Europe,  Hungary

Hungary: Lake Balaton

From Croatia we headed into our sixth country so far – Hungary – where we had to contend with another new currency (the Forint) and another tricky language. We have so far only managed to learn one word of Hungarian… köszönöm (pron. koo-sonom) means ‘thank you’ and whenever we have used it people’s faces have lit up with surprise and delight.   We have found the Hungarian people we have encountered so far to be extremely helpful and friendly and, whilst not that many of them have spoken English, we have always managed to make ourselves understood.

I have been told that Hungarian is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn for a native English speaker because there are so few similarities between the two and no common ancestor. There are also 14 different vowels, which makes many words totally unfamiliar to us when we try to read or pronounce them. One of the biggest difficulties we have found was simply not being able to even hazard a guess at the pronunciation or meaning of so many words and place names and this made it extremely hard to remember them. Here’s some examples of what I mean…

Hungary unpronounceable words
Understanding the Hungarian language has been tricky. Right: place names are often long, complicated and difficult to pronounce. Left: would you be able to work out what any of these meant? (the top three are playground, sailing marina and fishing farm)

Crossing the Border

Anyway, we have learnt to stick to the main roads as much as possible for towing as the minor roads we have encountered so far in Eastern Europe have been of questionable quality. The roads approaching the border were incredibly quiet and for a good long stretch there were no other vehicles in sight which was a bit disconcerting. We had passed a turn off for trucks and then nothing; we were on our own. Had we taken a wrong turn? Where was everyone else? Fortunately after a few minutes the border post came into view and we breathed a sigh of relief!

There was no queue to get through the border, although we were checked more thoroughly than at any other crossing so far on the trip. After handing our passports in at the first window, we moved along to the second window where an official stood waiting outside to receive them. He looked carefully at each of us in turn and then walked around the caravan, looking in through the windows.

Like Slovenia, you have to purchase a vignette to allow you to drive on Hungary’s motorways. Unlike Slovenia, it is all done electronically and you don’t have a physical sticker to put in your window. We had already been online and done this, so we didn’t need to worry about getting one at the border.

We were headed for a campsite near to Lake Balaton, the largest freshwater lake in Europe. It is huge, measuring about 77km (48 miles) long and 14 km (9 miles) wide at its widest point – think of it as about 40 times the size of Lake Windermere – and it is often referred to as the Hungarian sea. People flock here in the summer to escape the heat and it is the biggest holiday resort in Hungary.

Hungary Lake Balaton flat
Early morning stillness on Lake Balaton

An Unwelcome Development

Our priority on arriving at the campsite was to find a pitch with the maximum amount of shade as the temperatures are still boiling. Then as well as contending with the heat, Andy and I both felt really off colour during the first part of our stay. We have all had such good health since we started on the trip, that this was a bit of an unwelcome development. I started to feel nauseous after about 48 hours and spent much of our third day in bed feeling really quite queasy. And then the penny dropped…it was the water! Although it tasted ok and we have drunk the tap water everywhere so far on the trip with no ill effects, we instinctively knew that this was the culprit. In fact, when we went to the supermarket to get some bottled water, we noticed that EVERYONE had bottled water in their trolley. Another 48 hours after that and we were thankfully back to normal. However, I don’t like buying bottled water and it is ironic that the first country in which we have had to do so is also the worst country we have encountered when it comes to recycling! They also don’t seem to sell it in anything bigger than a 2-litre bottle, so the amount of plastic waste we are generating at the moment is obscene!

The reason that the water here didn’t agree with us was to do with its high mineral content. The area is famous for its thermal springs and the nearby town of Héviz is home to the largest thermal Lake in Europe. Here you can swim in water heated from within the earth’s crust to between 22 and 38 degrees Celsius.

Lake Balaton

When we were all feeling better, we went out to explore around the lake. All the way along its shores are ‘resorts’ providing facilities for bathers and steps down into the water. We spent a day like typical holidaying Hungarians, sitting by the shore of the lake and taking a swim in its murky water. There are some public areas around the lake, but for the full experience, we chose to go to Badacsony Strand, one of the paid beaches along the northern shore. Here there was what they call a grass beach, changing facilities, a café and children’s play area.

