Lake Balaton is the largest freshwater lake in all of this part of the world. Centuries of Budapestians have flocked to its turquoise waters as a paradisical respite from those long and sweltering Hungarian summer days. And unlike many of the lesser known places in the Hungarian periphery, Balaton has always been a hot spot for international vacationers as well. I’ve been four times myself and all I can honestly remember about the trips are the sunsets.
The First Sunset: Balatonaliga
I’d been looking forward to the Sziget festival all year but when August rolled around I found myself circumnavigating Sardegna instead. Luckily I returned to Budapest just in time for the very last session on the very last day of Sziget and my girlfriend Alexa had some free tickets from work.
For 10 days a deadly strain of festival virus had been coalescing on the isle of annual Danubian hedonism and my late arrival coincided perfectly with its sadistic vengeance. I suspect that our three hour stint in the dust ridden, laboratory experiment of a techno tent was responsible. And so I arrived to Lake Balaton for the first time in my life with an absolutely disastrous 3-week plague hanging over my neck like a god damned guillotine.
Balaton is encircled by a seemingly infinite collection of lake towns. The nearest to Budapest, Balatonaliga, is an hour long straight shot on the M7 if you drive fast. That’s where Danny’s family has a summer spot. It’s your classic Balatonian set up: a quaint triangular house with room for some futons and a kitchen plus the toilet. That’s all you really need when you are in Balaton. Most days at the lake are spent sunning, drinking, eating and bathing, well, at the lake.
It was dark and buggy as we arrived to Danny’s house and we sat down at a nut brown polished wooden table in his patio to quaff down some cold Sopronis and eat hard local cheese with freshly sliced paprika and good crusty bread. We cleaned out our late dinner with a couple of shots of Pálinka and headed off to bed.
My throat was beginning to swell and I broke out in deep sweats during the middle of the night. I was feeling the tickling trepidation of a hypochondriac press upon my soul as the night twisted its way into morning. The tossing and turning in between torturous fits of fever sleep was bloody useless and I decided to head down towards the lakeside to cool off as the sticky hours of early dawn arrived.
I rounded a corner, sped down a narrow stone path and finally laid first eyes on the whispering blue-green lake. Cattails jutted out into the hazy horizon while I listened to the early chatter of Balaton’s natural inhabitants. Some green domed ducks paddled out from the dock and an elderly woman bobbed up and down in her lilac swimming cap. I went back to the house to read a bit of Norse mythology before running a series of suicide sprints on Danny’s closely clipped, fenced-in side yard in my ultimately impotently attempt to burn off the bourgeoning virus.
Finally the others were up. We spent our day at the lake as my throat continued to swell. I was wheezing and uncomfortable and was already thinking about going home. We were licking wonderful lángos grease from our fingers and drinking cold Arany Ászok when I told them I was probably heading home soon.
“Stay for sunset mate,” Danny pressured me in his idiosyncratic Angol-Hungarian accent.
I listened to him. As the sun began to drop precipitously in the sky we commenced our game of headers in the lake. I was feeling generally miserable despite the picturesque setting and made my way back to the shore. Danny and Tom continued to head the ball back and forth back and forth back and forth. I grabbed my phone to take some pictures – the sunset was entering its final act.
Just as they had surpassed their previous record of 34 consecutive headers the world froze around me: two Hungarian teenagers grappled atop a bouncy, yellow inflatable with their friends watching on in the water below; a triangular sail ripped across the horizon; other heads dipped up and down around the volleyball net and a water polo goal. A family of four laughed by the cattails.
I waded through this stoic frame and there Tom and Danny were, paralyzed in ecstasy. Danny’s arms thrust through the water, carving out an aquatic arc through the sky. Tom’s head lashed back with an expulsion of bliss, our neon green soccer ball firmly in his clasp. I left them there like this, suspended in the rapturous red inferno of Balaton’s nightly fire show as I waded back and out of the pale green lake with my boiling throat throbbing in pain. Just in time to catch the last train back to Budapest alone.
The Second Sunset: Tihany
After Christmas time I headed back to Hungary and my first weekend back was Alexa’s birthday. We decided to spend a couple of days at the hotspring spa town of Heviz. Heviz is just past the far end of Lake Balaton, towards the north west corner of Hungary. It’s main attraction is the spa/bath house: an amphibious construction built on top of a circular, pond-like hotspring. We luxuriated in the thermal medicinal bounty of mother nature as my jet lag washed away and then we drove back home.
Our drive to Budapest took us through the peninsular village of Tihany. It was the middle of January and Tihany’s famous Lavender fields were dormant, but you could somehow still feel their presence through this conspicuous absence. We drove through the grey Hungarian winter, down a sloping road and suddenly small holiday houses dotted the hillsides. They were a collection of ants upon a mound, flooding over and scurrying across the tree scarred hills spread along the lake.
