Lake Balaton

Trip Start Oct 24, 2009
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What I did
Pannonhalma Archabbey, Tihany

Flag of Hungary  , Somogy,
Saturday, August 6, 2011

With a little less than four months left in Germany, I guess you could say our time living in Europe is almost done. I am woefully behind on recording our great adventures, and I have
missed out on the opportunities to write about several exciting excursions while they were still fresh in my memory. DeAnna’s and Andrew’s beautiful wedding in Denmark only received one of two planned entries. Our week in Poland only has a day’s worth of remembrance. I have written nothing of Tracy’s and my incredible time in Hungary with my high school friend, Nóra Ujfalusi and her family. Our two trips to London have received no attention, nor has our drive through the
rocky, rolling green countryside of Ireland. A couple of months ago we spent three days in Amsterdam and I wrote nothing of that, either. And Rome and the Vatican – I only now just remembered Tracy’s and my time there.

 In early August of 2011, Tracy and I flew to Budapest where we met Nóra in the airport. As we walked together down a typical airport hallway toward the waiting area, I spied Nóra’s smiling face as a set of sliding automatic doors opened and then closed again. I hadn’t seen her in
nearly eighteen years, though we had been pen pals for a more than a few years– yes, real pen-and-paper pen pals. She had driven an hour and a half from their house at Lake Balaton to pick us up. Outside, it was warm and sunny, and Tracy and I were thrilled to be in one of our must-see world destinations. En route back to their house at Balaton, Nóra drove through Budapest and pointed out some of the different sights we would come back to explore days later. We were going to spend our first two and a half days in Hungary in Zamárdi and Szántód at
the big lake with her family.

Zamárdi and  Szántód have that familiar unpolished, relaxed feel of a beach community. Many of the town’s houses and shops lie fallow during the cold weather months, coming to life only
in the in the vibrant and lively summer weather with sun worshipers, wind surfers, and families on holiday. The warmth of happy vacationers and a summer’s worth of parties and laughter are nevertheless not enough to arouse the environment from its permanent kef. I have only experienced this specific kind of somnolence at places with a shoreline.

As the Volkswagen pulled up in front of the dark brown brick and timber, two-story beach duplex, Nóra got out to open the metal gate leading to the house’s grassy parking area. To the right of the house the three of us walked along a wide path that opened up into perhaps
half a football field of green backyard enclosed by tamed boscage. A mesh-enclosed trampoline, a sandbox, and a friendly-looking tree with a striped cloth hammock hanging from a branch added a warm feeling of family and comfort. At the far end, there was a break in the wild shrubbery where a long pier began and led to the lake. Turning left and walking onto the patio, we saw some of Nóra’s family milling about, including her two bright-eyed and smiling
children, Zita and Gellért. For the duration at Szántód, they made Tracy and me smile in that way that happy kids do when they’re just being kids.

We spent that morning at the lake taking in the sun and watching the windsurfers’ contra-dance with the wind. The landing at the end of the long pier was large enough for three or four people to lay out towels and sunbathe, with room left over for a windsurfing board and a bench for two people. Under the bright, warm sun we watched Nóra’s husband and brother-in-law, Zal and Etre, windsurf. We relaxed, talked, and absorbed the atmosphere. We were finally in Hungary. It was time to take it all in.

While the three of us, Tracy, Nóra, and I lounged about and dangled our feet in the water, Gellért and Zita swam about and played. Gellért brought back some shells and rocks from the
mossy bottom of the shallow lake. He gave them to his mother and then she showed them to us. Two of them were kecske-köröm, or goats’ nails. According to the local hircine legend, these shells are tangible remnants of the creation of Lake Balaton. Nóra told us the story:

Once upon a time there was a princess who wandered across the territory of Hungary with her flock of golden haired goats (even their nails were golden). When they arrived at Lake Balaton
the princess fell in love with the beauty of the lake so she decided to settle down. The green shore of the lake was a perfect pasture for the goats too. But an old witch from the Tihany peninsula (who also had nice goats) became envious of the girl's golden haired goats and decided to get rid of the princess-and keep the goats for herself. So one night the witch dug a long deep hole (a trench) with the help of her oxen and the devil to separate the princess from
her goats. When the princess wanted to see her goats in the morning, she had to climb across the trench, but a great storm broke out and filled the trench with water from the lake. The princess drowned and so did the golden haired goats because they loved their princess so much that the followed her into the waves. In the end the witch drowned too because she fell into the stormy water while she was trying to save some of the golden goats. And the witch's goats drowned as well (they also followed their owner into the water). This is why there are so
many "goats' nails" in the lake according to the legend...

