Tucked away in Hungary, Usha Subramaniam discovers Keszthely, a cyclist’s paradise that has plenty of history as well

Keszthely (Kes-thei) situated on Lake Balaton’s shore in Hungary has its origins in the Latin ‘castellum’ or castle, and there’s one built by the Romans at Fenekpuszta nearby. Its partially excavated ruins, a basilica, warehouse and gate, can still be seen. But we learnt of this much later, so we missed seeing it. Keszthely is one of those rare places now on which online info is sparse. All we garnered from Google before our one-week summer vacation there was that biking holidays around Keszthely are exceedingly popular and the mosquitoes gigantic!

Initially swamped with disappointment at ‘wasting’ a week in a seemingly one-horse town of just 21,000 people, I realised our fears were unfounded. The second biggest town of the Balaton region after Siófok, Keszthely offers an array of interests: 200 km of hiking trails in Keszthely Hills, bird watching, water sports, gastronomy, winery visits, biking, history, to name a few. Not just Arcadian charms, we sampled castles and unusual geological phenomena. So much so, we ended up wanting to extend our stay.

Keszthely’s star attraction is the ineffably placid 77 km long, bean-shaped Balaton Lake, the largest in Central Europe. Average water temperature in summer is a comfortable 24°C. The southern half, being extremely shallow and safe for bathers of all ages, is popular with families; the northern half, we were told, is great for swimmers. Balaton is popular with Germans, Austrians and, more recently, Britons. That one-third of Hungary’s tourism revenue comes from Balaton is not surprising; peak season (July-August) sees the region’s population climb by 1-2 million. Thankfully, we vacationed just before this.

The 200 km of cycle tracks encourage pollution-free access, connecting all villages around the lake. Bicycle tourism is exceedingly popular in Hungary, which has over 2000 km of cycling tracks. We were perhaps the only family hiring taxis instead of bicycles.

A little three-coach Keszthely Tourist toy-train winds its way along the town’s streets. Particularly enchanting was a little red, two-coach train running on tracks, often parallel to the road, laid barely a few meters from the lake. Branching off Main Square is Keszthely’s shopping haunt, a quaint little tree-lined Pedestrian Street named Kossuth Lajos Utça (utça means street) dotted with historic neo-Baroque buildings. We found coffee shops, museums, eateries and ‘TourInform’ bureau, currently housed in the former Town Hall.

Pedestrian Street leads to Festetics (Fes-te-teech) Palace, now under Hungary’s Ministry of Culture, once home to seven generations of the aristocratic Festetics family. We were given large cloth slippers to wear over our shoes to protect the wooden flooring. The tour unfolded lavishly furnished rooms in blue, red, yellow, gold, green, white, even deep pink! From a modest 34 rooms in 1745, the Baroque mansion gradually expanded to become Hungary’s third largest with 101 rooms, with rich oakwood staircase, panelling, chandeliers and portraits. Helikon Library, established by Count Gyorgy Festetics has 90,000 volumes, with many centuries-old first editions.

‘Medieval Horse-Riding Show at Castle Sümeg’ (Shu-meg) in Veszprem County piqued our curiosity. Robert, our driver-guide-cum-receptionist, took us to a castle looming high above a hill, with a tumultuous 750-year history of having been burnt down time and again by Turkish and Austrian invaders and rebuilt several times. Warmly welcomed with a shot of peach pálinka, a traditional Hungarian brandy, we were taken to a large indoor arena for an enactment of gallantry and weaponry skills by horsemen clad in medieval costumes. The show was rounded off with a meaty, medieval dinner, sans cutlery, in keeping with the theme. Next morning, Robert halted briefly at Szépkilátó (szép=nice, kilátó=view) which affords one of the most beautiful panoramas of unspoilt Balaton. The serene vista echoed with silence of times long gone.

The 440 m high mountain of Badascony (Bada-choi) rose abruptly across the lake, now but a mute reminder of a volcanic mountain. Home to rare flora and fauna, Badascony is famous for viniculture dating back to Roman times. The full-bodied character and taste of its wine is unique owing to its strategic location near the warm lake and basalt mountain’s soil. Next was Szigliget (Tseegli-get) Fortress in Veszprem County atop Castle Hill, an island until 200 years ago. Built in 1260 by Benedictine monks, the border fortress changed hands dozens of times in a turbulent 750-year history, never once succumbing to Turkish invaders. Here, too, a gripping show in medieval garb was on for schoolchildren.

We climbed the steep pathway, past cannons, bastions, crumbling stone walls and chapel to the very top. The oldest ruins, now called King Tower, commemorate King Bela IV, fondly regarded as Hungary’s “second founder of the kingdom”. From above, a bucolic landscape unfolded before our eyes — a church steeple nestling among trees, neat rows of red-brown tiled houses, Badascony and blue Balaton... The scenery was enough to make poets of us all.