Exploring these hills we stumbled abandoned vineyard with overgrowth running rampant. There was a small hut at the bottom of the disheveled former residence that reminded me of the ice hut I knew back home. It looked unfinished: a crumbling tan layer of drywall fading away towards the top of the circular structure, culminating in a ring of exposed cracker bread. The yellow bricks jutted out in loose directions like the mottled teeth of a wicked giant. Thick red leaves with black veins framed the vine-laden arched opening of the hut.
We could continue back towards Budapest by taking the lake ferry. I thought it might be a sound option, but Alexa said that heading back along the northern bank of the lake would be be quicker. She wanted to go down towards the ferry landing anyway and see the sunset before driving home.
We parked in a nearly empty lot that would have been bursting if it were summer and ambled towards the ferry dock, passing a series of sad looking souvenir stalls which lined its edge. The ferry churned the lake as it turned into the docking station. Rippling waves radiated out on the other side of a rock barrier towards the gaggle of ducks. There were about 15 ducks in total, split off into groupings of two and three and four. I watched them with Alexa as we stood on the far side of the barrier, tip toeing between frozen flashes of dead grey grass and out onto the slippery rocks of a mysterious jetty.
And now the entire sky was enveloped in creamsicle light. It was a soft winter sunset, so much softer than the venomous eruption I’d witnessed half a year before. Balaton’s janus face of winter was splashed across the sky. Cotton candy orange-pinks marinated in between splotches of the missing lavender from the surrounding fields of Tihany.
The Third Sunset: Balatonszemes
When did I meet them any way? Oh right it was at Marija’s birthday. Marija – or Emma Lovett as she is known – is one of the top cam girls in the world which probably makes her the most famous person I know. HBO is filming a documentary about her and her husband Eddie. Eddie organized a get together for her birthday. We began at the Spoon restaurant with another model named Bruna from Brazil. Tom and his girlfriend Vivi were there as well as Eddie and Marija, of course, with Alexa and myself to round out the 7. Dinner was followed by drinks back at Eddie’s flat which is where I met the Corvinus students. There were a mismatched collection of them and they were all much younger than us. Kalman, Rosie, Sunny, Alex, Damjan, Aash, Sherif and the rest. We had a long and burnt out night.
A few months later it was mid-Spring and they were going to Rosie’s Balaton house for a birthday celebration. I drove up there with Eddie and Marija and the three dogs and we picked up Sunny on the way. It was a lovely spring day at the lake and the rest were by the lakeside when we arrived. In this part of Balaton the grass came right down to the lake and it wasn’t the season yet so we had pretty much the entire lawn to ourselves.
It was a blissful afternoon – with plenty of beers and a dog who wouldn’t leave us alone. At sundown Eddie drove me to go pick up something to eat for the crew. We were going to make a Bogracs and needed some supplies. Another sunset at Lake Balaton.
I saw the fisherman framed as the burning spring sun plummeted to Earth. His soft silhouette was plastered on the curved edge of the lake as early spring mosquitos bounded around my head. I watched him for a while, pinching his head between my camera lens and watching the long lashes of his line lope out into the shimmering lake. Languid and methodical, he casted out his line towards the shallow part of the Balaton. The hot yellow-turned-orange sun shimmered in the distance. I wondered if I could ever be so methodical. His serene embrace of solitude seemed to be the key to happiness, didn’t it? But then what about all of our friends.
The Fourth Sunset: Balatonkenese
In the backyard of the wildflower princess Barna walked his tight rope. It was stretched between two massive trees with dandelions and small buttercups speckled around the overgrown lawn. Shawn was a spaniard with a British accent from the fire festival town of Alicante. I’d been there years before with a couple of penguins in a hellbent frenzy and I was reminiscing on this while Bogi led a yoga class beneath the early morning shaded sunlight spreading through the trees. Anna bounced on her trampoline while Alexa danced with ribbons. This was somebody’s idea of bliss, I was sure of it.
The others laughed in the grass and talked and smoked. Gyula was an older friend and he showed up with two cameras slung over his back and connected with a leather thong slung over his shoulders. So why wouldn’t I take some pictures?
The 8 of us walked up through the heavy grasses into the quickly cooling late spring evening. There was a windy path to take us to the hill overlooking the lake. I’d never seen Balaton from this high of an elevation and here I was now, basking in the limitless miracle of light unfolding into the distance.
And that is how I’ve known Balaton thus. Different seasons and stages of my personal journey through the psychadelic haze. A collection of mirrors reflecting paintbrush melodies off of one another and back again. Each image is singed into my mind with its own cattle brand; memory prints to leaf through and learn from. And when will the fifth set come?