The sea of the Magyars

In a landlocked corner of Eastern Europe lies an area of rugged hills, medieval castles and the largest expanse of fresh water on the Continent. Rebecca Lowe discovers Hungary's Lake Balaton

What unites Arno Rubik, creator of the infamous cube, the Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertesz and Tony Curtis? They all holiday regularly beside the "Hungarian Sea" - or, as it appears on the map, Lake Balaton. The largest freshwater lake in Europe has a serene, unsullied charm - surrounded by vineyards, hills, beaches, ruined castles and picturesque villages.

From end to end Lake Balaton measures 87km, but it is never more than 13km wide. In the summer there are organised swims across it: between Revfulop and Boglar (5.2km) on the last Saturday of July, or Tihany and Balatonfured (3.6km) on the second Sunday of August. It is surprisingly shallow, which explains its popularity with families - close to its southern extent you can walk one kilometre out from the shore without getting out of your depth. At its deepest point, by the Tihany peninsula, the lake bed is just 11m from the surface; the average depth is just three metres.

This was once the place where the nobility of the Austro-Hungarian empire would go to escape the blistering heat of the city. These days things are a lot more democratic - it's only a three-hour drive from Vienna, and one from Budapest.

The Balaton population is fiercely protective of the region to the point of unabashed nationalism. Only Hungarians can buy houses outside the villages. Motorboats and net-fishing are banned on the lake, and there are strict controls on new properties. The hilly northern shore has escaped the indignities of high-rise development that have afflicted the flatter, sandier south. The north is, by common consent, the more attractive side (the joke goes that the only beautiful thing in southern Somogy is the view of Zala, a northern county).

The northern shore is distinguished by a group of "witness hills", who earned their moniker by standing sentry as the lake's water levels rose, and thanks to the remarkable panorama that unfolds from their summits. Evidence of their original volcanic formation comes in the shape of the "organ pipes", huge columns of basalt that flank the lake like giant curtains woven from stone. The brooding stature of the 437m Badacsony makes this hill the most visually impressive of the group.

Hungary may be predominantly a Catholic nation but at Balaton it is Bacchus who is the true deity. Two million tourists arrive in Badacsony every year to sample the delights of Szurkebarat (Grey Monk), Olasrizling, Zoldszilvani and Keknyelu. When asked to pick the region's best wine, one local replied: "Whatever we are drinking at the moment." When asked what was the worst, he replied: "No such thing." The wine is fruity and mellow, with a hint of Magyar spice. The secret apparently lies in the combination of volcanic rock, sub-Mediterranean climate and sunlight reflected from the water's surface.

The cultivation of vines has proved a point of unity for the Balaton during attacks by the Romans, Attila the Hun, the Serbs and the Turks. It was after the Mongol invasion in the 13th century that the Balaton region established its defences. Now, medieval castles can be found on many of the great hills on the lake's northern shore. Sumeg castle is situated at the meeting point of the Bakony Hills and the Lesser Plain: it appears in the distance from Route 84 like something from a stage set. Alternatively, visit the medieval citadel destroyed by explosives in 1702 in Szigliget, on top of Castle Hill.

Visit Badacsony at the end of July to experience its inimitable "wine days", when the specialities of Hungarian gastronomy are celebrated alongside 10,000 years of wine-making. Alternatively, go in mid-September during the wine harvest to witness the colourful display of folk-dancing, flag-throwing, wine-tasting and ox-roasting.

By comparison with its western counterparts, Hungary is excellent value for money: a three-course meal (including wine) costs £5-10. The food is meaty, flavoursome and substantial. Hungary was once the culinary capital of Eastern Europe, and has since been cooking its way out of the bland communist era. You can get much more than stews and plonk. The game roaming the Balaton countryside includes wild boar, stag, hare and fallow deer, and all appear on restaurant menus - as does the lake's unique fogas (pike-perch). And without the pogacsa (savoury scones), made from pork drippings, how would the wine be absorbed?

For the short time you will not be eating and drinking, take a trip to the house of Jozsef Egri, where you can examine the life and works of the most notable Hungarian artist to have painted the area. Then, once the salami has settled, venture to the lookout tower at the apex of the hill - but look out for the notorious Rozsako (Rose Stone, a dangerous place for all but the romantically inclined. Sit here with your loved one with your back to the lake and you will be married within the year.

Keszthely is the oldest town on Lake Balaton, and a site of faded grandeur. Here you find the beautifully proportioned Festetics Palace, once home to the Festetics family who used to own much of the area. Originally built on the site of a medieval castle in 1745, it was extended to an impressive 101 rooms in 1887. It now acts as a national cultural and political centre, and has the largest library in the country. Students arrive from all over the world to peruse its collection of 100,000 rare books - or for the classical music. Professional standard - yet very badly advertised - concerts are held at the palace all year: these cost about £2.50 for Hungarians, twice that amount for foreigners.

If you travel east along the northern shore you will get to Tihany, which sits at the narrowest part of the Balaton and has ferry crossings to Szantod. This peninsula was the first officially protected region in the country. It has a 700m "inner lake" (a favourite with anglers), a pastel palette of thatched buildings and a beautiful Baroque abbey built by the Benedictines in 1754. The village once held the oldest extant piece of Hungarian writing, the deed to a monastery founded on the lower hill 900 years ago. Today, only the Romanesque undercroft of the original temple can be seen.

Next to Tihany is Balatonfured. Although blighted by some grim-looking communist blocks, the town is saved by the Classical mansion of the 19th-century actress Lujza Blaha, the so-called "nightingale of the nation". Like many other places around Balaton, the remedial qualities of its carbonic acid spring have made it a popular destination for ailing travellers.

"Lake Balaton has no week days," said Jozsef Egri, the Hungarian Impressionist painter. He's right. This is the best place in the newly expanded European Union for an endless weekend.

SURVIVAL KIT

GETTING THERE

You can fly with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Malev (0870 9090 577; www.malev.hu) from Heathrow to Budapest; on Wizz Air (00 36 1470 9499; www.wizzair.com) and easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyJet.com) from Luton; and on SkyEurope (020-7365 0365; www.skyeurope.com) from Stansted.

GETTING AROUND

Trains and buses link the main towns, but a car makes life easier. You can take a tour of the lake, or travel by boat with the Balaton Shipping Company (00 36 84 310 050; www.balatonihajozas.hu).

STAYING THERE

For accommodation in the Badacsony area contact Miditourist (00 36 87 431 028; www.miditourist.hu). The Neptune Hotel and Pension, Romai Street 156, Badacsony (00 36 87 431 293) has rooms from £14 per person.

For accommodation in the Keszthely area contact Keszthely Tourist (00 36 83 312 031; www.huninfo.hu). The Hotel Helikon (00 36 83 311 330) has double rooms from around £60. In the Heviz Spa area Tourinform can book accommodation and travel (00 36 1 438 8080; www.tourinform.hu).

MORE INFORMATION

Hungarian Tourist Board: 020-7823 1032; www.hungary.com

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