Thursday, May 31, 2012

Riding bikes in Hungary

A few years ago, Judy and I flew with our CoMotion tandem to Budapest and rode a sweeping circle through south-western Hungary. We stayed for a night at the western-most end of Lake Balaton, in a small town called Keszthely, and now I am back here, with Sabine and two bikes instead of a tandem.
Lake Balaton, vineyards, and gentle landscapes
Last Saturday we drove from Sabine's home near Munich about 600 kilometers to this place, where I had arranged for a vacation rental ahead of time. We have a comfy apartment with all the things one would want, and we get to ride our bikes on a daily basis. During the days of Communism, this area was the playground of the East German elite as it was still behind the iron curtain but was more relaxed (and sported a nicer summer climate) than any other tourist destinations that people were allowed to travel to. Thus, many of the locals here speak more than just a smattering of German, which makes travel much easier than in other parts of the East Bloc where Russian and the local idiom were (and still are) more prevalent than English. Hungarian is as foreign of a language as it comes, more closely related to unwieldy Finnish than anything out of the Indo-European language pool. Just today Sabine commented that it is pretty pathetic that we don't even know how to say "hello" in Hungarian.
Hungarian: It might as well be cuneiform!
In the summertime, Keszthely is a booming resort that bustles with vacationers, but right now it is still quiet and totally laid back. The town (about 25,000 inhabitants) is located at the south-western end of Lake Balaton, which is the largest lake in all of central Europe (more than 40 miles long and about 10 miles wide). It has many small hotels and apartments (I used my time share points to book our week here), and there are lots of small restaurants and shops. We've found a mom-and-pop grocery store where we've been buying fresh veggies, bread, eggs, and meats, and cooking our meals in the apartment while sipping the local wine is definitely A-OK. Talking about wine: Hungary has multiple wine-growing regions, and we're in one of the important ones. One afternoon we "got stuck" in a family-owned wine shop that also happened to serve the best sandwiches ever, and for literally pennies we drank a few hours away while it rained. Actually, we've been doing quite a bit of that, coming to think of it....
Goose-lard-and-onion sandwich with local red—100% better than it sounds!
The riding has been outstanding. There are lots and lots of tiny roads, almost all of them with the smoothest asphalt you can imagine, and the traffic is extremely light. We have good maps, and every day we have been riding a different route. Along the lake things are, of course, totally flat. As a matter of fact, an asphalted bike path leads around the entire circumference of the lake. The northern shores are quite hilly with some volcanic features. Toward the south-west are areas that are relatively flat, with only light undulations, that are dotted with corn and sunflower fields as well as forests and marshes and lakes. The variety is amazing, and riding here is extremely pleasurable. In the five days that we have been here I have already clocked about 230 miles—a good thing since the beer is cold and we do have to occasionally sit out a thunderstorm.
Taking a break with a small beer ...
Almost every small village that we ride through has at least one resident stork. Yes, the bringers of babies live here, at least in the summer months. There's something very cool about those huge nests, with two storks clonking their beaks in a display of bird intimacy (or whatever it might be) while one can just barely make out a young one craning (or is it storking?) its neck toward the parents.
Stork and storkette
The villages are very clean, with tidy little houses that have small gardens with lots of flowers (mainly roses) up front and veggies in the back. Old men and seemingly even older women putter around, or just sit. It is very quiet here, no screaming and hollering, just pianissimo. Many of the streets are lined with fruit trees, especially cherries, which right now are just loaded with fruit.
Cherries are free for the picking
Overall, this vacation so far as been everything we could have asked for. The wine is good, the food (either in the restaurants or what we find in the stores) is yummy and very affordable, the roads are ideal for our type of cycling, the weather has been beautiful (every day with lots of sun, temps in the low 70s, and only occasional afternoon t-storms that make us drink more beer than we probably should while waiting out the tempest), few tourists, great accommodations—definitely a place to put on the short list for a rewarding vacation.

On Saturday we will leave Keszthely and start driving back toward Munich, but the plan is to stop for a few nights here and there on the way back. What fun!


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