Often referred to as the “Hungarian sea,” Balaton is Central Europe’s biggest lake and the number one summer destination for people in Hungary. Most of its 200-kilometer (125-mile) shoreline is lined with vacation homes and beaches today, but before Balaton turned into a mass resort starting in the late 19th century, it was a sleepy region covered with vineyards and fishing villages.
Balaton's one sizable town was Keszthely, at the westernmost end of the lake and cradled by the Keszthely Hills. Although a prosperous city already in medieval Hungary — the vast 14th century Gothic church still anchors the downtown — the real turning point was the year 1739, when the Festetics family became the feudal landlord and made Keszthely the center of its dominions.
Enjoying the patronage of the Habsburg court, the Festeticses were among the wealthiest in the country, with 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres) of land across western Hungary. This was good news for Keszthely since much of that money was spent locally. The enlightened György Festetics (1755-1819), for example, built schools, a library, a printing press, and supported local artists and businesses. He was the first to develop the nearby Hévíz, a large thermal lake available for swimming and a popular healing resort today.
He also founded Georgikon, the first college of agriculture in Europe. The Revolution of 1848 wiped out the institution, but its immense Baroque facilities house the Georgikon Museum today with a charmingly obsolete but rich collection ranging from the world’s first tractors to artifacts about winemaking, animal farming, and village life. It’s worth remembering though — as the museum also shows — that life for the local serfs and peasants was hardly enjoyable and some of the Festeticses, including György himself, were less than benevolent landlords.
As with other noble families, all Festetics properties were confiscated and nationalized in 1945 and the family escaped Hungary before the Communist takeover. Perched above the city, their enormous, 101-room Baroque palace functions as a museum currently. In its heyday, the palace was a destination for European high society, including the Prince of Wales and Archduke Franz Ferdinand (whose later assassination triggered World War I).
Its manicured park is open for all to explore, though only a sliver of the original English garden has remained after the Communist state built a military barack on the rear side. Owing to a small miracle, the palace’s massive library survived WWII and can be visited as part of a tour (the Ukrainian general of the invading Soviet army in 1945 was a historian and stopped his troops from ravaging the Festetics library by walling it off with a large “contagious diseases” sign emblazoned on it).
One of the last patriarchs of the Festetics clan was Tasziló (1850-1933), a cartoonish figure in his reverence for the Habsburgs and fondness for horse racing. After the collapse of Austria-Hungary in 1918, he made a point of snubbing Miklós Horthy, Hungary’s longtime leader between the world wars (Horthy wasn’t allowed to take the grand mahogany staircase of the palace, being too lowly of birth). Tasziló married Princess Mary Victoria Hamilton, the ex-wife of Albert I, the Prince of Monaco. The couple’s exuberant mausoleum hides in the back of Keszthely’s St. Nicolaus cemetery.
Tasziló’s once lavish horse breeding farm in Fenékpuszta, just outside the city, was home to a collection of renowned thoroughbreds and the wonder of foreign visitors. Today, the facilities are under renovation but still worth a glimpse in part for the nearby remains of Valcum, the ancient Roman fortification built in the 4th century CE.
No one can blame Tasziló and Princess Mary for lacking good taste: they commuted between the palace and the horse farm through a hauntingly beautiful, six-kilometer (four-mile) pathway lined with black pines, today a popular hangout for dog owners.
The former Festetics winery building is located on the hillside of the nearby town of Vonyarcvashegy. The gleaming white neoclassical estate offers panoramic Balaton vistas and is rightfully home to the excellent Bock Bisztró Balaton today (be sure to ask for a table in the porticoed loggia). If you’re serious about your wine, another ten-minute drive will get you to Szent György-hill, one of the top and most fashionable white wine regions in Hungary. On the volcanic hillside perch prominent family wineries such as Szászi, Gilvesy, and 2HA.
Keszthely had a thriving Jewish community before the Holocaust, accounting for ten percent of the population. One of its most prominent members was the composer Károly Goldmark. Interestingly, his brother, Joseph, who emigrated to the United States, became a famous physician and his daughter married Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish member of the Supreme Court of the United States. Tragically, nearly all of Keszthely’s Jews were deported and killed in Auschwitz, a total of 829 people. The dilapidated tombstones and crumbling yellow funeral home of the Jewish cemetery today, on the outskirts of town, is a poignant reminder.
Like most people, when I’m at Balaton, I like to dine at unpretentious food vendors called büfé, which line the beaches – strand in Hungarian – of each resort and serve food from flimsy wooden sheds. People sit elbow-to-elbow with fellow diners with fröccs, the local wine spritzer, in hand. Near the entrance of Keszthely's main strand is Csaba borozó, a modest tavern patronized by local academics in search of low-priced wines.
In Keszthely, I often go to the less crowded Libás Strand and my go-to orders are lángos, a flatbread topped with sour cream and cheese, and palacsinta, crepes filled with fruit preserves or túró. Occasionally, I order a hekk, a popular fried fish made, ironically, from a saltwater species imported from the Mediterranean (large-scale fishing in Balaton is banned) with pickles and a thick slice of bread.
The most excellent traditional Hungarian dishes are currently made in the nearby village of Vonyarcvashegy at Öregház Vendégudvar restaurant. Especially tasty are the fogas (pike-perch), the dödölle (a gnocchi-like dish), and the Kaiserschmarren, served out of an updated farmhouse with cane roof. For a well-made halászlé, the local paprika-laced fish soup, I head to Halászcsárda, a long-standing sitdown restaurant on the south side.
While you can find a few new-wave establishments such as Pajti café, Keszthely is largely devoid of the trendy places that crowd hotspots like Balatonfüred, Tihany, and the Káli-medence. The reason? Keszthely is far from the well-off Budapest crowd: it takes two hours to reach by car, more than other parts of Balaton. In fact, Keszthely’s post-Communist history – after 1990 – hasn’t been a success story.
The city used to be a bustling summer destination for East German tourists, but today vacation resorts in Spain or Italy offer more allure. Unattractive storefronts face strollers of Kossuth Lajos Street in downtown, and the two elegant Habsburg-era hotels along the lake, Hullám and Balaton, are in an embarrassing state of disrepair.
The monumental Helikon Hotel has been a pride and an icon of Keszthely since its opening in 1971. In days of yore, the hotel drew Communist party elites and Western tourists with its private beach-island, panoramic lake-views, and TV-equipped rooms. Today, after a recent gut renovation, the four-star superior hotel is once again Keszthely's most upscale accommodation with astonishing vistas.
Despite its challenges, I’m still drawn to this beautiful and culturally rich city. There’s much to explore even beyond the Festetics legacy: the mysterious Helikon Park, always slightly dim and melancholic because of the towering plane and chestnut trees. The Balaton Museum, whose engaging exhibit has just the right amount of information about the lake’s nature, wildlife, and history. The local farmers' market on Saturday mornings, which hasn't yet morphed into a hipster apocalypse.
Or the views from the Berzsenyi lookout point in the nearby Keszthely Hills, approached through village houses with thatched roofs. The adorable building of the St. Mihály chapel located atop a small hill and with a similar panorama. The house, overgrown by ivy, where Béla Bartók stayed in 1906 while collecting folk songs. The list goes on. For better or worse, most places don’t come with conspicuous signs. But if you enjoy a sense of discovery, perhaps you too should give Keszthely a chance. The map below will help you get started.