If you’re like me, you probably have never heard of the place. Few people outside of Hungary have. My lack of familiarity accompanied me through the spring of 2017, until I was walking along an enchanting path across northern Spain, meandering my way to a city I had never seen, and will never forget, Santiago.
I am describing, of course, the intoxicatingly spiritual adventure that is the Camino de Santiago. It’s a path along which pilgrims from around the world find themselves walking together, sharing space, if only for hours, or even minutes. These encounters could be a glance, a conversation, or a budding friendship. In this instance, I came across a particularly friendly guy with an unfamiliar accent, Csabi (“Chubby”) from Hungary. We exchanged introductions. With a bad knee in tow, I mentioned I was giving up jogging for biking. “Ah,” he said, “You must have heard of Balaton.”
He described a lake in almost heavenly terms: it was beautiful, he said, large and clean, with unusual blue water, bordered on the northern side by endless vineyards, and lined on its southern shore, in summer, with busy beaches and hotels.
So it went. Sometime in the future, I told myself, I would find my way, accompanied by my folding bike, to the shores of Lake Balaton. I placed it on my proverbial “Bucket-List.”
Fast forward, months, not years. A teaching opportunity ironically took us to Hungary. Balaton beckoned. With Hungary’s Indian summer extending into late October, I grabbed my Brompton, and snuck off for 5-days of solitary biking magic.
Well-marked and well-maintained bike paths surround the entire lake. While it’s true that latex-clad bikers with a penchant for speed, cycle the 150-mile circumference in a day, my choice was to cycle Balaton over 3 full days, with half-days on each end. I started out in Baldatonalmadi in the northeast, mid-day on a Wednesday, and finished in the same town, the following Sunday afternoon. In my case, 5-days of glorious, carefree biking, stopping wherever, and whenever, a whim would land on my shoulder.
The biking lanes were uncharacteristically empty – after all, even the shoulder of the busy Balaton summer season had reached its end. I was accompanied by colorful, cascading leaves, blessed by biking-friendy temps in the 50s and 60s, and treated to views few see without hordes of tourists.
Along Balaton’s northern shore there are rolling hills, filled with wine groves, as far as the eye can see. Hungarian wine, by the way, should you be able to get some, is a best-kept secret. The lake’s south shore alternated between quiet lanes and mostly deserted towns and villages. They are no doubt filled with people and traffic during the late spring and summer months. The hotels alone, when open, would assuredly attract tons of cars and traffic. I was pleased with my decision to bike Balaton outside of Hungary’s vacation seasons.
Every turn was an introduction to a new scene with a different feel, a new flavor. The palate of colors rotating, the shoreline evolving, the skies overhead changing. My plan was to cover about 35-miles a day, to allow time to observe, reflect, to become familiar, albeit fleetingly, with the places and people I encountered.
There are times, even in late October, such as a Saturday afternoon, when families fill a park or a square. I found these occasions to be welcoming, after all, they were few and far between.
All good things eventually come to an end. So too, a bike trip around Balaton. My trip began with a conversation along the Camino de Santiago in Spain. It ended with a smile on my face a year later in Baldatonalmadi, Hungary. If you love biking, traveling, exploring, add a loop around Lake Balaton to your list. Balaton beckons you.