I had a few days to kill before meeting up with my next cycling partners, and decided to cycle 100km to the south of Budapest to visit Lake Balaton, where the world’s largest thermal lake is also located. This seemed like the ideal destination for a few days of R&R.
After saying farewell to Andy and Eoghan it was time for me to once again head off on my own for a few days before returning to Budapest to meet Damian and Richard who were colleagues from the school where I had worked at in Vietnam.
100km to the south of Budapest is Lake Balaton, and this seemed the ideal destination for a few days of R&R. Lake Balaton covers nearly 600 km2, and it is the largest freshwater lake in central Europe.
The lake became Hungarys premier vacation resort after the Trianon Treaty, following World War I, redefined its borders and removed Hungary’s Adriatic Sea coastline which left it a landlocked country.
Today, Lake Balaton it is still a major holiday destination with beaches, volcanic hills, resort towns and high-rise hotels along its nearly 200km of shoreline. As the lake is very shallow, with a uniform depth of around 3 metres, it rapidly warms up in the summer months to a temperature of around 22 C degrees.
I had visited the lake with my wife a few years earlier, and so knew that it would make a great ‘city break’.
Getting out of the city was a synch as Budapest has a fantastic network of cycle paths that took me down to and across the River DanubeOnce I was over the river on the Buda side of the city I decided to try and complete the 100km ride ‘off road’.
As it was Sunday morning for the first 10km I shared the cycle path with lots of families who were out for a cycle. All along this section of the river there were lovely cafes set up to cater to walkers and cyclists
Once I was away from the city the cycle path ended and I was back to following walking paths and dirt tracks
After 30km I reached the town of Ercsi and this was the point that I needed to leave the River Danube as it continued it’s journey southwards towards Serbia.
I turned south west and for the next 40km I followed tracks through farmer’s fields which eventually led me to the town of Szekesfehervar
Once through the city it was a downhill run towards Lake Balaton as I continued my cycle through forests and farmers’ fields.
Once I reached the villages that surrounded the lake I was back onto sealed roads
As the sun was setting I finally reached the eastern shore of the lake which looked spectacular
The eastern shore of the lake is probably the least developed and most of the shoreline is still backed by forest.
As much of the shoreline is privately owned the ‘feature’ that I was looking for on my map was something called a ‘strand’. These are like parks which are open to the public and normally have a food shack and beer place.
Looking at the map the nearest one to where I was Bercsenyi Strand, and so I cycled there to see if I could get some food.I was in luck and arrived in the nick of time just as the food shack was closing, and was able to get something to eat and perhaps more importantly, after a long day in the saddle, a nice cold draft beer.The strand had lake shore access and a perimeter fence. The owner of the shack said that the gates to the park would be locked at midnight, but he knew the guy who locked up and would ring him to check if I could camp.
A couple of minutes later he came and told me that camping wasn’t normally allowed but as it was so early in the season the guy who locked up didn’t mind if I camped there for the night.
After dinner I set my tent up in one of the corners of the park and had a great night’s sleep.Next morning, the sun was shining and I had breakfast on a park bench next to the lake.
After a leisurely breakfast I had a choice to make. I could either head north and do an anti-clockwise circuit of the lake, or cycle the opposite way around the southern shore.
There is a cycle path that you can follow to make a complete loop of the lake, but as I didn’t have enough time to complete the full circuit I decided to head south as looking at the map the southern shore seemed more accessible. There were a few fairly big climbs along the way as one reason why the eastern shore is less developed is that it is very hilly
I was largely following the cycle route and it caters really well to cyclists as there were lots of water taps available
And even the odd showerOnce I reached the southern shore the landscape flattened out and I was soon cycling through one picturesque village after another. Each one seemed to have it’s own harbour full of yachts
There was also the odd tourist boat heading out into the lakeAs I was here during a week day, and it was still so early in the tourist season, I didn’t really see that many people cycling around the lake which was great.
My only real company were the constant stream of fishermen who were patiently sat waiting for a bite on the shore of the lake.After a few hours of cycling I reached the town of Siofok and as this was the most densely populated section of the southern shore the cycle path left the lake and ran about 5 or 6 blocks away along roads.
I hadn’t cycled all this way to cycle inland so decided to abandon the cycle path and to try and stick to the lake shore.
At times the path between a house and the shore was very narrowand at others none existent and I had to cycle through a swamp
Even though it was wet and muddy this was still far better than cycling along the road.
Around lunchtime, I found a Spar supermarket to pick up a picnic lunch before cycling to another strand where I stopped to eat lunch under the shade of the trees
After a leisurely lunch I continued to follow the shoreline west, and as evening fell I found an area of trees next to the lake and set up camp for the night.
My only company were the fishermen who came down for an evening of fishing
The sunset that night was beautiful The next morning, the sun was shining and the sky was blue. It was another fantastic day to be on the bike. I decided to pack up camp and head for another strand area to have breakfast.It was then time to get on with cycling around the southern shore as I cycled partly on the’official’ cycle route and when it left the coast ‘free styled’.
The sun was shining and with hardly a cloud in the sky it was another beautiful day to be on the bike. I took advantage of the beautiful weather to have an early lunch with the left overs from the picnic that I had eaten the day beforeI was soon joined by a flotilla of swans who were after scraps
I don’t think that I have ever seen so many swans swimming together.
I had now reached the town of Balatonielle on my tour round the lake and needed to make a decision. If I continued around the lake then I would not have enough time to cycle back to Budapest where I needed to meet up with Damian at the central train station in 2 days time.
