Lake Balaton: a lockdown before a lockdown
The buzz of crickets rings through my ears while a pesky mosquito strikes its wrath once again. The Puli dog, Lazlo, looks at the bite on my knee, his straggly dreadlocks flopping down like a threaded mop. He moves to me closely and after inspection, licks my wound. I give him a stroke, hardly able to find his face amongst his hair while he stretches out his right paw for another tickle. We’re instant friends.
The Hungarian Puli is the master of knots and tassels, their cords stroking the ground, picking up strands of hay and blades of grass as they guard crops and protect properties. The property in question today is a traditional yurt set in the sprawling fields of Siófok, on the southern shores of Lake Balaton in Hungary.
Hungarian Puli dog. Photo: Marcel Jancovic/Shutterstock
“My grandmother used to have a Puli dog, they’re very loyal and protective,” my Hungarian grandmother talks about her childhood canine friend with pride. My grandparents, mother and aunt would return to Hungary from England every summer holiday to visit family and head many a time to Lake Balaton. The fiery rush of paprika and the crunch of crispy hake are what they describe the most from their food-filled memories by the lake. One hand would hold a giant lángos, fried dough, oozing with sour cream while the other would grace a glass of fröccs, a wine spritzer made with Olaszrizling, a local tipple.
For it’s the various microclimates in the Lake Balaton area that are home to some of the best vineyards in Hungary. To the north you will find Somló and Badacsony, scattered with volcanic soil, while the south side is the perfect spot for winery visits; Kristinus Wine Estate may just be the most well known.
Lángos, home made pancake with tomato and bacon. Photo: Joerg Beuge/Shutterstock
The yurt I’m residing in is a pure escape from the rush of urban life. With no electricity, no internet, and no nearby amenities, I’m forced to do, well, nothing. In the countryside of Siófok, there are no museums to explore, no markets to discover, no live music to listen to. The only noise I have is the circle of pestering flies above my head, the occasional bark of Lazlo warning us of nearby visitors, and my inner thoughts. Swinging in a hammock attempting to finish my Sudoku puzzle, write my travelogue, and to read The Power for my book club at work, I breathe in the fresh countryside air. This is the most detached from technology and the speed of everyday life I have felt in an eternity. I feel at peace. I trundle in and out of the yurt for a break from the roaring sun, cooling down on the mattress on the floor while looking up at the wooden beams reaching a circular hole in the yurt, causing the fiery sunrays to project a dance show on its laminated floor.
The family I am living with really do lead a simple life. They own farmyard animals, make their own milk and cheese, and grow their own fruit and vegetables. They look glowing: forever tanned and bursting with inner peace. Up until that point I had never met a family who lived so remotely (since then the only other remote families I have met are nomads in Iran and Bedouins in Jordan). Melinda, the mother of the Hungarian family who owns the yurt, greets me in the morning with tiny cups of sharp, bitter coffee, cubes of home-made cheese, soured natural yoghurt she thinned the night before, steaming fresh bread, and crunchy carrot sticks with sprigs of lavender dotting the plates and trays. I can get used to waking up in Lake Balaton.
Vineyard at Lake Balaton. Photo: Botond Horvath/Shutterstock
I cycle to the waterfront, dripping in my salty sweat, and look out to the tranquil waters of Lake Balaton. I smile to myself in the knowledge that my family have seen this very same water year after year. I glance to the far horizon to find surfers and water-skiers skipping and zipping over the horizon, leaving ripples behind them in the water.
And then I think of all the magical stories of Lake Balaton’s water that I have heard over the years from my family. After all, it is the biggest lake in Central Europe. To its east side lies Hévíz, a spa town which hugs the lake. It is home to the second biggest thermal lake in the entire world. The tranquil water of Lake Balaton is somewhat sacred, healing dippers and divers, soothing you right to the bone.
It’s not all zen and peaceful in Lake Balaton though. Ravers, DJs, and serious party people will enjoy the vibrant tunes radiating over the area with the Balaton Sound electronic music festival. It has been running every year for the last decade or so – 2020 will of course be an exception – and attracts music folk from all over.
Thermal Lake Heviz. Photo: kaiser-v/Shutterstock
As my music playlist skips songs on my laptop as I work from home in London, I hear a dog bark outside. As a keen dog walker, I rush to have a peek of the pooch from behind my kitchen blinds. There it is – a darling Puli dog, right there, in the rush and riot of London. It’s the first Puli dog I’ve seen since my trip to Lake Balaton. And the only other Puli dog I’ve ever seen since meeting my friend, Lazlo, in Hungary. And here the Puli Londoner pitters and patters along with its owner, none the wiser. I sit back down at my computer and continue to write this article. It is now September 2020, and I suddenly can’t help but think that I was already in a lockdown in Lake Balaton in June 2019, way before Covid-19 and travel restrictions ever existed – and for that I’m eternally grateful. And if travel had allowed it, I would have spent my Covid-19 lockdown with Lazlo and indulged in Melinda’s marvellous breakfasts every single morning.
Landscape of Tihany, Balaton lake, Hungary. Photo: pgaborphotos/Shutterstock