 Genesis tales of local cultures and beliefs have long fascinated me, ever since September of 1998 when I spent a long weekend celebrating Independence Day in La Piedad, Michoacán, México. The memory of the parish of La Piedad is fuzzy at best to me now, but two teenage girls recounted to me the legend of the church’s crucifix with utmost certainty. It simply would not stay affixed to the wall of a neighboring town’s church, and by some miracle, a flood washed
the cross to the parish steps at La Piedad, where it remains today, as God apparently desired. I’m sure in the next town over – the one that lost its holy relic – they tell a distinct version of the story.

These (hi)stories are especially meaningful when heard first-hand from somebody whose vision of the world is imbued by the legends. Regardless of whether the bards of these tales believe
the local mythology (I use the word more in keeping with the original meaning of “system of beliefs” as opposed to the popular understanding of it as a synonym for “falsehood”), these stories have colored their (all of our) worlds in a way unique to each teller. They bind us together as descendents of those who first beheld the stars in wonderment, not so distantly removed from who we are now. The myth of the Balaton Goats’ Nails ranks among my favorites.

One of our first excursions was to the famous town of Tihany, on the northern coast of Balaton, and just a short ferry trip away. From the house, Nóra and her kids, Tracy, and I walked
northeast under a blue sky for twenty minutes to the ferry, where we bought tickets (and ice cream).  At the other side of the island, we decided to take a shuttle up the long, winding road to Tihany. The decorative little open-air shuttle was linked together like a train and made for a surprisingly smooth and sleepy trip to the top.

Much of the little town of Tihany was like a little park, with lush, green grass to either side of the
concrete and stone walks. Shops and boutiques for tourists abounded, and there were restaurants with views of the lake. Many of the business owners at Tihany complain about the recent downturn in tourist revenue, but we noticed that about half of the shops were closed the afternoon we were there. As the five of us walked along, Nóra would tell us stories of the surroundings. She often apologized for knowing less than she should about the landmarks and historical sites we visited, but she was more knowledgeable than she gave herself credit
for. The center of the hilly town, we saw, was occupied by the Benedictine abbey, founded in 1055. Everything but the undercroft was destroyed by the 18th century, when the same single-naved Baroque church that stand there today was constructed. We were only able to see a little bit of the interior, as we did not want to disturb the mass being held. This abbey is famous for having the charter which is recognized as the first extant record of Hungarian language.

Tihany is also famous for the Tihanyi visszhang, or the Tihany Echo Hill. In the photos, you can see part of the word visszhang on the wooden sign behind Zita. Centuries ago (not quite
sure how long ago, actually), the spot where Zita is standing became famous for producing a loud and reverberant echo. Zita yelled and we heard that the effect is not as dramatic as it used to be, mostly because of changes in the landscape. Fifteen meters from the visszhang
we passed a few moments looking out over the lake and spying on boaters through coin operated binoculars.

We spent a good deal of time poking around the stores and Tracy decided she wanted a traditional scoop-necked Hungarian embroidered blouse in the Kalocsa style. Later we came
across a small house with two women outside selling pottery outside, and Tracy went straight for it. There were a few pieces she liked right off the bat, but she zeroed in on one large bowl hanging on a wall and wanted to know the price. Nóra did the interpretation for us. The bowl was gorgeous, accordingly expensive, and had been crafted in the famous Kósa Klára Renaissance Studio. At the time we did not know of its fame, but Nóra told us of the artist’s beautiful works. Well, many small merchants (and a few larger ones) do not accept credit cards, and we didn’t have quite enough forint on us. Tracy deliberated for a solid twenty minutes and ultimately decided that we would have to come back the next day to make the purchase. The following afternoon we returned, but the gate surrounding the house was locked and the merchants
nowhere to be seen. I still think about that bowl from time to time; but we made up for our loss days later in an artisan town of Szentendre.  

As afternoon gave way to dusk, the green of the trees ablaze with gold embroidery, the low sun seemed to focus directly on us as it inched toward the horizon. The blinding light of a dying
sun evokes a certain sentience, a singular alertness, unmatched by any other moment in the day. People out for a stroll quicken their pace. One can detect an ineffable hush as they begin to turn their minds towards home, or some final destination. Lanky shadows reach and stretch, as if they, too, might try to go home. A church’s vesper bell sounds; and the day feels a touch cooler, even if the thermometer’s mercury disagrees. That evening, as the sun dipped to eye
level, the five of us began our decent back down the long hill to the ferry toward home.