Hungary Badacsony Strand Lake Balaton
Badacsony Strand on the shore of Lake Balaton

The facilities were fine, but fairly basic.  In fact, in general, being in Hungary feels like we have stepped back in time about 40 years. It is clear that there is not a lot of money here for fancy resorts and facilities, but also a lot of what is here feels dated and functional, reminders perhaps of Hungary’s communist past. The ugly concrete electricity pylons, the rusty metalwork and the many crumbling buildings are just three examples. And yet there is money here: the string of fancy holiday homes set back from the lake prove that.

Hungary Lake Balaton panorama
We were lucky to have the beach and the water almost to ourselves.  In the summer resorts like this one are heaving with people escaping the high temperatures and cooling off in the lake

The waters of Lake Balaton were lovely and warm, but I have to be honest that I was rather put off by the colour. Having just come from Croatia where the rivers and the sea were so incredibly clear, Lake Balaton seemed distinctly murky.

Hungary Lake Balaton
The murky waters were a bit off putting, but we still went in….and everyone else was fine but as soon as something touched my foot, that was it, I was out!

The water is full of very fine silt which gives it a grey-green appearance. However, it was lovely and warm. Balaton is a very shallow lake, having an average depth of about 3m and a maximum depth of only 11m. This means that it heats up quickly and during the summer the average water temperature reaches about 27 degrees Celsius (80 degrees F). It also means that it cools quickly and the lake is also famous for ice fishing, skating and sledging in the winter.

Hungary Lake Balaton North shore
Come on in….the water’s lovely

It was a hot day and so we were all glad of the chance to get in the water and cool off. And having got over my objection to the murkiness of the water, I was quite enjoying my paddle…until something touched my foot! I have no idea what it was as you can’t see the bottom, but that was enough for me and I retreated to dry land. I should add that later on we watched a stork wading through the shallows at the edge of the beach having quite a feast on the fish it was finding there, so it was probably nothing more than that, but I really don’t like it if I can’t see what is in the water with me!

Hungary Lake Balaton Keszthley

The town of Gyenesdiás, where our campsite was located, and nearby Kesztheley were both charming, with their quiet streets and what appeared to be a slow pace of life.  We were surprised to find a huge Tesco store there – the first one we have come across since leaving the UK.

One final thought…I read in the 1960s Hungary was a country that both East and West Germans could visit and that the resorts of Lake Balaton used to provide somewhere for families and friends separated by the Berlin Wall to meet up. I sensed that it probably hadn’t changed that much since those days.

Hungary Lake Balaton Keszthely Tesco
We were extremely surprised to come round the corner in Kesztheky near Lake Balaton to see a huge Tesco store there. Not only that but there was a Shell petrol station next door – it was just like being back in the UK!


  • Roy

    Wow looking good glad you all well again after the water upset, nice to see your all getting about well and the crossing of each boarder is working well, love the blogs please keep them coming and take care, Roy and Karen

    • Sarah

      Thanks guys! Another border tomorrow as we’re off to the Czech Republic.
      Hope all is well with you both. Xx

  • Liz Wetherby

    I don’t know why it took me until now to realize how difficult it must be to navigate the roads in countries with a very different language. Wow – and hats off to you both! I’m so glad that you got some more beach time. You can now call yourselves, “they who swim with fish.” 🙂 It’s great that you figured out the water problem and got feeling better so you could enjoy your time. Stay well and as Rick Steves says, “Keep on traveling.” Your adventure has so enriched our lives.

    • Sarah

      Yes, we’re really glad we worked out fairly quickly what was making us ill. We’re still buying bottled water even now as at the next campsite the tap water had an awful eggy sulphur smell!
      And yes, it isn’t easy working everything out in such an unfamiliar language. Luckily we have a sat nav to help get us from one campsite to the next – I really wouldn’t want to attempt something like this without one! Xx

  • Sue C

    What an amazing body of water. It’s what you need when it’s so very hot but I’m like you I don’t like sharing my water with something you can’t see. Have fun!!!!

    • Sarah

      Thanks Mum. It’s still very hot here! I did think of you when something touched my foot! I don’t mind sharing the water with fish, I just like to be able to see where they are! Xx