Thursday, 13 May 2010

Hungary 1: Balaton Out of Season

There's nothing so fascinating as a holiday town out of season. For one reason or another I usually arrive in Central Europe in May; early enough for the weather to be warm, but way before high season kicks in.

That doesn't make much difference in an always popular inland city like Kraków, or a busy working city like Budapest - but boy, do you you notice the off-season lull in beach towns.

Poland's Pomeranian coastal towns are a fine example, and this week I discovered another - the Hungarian town of Keszthely, located on the shores of Lake Balaton.

At the western end of Central Europe's largest freshwater lake, Keszthely is a gracious collection of buildings left over from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including the marvellous 18th century Festetics Palace, and a pleasant waterfront along the lake.

To be frank, I savour the melancholy tone of the off season holiday town - there's something intensely bittersweet about the way it seems awkwardly poised somewhere between party and coma. And this characteristic was on full display in Keszthely's attractions...

1. Festetics Palace. This marvellous stately home, set in curving gardens, seemed grandly out of scale compared to the relatively small town about it. But when we chanced a visit on a Monday, usually the closing day for European museums, we found it open but unprepared.

It was only possible to see the interior on a tour, but no English speaking guides were available. So a rag-tag group of Australian, Italian and French visitors tagged along with a Hungarian guide, chancing our schoolday German, relying very much on context to understand what we were looking at.

We all enjoyed ourselves nonetheless, and any amount of linguistic muddle was worth the chance to see the palace's 100,000 volume library and its magnificent handcrafted shelves.

2. Torture Museum. Like many resort towns, Keszthely contains a number of small attractions designed to relieve holidaymakers of their cash in exchange for briefly enlivening their day. Kezthely's museums are, however... a little unusual. Chief among them is the Torture Museum off the main street, full of lively displays of wax figures being tormented in historically accurate ways.

And because there was only old lady minding both this and the nearby doll museum on a quiet day, we were left to our own devices within this building. All very entertaining... until a timer turned all the lights out just as I was examining the life-size depiction of the first execution by electric chair. Feeling just a bit creeped out there in the dark, the tortured souls and I.

3. Balaton Cruise. Lake Balaton is a remarkable body of water, a vast rectangular lake providing numerous seaside towns and beaches to this landlocked country. That doesn't mean, however, that it's very interesting to look at. At 3pm one afternoon we boarded an attractive old timber-decked boat, to partake of the most boring pleasure cruise I've ever been on.

The boat headed out for half an hour, giving us views of the green-grey water and the distant low greenery on the lake shore, then turned around and spent the next 30 minutes returning to the pier. Not much to look at; but we did get into an interesting conversation with a fellow passenger who had grown up in the former East Germany, from which tourists used to visit Lake Balaton and rub shoulders with their more cashed-up cousins from the West.

So that was Keszthely in the off season. A charming town in many ways, and with unexpectedly interesting museums, but still shaking off the long sleep over winter. Give it a month and it'll be jumping... but we'll be elsewhere then.