary Kavezo art centre
Quite distinctively, Balatonfured is among those few places in the world that have been a spa destination for centuries. The reputed healing qualities of its carbonated spring waters have since early-1700 cured many an affair of the heart and soul! In 1971 it was officially declared the country’s first health resort-town and year-through attracts visitors from around the globe. Hungary boasts over a thousand hot springs. “Earth’s history is mystery,” tour guide Andras Vereckei begins in his deep voice. “The geological features of the Carpathian Basin have made the earth’s shell very thin, resulting in waters rising easily to the surface,” he explains, adding, “The local yarn says, push a stick into the ground anywhere in Hungary and curative water would spring through!” I give myself a health boost by sipping a bit of the famed natural spring water from the Kossuth Lajos drinking hall on Gyogy Ter. The taste is acidic.
What makes Balatonfured further unique is its micro-climate. Known as the Land of Triple Sunshine, it’s believed the warmth emanates from the sun, the sunlight reflected by the water and the core of the earth. This favourable temperature has made it Hungary’s top wine-producing region and fetched it the title of International Town of Grapes and Wine in 1987.
Hilltop restaurants of wineries serve local specialities and offer unrivalled views of the shimmering lake beyond the verdant vineyards. The Szent Donat cellar-restaurant at Csopak village is one of the best in business and this is where I spent a lovely evening, attending a wine-tasting session, relishing a fare of goat cheese salad, pasta, and a typical Hungarian dessert of sweet quark cheese dumpling. I’m not a wine person and the quenchers that get my vote were the outstanding lavender and elderberry cordials. The subtlety of flavours was excellent and a perfect wrap to an enriching day spent by the shores of the Balaton.
(Published on October 10, 2013 in The Hindu Business Line)