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Spring cycling at the Balaton Lowlands

Where could we go cycling over Easter while the Alps are still in ski season?

“I’m not going to climb mountains, let’s go to Lake Balaton.”

I took it as a joke until I looked at the map. It's over two hundred kilometers around the lake. That might be worth the trip. So one route is clear, but what next? We have three days…

March 2024

Almost Like the Sea

Lake Balaton is the largest lake in Central Europe, and the Hungarians naturally call it their sea. The name “Blatenské jezero” (Muddy Lake) is no coincidence. It truly relates to the words mud and marsh, which characterize this vast yet shallow lake. With an average depth of only 3.2 meters, the lake is prone to siltation, and historically, its area was up to a third larger. Today's nearly 600 km² is still enough that you can't see from one end of the long lake to the other. The shallow depth allows the summer sun to warm the lake's waters, making it a popular destination for beach recreation and swimming. The shores are lined with resorts that recall the income of tourists from the Eastern Bloc when it was the only accessible sea for them. Some accommodation facilities retain their appearance (and also their technical condition) from that times.

A Cultural and Educational Experience

The area around Lake Balaton is not a typical destination for early spring road cycling, but when everyone is heading to Mallorca and the Canary Islands, why not try something original? It's not far, and a car can replace the plane. But on the way, we wonder if we should have brought a jeep for Hungarian roads and full suspended mountain bikes instead of road bikes.

Let’s call it a cultural and educational trip with some cycling training. That sounds better much. I'm from a generation that should remember summer vacations at Lake Balaton, but it somehow passed me by in my youth. So, one more reason to travel.

Hevíz: The Town of Foam Necklaces

Easter holiday quickly fills up the accommodations, even though the beaches are still empty. We find a spot near the center of the spa town of Hevíz. As we arrive late in the evening we don't think much about the colorful foam swimming noodles left hanging instead of somebody’s coat. Later, we find out that such a necklace is an essential fashion accessory for a stroll along the spa promenade.

The main attraction of Hevíz is the thermal lake with healthy water and the spa facilities built on the lake. From a depth of 38 meters, a miraculous spring emerges, reaching the temperature of a comfortable bath at the surface. To maximize the beneficial effects of the carbonated water on the musculoskeletal system, you need to relax in the water for a long time. And because swimming around would be boring and tiring, floating with these foam noodles has proven effective. During the opening hours the surface of the lake is thus covered with floating heads in colorful circles.

Cycling Around the Lake

But first, we need to deserve the relaxing bath. Next day, we start the main task, a 200-kilometer ride around the lake. Considering the wind direction, we choose the clockwise route.

We reach the water through the town of Keszthely, alternating between roads and bike paths of varying widths and quality. No significant climbs await us, so the final number of 730 meters of elevation gain seems unbelievable.

The northern side is more road-based. At about two-thirds, the Tihany Peninsula juts into the lake. Here, at the narrowest point of the lake, you can shorten your trip by taking a ferry to the opposite shore. The hilly peninsula is among the most visited places on the entire shore of Lake Balaton, not only because of the views from its elevated position. It boasts numerous historical landmarks, including a Benedictine abbey, a church, and a museum. Traditional houses, monastic dwellings, and lavender fields have earned the peninsula the status of a nature reserve since the 1950s.

We continue riding, passing signs with the tongue-twisting names of villages and towns. The southeastern side of the lake is much more bike-friendly. The width of some paths is somewhat stressful, especially when a lady on an electric bike with handlebars nearly spanning the entire path is coming your way.

In the final stretch, we cross the main inflow, the Zala River, flowing through the marshy Little Balaton. The time flies, and the light fades. We leave the Keszthely tour for another day and join the bike path back to Hevíz.

The total route around the lake, starting in Hevíz, ended up at 227 kilometers.

Well-Deserved Bath

After the workout, proper recovery is essential, so we prescribe ourselves a bath in the healing, slightly sulfur-smelling water of the local lake. The miraculous water springs from a cave at huge depth and is channeled under the bathhouse building. The spring is so plentiful that the water in the lake completely renews every 72 hours. So the muddy color doesn't mean we're bathing in dirty water.

We get to the middle of the lake over the bathhouse walkways and descend into the warmest water brought directly under the building. Here, the relaxing people with colorful noodles around their necks concentrate. Now we understand the importance of these accessories. 

You can also swim outside into slightly cooler waters. The complex includes a wellness center with saunas and whirpool for an additional fee.

Small Balaton

Refreshed and full of energy, we set off for another day of cycling. The harsh south wind from the Sahara brings not only the need to ride behind someone (if there were anyone to draft behind) but also a lot of sand in the air, shrouding the landscape in a misty haze.

Kis Balaton (Little Balaton) is a smaller lake southwest of Balaton, near the spa town of Zalakaros. It used to be a bay of Balaton but separated due to the drop in its water level. Today, it is traversed by the main inflow, the Zala River. The vegetatio and reeds surrounding most of the lake filter the incoming water. The entire area is a nature reserve. On the marshy, reed-covered shores rare bird species found their homes, with cormorants and herons being among the most significant.

The Historical Memorial Park in Zalavar worths a stop. The ruins of the pilgrimage church, once a monumental shrine with a unique layout, remind us of the region's rich past. You can also see the chapel of St. Stephen, reconstructed on the foundations of an older church, and the Millennial Memorial Building, designed by Imre Makovecz. It serves not only as a memorial but also as an information center and venue for exhibitions and events.

A bit further south, we can see the wooden bridge to Kányavári Island. An arched pedestrian bridge gives access to the nature reserve with a nature trail. At the parking lot, there are stalls with refreshments, including local cheeses smoked on-site in a cardboard box.

The quality of the asphalt decreases proportionally with the distance from Balaton's resorts. Riding back with a tailwind is pretty fast.

Now we have time for a little sightseeing in Keszthely, including the waterfront promenade, the pier for excursion boats, and the baroque castle with gardens. The route can be extended or shortened as needed; ours was 110 kilometers

There are plenty of other routes around Balaton, but Hungary won't become a road cycling mecca, at least not until smooth asphalt arrives.

However, combining spring kilometers with cultural and educational activities makes it worth visiting. 

Few more tourist tips

Besides Hevíz, there are thermal baths in Keszthely, Balatonfüred, and many others.

On the way around the lake, besides Tihany, there is the Szigliget Castle, the Sümeg Castle a bit off the beaten path, and the historical center of Veszprém.

Near Tapolca, you can visit the lake in a limestone cave, and near Zalaszántó stands the largest Buddhist stupa in Central Europe.

So, the choice is surprisingly varied.


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