Revisiting Balaton

In times ancient and long-forgotten I spent a short holiday in Csopak, lake Balaton,  Hungary. The place was in the past a trades union hotel, subsidized for workers. For those of you not familiar with this concept this is when they give the workers something fairly good and cheap or free to distract them from the thought that life could be better. This was the old system which in some ways worked and in some ways didn’t. Under the present system, the subsidies go straight to the bosses to boost profits and the workers see none of it.
When recently I had the opportunity to visit again I was curious to see how much the place has changed, along with so much else. The first impression of the hotel was that it had been lovingly refurbished, in I guess about 1978. The large name on the wall said Oliday Hotel the change to a capitalist system perhaps having been too much for the absconding letter H. I suppose the signs of the way the wind was blowing were there when I first stayed. You could order the capitalist breakfast which meant you got an extra fried egg. In fact, the Holiday Hotel (perhaps I should say Oliday) was fine in a sort of “Communist” chic way. It is very near the waterfront, nice enough dining room and grounds. Csopak is famous for its wine particularly olaszrizling. Nice to sit out on the hotel’s terrace with a glass or two.
“Since July 2020, Csopak or Csopaki wine has become a European protected designation of origin (PDO).” (WOW Hungary) There are wine festivals in August and it is good wine and cheap. There was a festival while I was there which was pretty good although the wine was considerably more than you would pay in wine bars or the hotel. Unfortunately, this tends to be the nature of these things though I have to say it’s still cheap. Nice atmosphere as well.
Probably the most noticeable thing for me was the way they have privatized the waterfront. There are turnstiles with ticket checking. The hotel gives you a ticket but you can only use it once a day which means you have to plan logistically. You can go on after 5 pm without a ticket but of course, it’s getting cooler then. There are bars and restaurants that open to the street and the waterfront but you can’t sneak through, I tried. So if you forget your sunglasses you can’t go back for them. Of course, you could buy new ones, perhaps that’s part of the point. Trouble is you end up going home with fourteen pairs. I do object to the privatization of public space a friend told me that in Italy it is virtually impossible to access the beach. The Balaton is going the same way. I get sick of places that try and squeeze every penny out of you.
In the hotel, we had to book a full board. Now the full board is not normally something I would normally go in for. Apart from anything else, it takes away the fun of looking for little interesting restaurants. You always feel you should get your money’s worth. This leads you to the temptation to eat too much. You end up taking your beach body, perhaps in my case dockside body, home to find its doughnut-shaped, again. The food was fine, although by English standards not as piping hot as you might like. Hungarians tend to eat their food at a cooler temperature. Of course, if you don’t get there at the get-go things cool down even more so you need sharp elbows to be at the front of the queue. On the whole, the food was fine. Just for a bit of a change, I did have an excellent hot dog at one of the lakeside bars and an excellent hamburger, expensive by Hungarian standards at another place. In fact very expensive, when did hamburgers get expensive? They also brought the highest-priced smallest can of bee I think I have ever seen. This I promptly threw back at them and got a proper one at a sensible price. At the price they were asking it must have been made from virgins’ tears and filtered through golden Yak hair. We had turned up at another place that sang to us, at about dinner time to be told that the kitchen was shut even though there seemed to be plenty of people eating.
I sometimes, (often) wonder at Hungarian customer service. They too often seem to resent your presence, perhaps a hangover from the Stalinist past. The rooms at the hotel were OK with a little balcony. The first night a TV was blasting out in the neighboring room at 12 pm so we banged on the wall. Not too hard as they didn’t appear to be very robust. The TV was switched off. Unfortunately, this allowed us to hear the full repertoire of coughing from the other side followed by stentorian snoring from the room that the TV noise had come from. But, as with everything you adapt. The Balaton itself is well worth a visit. It is very shallow, 9 to 12 meters at its deepest, and you can wade out what seems like miles without getting out of your depth. This is great if you learning to swim or if like me you’re not that buoyant and have a tendency to sink.
There are cycle paths all around the lake and places are not far apart if you want to explore. Don’t risk the roads Hungarian drivers view cyclists like bulls view matadors. You can eat at excellent fish restaurants. However, the fish are freshwater types which seem very bony after sea fish but if you don’t choke yourself you’ll get used to them. These days the lake has massif Chinese catfish which are not my favorite. I prefer the Pike Perch which is often served curled up in a half-moon shape.
One of the highlights for me was when we hired a yacht, with an instructor, and I had my first ever go at sailing. I managed not to hit anything and got us back in one piece. Its a cool experience and highly recommended, although it’s traditional, I would advise staying off the rum though. The lake is clean and a good place for family holidays. Not only that it’s cheap as well. Don’t let your kids swallow the fish bones. Enjoy. (Alan Durant, 2021)
Írás nekik: Alan Durant