The asphalt road and its concrete sidewalk wound to the left and to the right in a general southwest direction. As we walked along, with hunger setting in, and growing eager to be
off our feet, Zita and Gellért still had plenty of energy. They played with their new, rainbow-colored slinky, jumped and climbed on walls and challenged one another to foot races on the sidewalk down the hill. Each time Zita counted, “Egy, Kettő,” and after a slight pause, at once took off and shouted “Három!” As only a parent can, Nóra divided her attention between her children and her guests in such a way that equaled more than 100%.  She was fully focused on the actions of Zita and Gellért, how close they were to the road, even their body language. Yet
Nóra still carried on a sparkling, intelligent conversation with Tracy and me. At one point she frowned slightly and leaned in to share with us what she had observed, “they’re getting tired. They may stop being so nice to each other soon.”

Not three minutes later, little Gellért pushed his big sister out of the way in order to win a foot race. Zita yelled and cried, “Anya, he cheated! He pushed me to win the race!”  

A moment of mother-son time ensued, the slinky was confiscated, and peace resumed between the siblings. The next time Zita and Gellért raced, he again pushed and cheated his way to
victory. This time, Zita’s response was laughter. The maturity of her decision – that’s what it was, a decision – completely defied my expectations. Each time they ran after that, Zita treated her sibling’s mischievousness as a game in itself, laughing all the way back her mother before starting the next contest.

Finally the dark settled in. Cars passed by with headlamps on and the houses’ windows shone with golden light to either side of the street. Mosquitoes buzzed about in circling swarms that we could see as we came upon each tall streetlamp. The weary children were walking more slowly now, and for a time I carried Gellért on my shoulders. After I let him down, Zita wanted her turn to be carried piggy-back. Finally back at the house, the in-laws were preparing an outdoor feast for everyone. Seated at wooden picnic tables, wine bottles and various dishes of food were passed around. As everyone served himself, Etre, Nóra’s blond, boisterous, broad-shouldered brother-in-law, served hamburgers from the grill. He seemed amused that I do not eat meat, but he was good natured about it. He grilled a big slab of cheese for me, which was pungent and tasty. Etre offered, or rather tried to foist upon me, another hunk of grilled cheese, but I had to decline. There is only so much cheese I can eat without feeling serious repercussions.

The day’s activities were now drawing to a close. The children were asleep in their chairs; the light of the grill fire was surrendering itself to the night; and conversation slowly subsided. A hush settled over the small group and my mind, too, began to turn to slumber. Slowly, people excused themselves to retire for the night. I thanked Etre and his wife for their hospitality and went to wash up for bed.

The next morning, August 7, Nóra prepared a morning meal of meats, cheeses, and breads with butter and jam, which was all ready for us on the shady picnic table. Breakfast was relaxed beneath the umbrella, under an adamantine sun. Today we were taking a daytrip to Pannonhalma Abbey, in the Gyór-Moson-Sopron region of Hungary, and going to a birthday party for both Nóra’s husband, Zalán, and her brother, Denés. Nóra’s father’s house wasn’t far, but we drove anyway because of the cake Nóra had for the party. Walking left across the
treed lawn we were greeted at the threshold by members of the family. A large table with about fifteen chairs was set up for what promised to be a lively celebration. People were friendly and welcoming, drinks were poured, and introductions made.

At these types of events, it is easy to feel like an intruder; but I didn’t. These moments are rare and should be cherished: for the next two hours, I was an outsider on the inside – a tourist,
an alien, an accidental interloper welcomed into the fold. They came to me in my language and did not make me feel ashamed that I did not know theirs. I ate from their garden, drank wine, and played games with the children. Zita and Gellért led me around the garden and taught me words in Hungarian: fa, gyufa, virág, alma. Finally, as all the guests were seated and the meal was about to be served, I offered a four-word toast in Hungarian which, save for the amusement on some faces, was accepted as any other might have been: people, food, good, thank-you. Emerson’s missionary of wisdom and virtue I was not, but a spirit of amity pervaded, and my soul was at home still.

The wind was too gentle for windsurfing that day, yet the most dedicated held hope for bolder weather that afternoon. A storm in the forecast might provide a small window of winds
healthy enough to feed the collective soul of the Balaton windsurfers. That afternoon, as the temperature cooled and the thunderheads rolled in, Nóra, Tracy, and I were touring the grounds of the Pannonhalma Benedictine Archabbey. Nóra invited her teenaged nephew and his girlfriend to come along in hopes that he might avail himself of an opportunity to practice his English with native speakers. He needed to improve his conversational skills, she said, to improve
a score on an important test. He spent most of the time being kissy-face with his girlfriend and little of it practicing English.

