Usha Subramaniam visits Héviz, famous for its thermal lakes, and immerses herself in its flourishing spa culture.

“It will rain tomorrow because strangely this summer, it rains every weekend and weekdays are sunny!” Robert’s prophetic words echoed in our minds as we opened up our umbrellas, determinedly setting out for Héviz, come driving rain or drizzle.

Héviz is near the southern half of the bean-shaped Lake Balaton in Hungary.

Last June, we were on a week’s vacation in the town of Keszthely (say Kes-Thei) situated on Balaton’s shore. For many of us Indians, Balaton is Europe’s best kept secret. We had neither heard about this — Central Europe’s largest and warmest freshwater lake — nor about the whole Balaton region’s varied offerings such as viticulture, water sports, picturesque landscape, geological marvels, biking, hiking, a flourishing spa culture and so on.

Robert worked at the hotel reception and doubled up, on occasions, as our trusty guide-cum-driver taking us during the week to view fantastic geological features that abound in the region — bizarre and jagged basalt cone of two-million-year-old volcano at Monoszló (say Mono-shlo), Lake Cave at Tapolca (say Tha-pol-cha) where we did boating in subterranean passages, followed by a dekko of the nearby quaint Tapolca Mill Pond, medieval castle ruins of Sümeg and Szigliget and the historic and quaint Tihany peninsula (say Thihan).

More water from the skies

Saturday, we took the bus to Héviz, located 5 km west of Keszthely, leisurely driving past the little village of Cserszegtomaj (say tho-MAI). The lush green countryside, dimpled with gentle sloping mounds, was dotted with lovely red-tiled homes awash in the steady rain. A picture perfect therapy for tired eyes.

Therapy is what Héviz — meaning “thermal water” in Hungarian — is famous for on the Continent, we learnt. Lake Héviz, the world’s second largest thermal lake and the largest one with curative properties in the world, has spawned a year-round thriving spa culture in the town. Right from the Roman era, health benefits of Lake Héviz have been known.

The mildly radioactive water contains dissolved gases and minerals, all beneficial for recuperating from rheumatic and nervous disorders, as well as post-operative recovery and loco-motor conditions. Treatments, backed by a 200-year tradition, range from mud-packs using medicinal mud from the lake-bed, wellness massages, weight baths for spinal and rheumatologic conditions, drinking cures for digestive problems and so on. Doctors recommend signing up for two to three weeks regulated therapy for maximum benefit. At the bus stop, we chanced upon a delightful mini-train that, making just four stops along the route, is an endearing way to get an overview of the neat little town. We passed by dozens of hotels, vacation homes, spas and sanatorium, not to forget low wooden structures, evocative of 19th century architectural style — as in “Island Bath” on Keszthely’s lake-shore, built on stilts over the steaming waters of the lake.

Imposing wooden twin turrets rose above the main entrance. Beyond, we glimpsed at the geological wonder that is Lake Héviz. What an ethereal sight it is to see vast wisps of steam silently twisting up from the lake which is encircled by tall pines, firs and other trees of dense protected forests. Despite the steady drizzle, people were swimming, or rather, bobbing with floats. Not surprising, since the water temperature ranges between 24˚C in winter to 35˚C in summer.

Lilies from India!

Lake Héviz is constantly fed by warm waters from a spring cave 38-metres deep on the peat bed. Its 4.4 ha of water surface is dotted with water lilies whose large round leaves slow down evaporation. We learned later that these warm water lilies had been brought from India in 1898 and the fuchsia-coloured Red Indian water lily adapted to the lake and has become symbolic of Lake Héviz!

Sundown meant we had to return to our base in Keszthely. However, in our hearts we swore to return and book ourselves into a two or three week therapy which, considering our advancing years, looks do-able in the not too distant future.