The weather forecast for the next few days was for beautiful weather so I wanted to stay at the lake. I decided to go and see about catching a train back to Budapest instead of cycling and followed the train track until I came to a station.The staff said that there were no trains running along the southern shore of the lake because of engineering works. However, I could get a train from the town of Keszthely on the northern shore at 9.30am on Thursday that would get me back to Budapest in time to meet Damian when he arrived.
That sounded like a great plan and so I bought the tickets (just 8 GBP for me and the bike) and took advantage of the water fountain at the station before continuing my journey along the lake This was ‘champagne’ cycling at its best – riding along the shore of a beautiful lake, no hills and lots of coffee shops to take a break
That night as the sun was beginning to set I found an open piece of ground in an area of woodland and set my camp up next to a picnic table.
It was great to be back camping, and what was probably even better was that the day before I had found a new supply of coffee pads. (fresh coffee in ‘teabags’)For breakfast the next morning I was able, for the first time in nearly a month, to brew a pan of fresh coffeeIt was now time to complete the ride to the town of Keszthely where I would catch a train the following morning. It was only a short ride along the shore of the lake, and by lunchtime I rolled into the town. With over 20,000 inhabitants Kezsthely is the largest town on the shores of Lake Balaton.
It certainly was picturesque and probably the most stunning building in the town was Festetics PalaceThe Festetics Palace is a Baroque style palace whose construction, started by Kristóf Festetics in 1745, lasted for more than a century.
Today, the palace houses the Helikon Museum, and during the summer months it hosts concerts and music events in it’s manicured grounds.
After my tour of Keszthly it was time for lunch so I cycled back into the centre of the town and ate an eastern European staple lunch – gyro (kebab).
After such a busy morning seeing the sights of the town there was only one thing to do – head to Heviz for a thermal bath. The town of Heviz is famous for a huge thermal lake that is today home to a day spa.
Covering an area of nealry 50,000 sq m it is the largest thermal lake in the world in which you can bathe.
As it was only 5km away many tourists either walk or rent bikes in Kezsthely and cycle the short distance to Heviz. So they don’t have to go there on the road they have built a cycle path through the forest that links the two towns.As it is now a day spa you need to pay to get into the lake for a swim, but as with everything else in Hungary entry is cheap.
You pay per session, and for 3 hours the price should have been 10 GBP. As I still had a student card from when I was doing my masters I got a discount.
The last time that Deirbhle and I were here was in the month of August when most industry in continental Europe closes, and the workforce take their holidays en-mass. As I was there on a midweek day in May there were considerably less people.
The thermal vent which releases water at 35 degrees is located 40 metres below the surface in the very centre of the lake. The flow of thermal water out of the vent is said to be so strong that the water in the lake is completely replenished in every 72 hours.
To save you having to swim all the way out to the warmest part of the lake a walkway and pavilion complex has been built into the lake. The pavillion is built on stilts and there are steps down into pools for you to float in the hottest part of the lakeOn the outside of the pavilion sunbathing decks have been built
There are also natural mud baths where you can make yourself young by covering yourself in rejuvenating thermal muds. Here is a video of my time at the lake:
Once my 3 hours were up it was time to get a freshwater shower, the thermal water has a slight sulphurous smell to it, before cycling into the town of Heviz to get a coffee.The cobbled streets of the town are fairly pretty but what struck me was all of the Asian tourists walking around town in their dressing downs
Or as one of the locals put it – he pointed at them, smiled, shrugged his shouders and said “Chinese”.
After a coffee and a cold beer it was time to cycle back to the Lake Balaton to get some food before finding somewhere to camp for the night.
There is a famous bridge in Paris, Pont des Arts, where lovers lock a padlock to the bridge as a display of their undying love for each other before throwing the key into the River Seine beneath. (although in 2015 there were fears that the bridge might collapse and so close to 1 million locks, weighing a staggering 45 tonnes, were removed).
In Haszthely, they have a similar place, but instead of being on a bridge over a river it is outside a museum
For dinner I cycled to a park that was next to the lake in the hope of finding something to snack on
Dinner that night was a Hungarian specialty – LangosIt may sound exotic, but it is like a huge deep fried doughnut that they then brushed with garlic oil before adding a layer of cream and finishing it off with grated cheese.This was probably the unhealthiest snack food that I have found so far on this trip, but it was delicious
Once the sun started to set over the lake it was time to find somewhere to camp. With lots of forest around the town of Keszthely it wasn’t too hard to find a spot. The place that I settle on looked like they were in the middle of building a landing dock next to the shore of the lake, but as I had to be up early to catch a train then it wouldn’t matter if the workmen arrived the next morning to complete the job.
I was up early the next morning as I had to catch a 9am train back to Budapest. I packed the tent away without having breakfast and cycled into Keszthely to find something to eat.
Next to the train station there was a café where I got a coffee and two ham and cheese bagels before walking across the road to the station to catch my train
As there was engineering works on the line next to the lake the train that I took actually went in the opposite direction to Budapest for an hour before I caught another train in the right direction.If the lake track had been open I would have been in Budapest in a couple of hours but as there were diversions it took me nearly 5 hours to get there.It felt a bit strange to be back at Budapest train station in the exact same spot that I had arrived with Andy and Eoghan nearly a week before.
Still, that had been at the end of one adventure and once Damian’s train arrived we would be starting another as we cycled along the Danube River from Budapest to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Along the way, we would hopefully be joined by Richard who was my old boss from the school where I worked in Vietnam.