The drive northwest from Balaton took approximately 45 minutes. Once we arrived, I saw how impressive the entire complex is, complete with an expansive walking ground, trails snaking through a wooded area, tours of the abbey’s distillery and vineyard, and restaurant. Our
first task was to find tickets for a guided tour, which is the only option if you want to see the inside of the abbey, including the sublime 13th-century basilica, the impressive library, the cloister area, and the finely carved Porta Speciosa (main door) to the basilica. After purchasing the tickets, we had some time to use before the next English-language tour, so we just walked around for a while through the woods. We also ate a quick bite at the restaurant, which is not really a dine-and-dash establishment.

Because the temperature was pleasant, my first inclination was to sit outside on the terrace so we could enjoy the panorama of verdant countryside while we ate. The restaurant’s host who
seated us pointed out the ominous clouds in the distance and suggested we sit inside. We were short on time and ate quickly so the tour wouldn’t leave without us. As we walked to find the group, drops began to fall from the sky, lightly at first and then more heavily. The first portion of the tour took place outside and the majority of people got wet.

Our tour guide was a young man, maybe in his mid-twenties, of average height and wiry build. His short, brown hair looked pressed to his scalp and combed straight down toward his thin, bird-like face. He had a reserved, serious, and studious countenance, and the
glasses lightly perched on the bridge of his nose only enhanced this impression. He had the air of a person who did not like talking to groups and only did so perforce. As the tour started, my impressions were confirmed. His presentations were nearly as hushed as the monastic surroundings he described. They sounded memorized, too, as if some invisible assistant pulled a doll’s string out from his back when it was time to talk.  Despite the lack of dynamism, those who listened carefully were rewarded with rich historical narratives about the abbey that ranged from general information about the surrounding lands to the significance of details in stonework inside the basilica.

Pannonhalma Archabbey was erected in the year 996 by Prince Géza for Benedictines. Tradition holds that the Saint Martin, Bishop of Tours, was born in the village at the foot of the
182 meter high hill. Saint Stephen the King, son of Prince Géza, granted many privileges to the monastery, and the building was completed under his rule. Almost nothing of the original structure remains today. Over the centuries the monastery was shaped and reshaped, converted into a fortified fortress during the invasions of the Ottoman Turks, and then restored in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Now a school and college adjoin the southern wing of the monastery, of which I suspect our tour guide was a student. The abbey’s library of Neoclassical design, decorated with masterworks of artists from all over Europe, is exquisite. Magisterial and imperious, yet warm and inviting. There are over 250,000 volumes in the library, including
valuable manuscripts and incunabula. The air buzzed and vibrated with an energy I usually feel in great libraries.

 Once the official tour had ended, Nóra, Tracy, and I passed a little time in a small museum and considered souvenirs at the gift shop. Soon thereafter we trekked back to the car, the pair of teenagers already waiting for us in the backseat, and drove back to Balaton. Since we arrived from the north side of the lake, it was easy to make a stop at Tihany to see about finding the Kósa Klára bowl for Tracy. Once again, the hike to the top of the hill was long, only this time we climbed a steep, twisting trail through mosquito-rich woodland. Halfway to the top the three of us paused at a cave, which Nóra had wanted us to see. The monks who founded the town of Tihany had lived in that grotto. It had obviously been inhabited for some time. This little detour was brief, but significant – the kind of secretive, intimate history that only a local (or scholar) can reveal to an outlander.

 Once we reached the town of Tihany, the merchants of the pottery Tracy admired were not to be found, their house locked up and the lights out. The way back down the hill seemed faster than it had going up, though the mosquitoes were undiminished. The teenaged couple, who once again had opted to stay behind rather than join in on the activities, was where we predicted: in the back seat. It had been a very enjoyable afternoon, and though evening had not yet begun its encroachment, it soon would. It was time to begin preparing for the evening meal, which we took once again at Etre’s place next door. As the food was prepared, 
Gellért and played in the sandbox near the house. We dug canals and placed toys in the holes we dug. Every so often, 
Gellért would play teacher and point at something and tell me what it was: homok (sand), folia (plastic sheet), hinta (swing). We dined on grilled fish, which Etre had caught that afternoon, vegetables, breads, cheese, and wine. The next morning Tracy, Nóra, and I would arise relatively early and drive to Budapest, making a stop at Székesfehérvár, the ruins of a medieval castle where great kings of Hungary have been buried.

Until next time…
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