Thursday, July 13, 2006

Lake Balaton, Hungary

Lake Balaton is one of the strangest places I have ever been. Rick Steves in his "Best of Eastern Europe" does not even mention it. It is a huge natural fresh water lake that looks like Flathead Lake in Montana or Puget Sound. Of course, it is surrounded by small Hungarian villages. Each village has tacky tourist shops where they sell beach towels and water toys. And along the roadside, locals were selling these pots which I never quite understood. Either they were for making goulash or for a fish stew with carp, the main fish from the lake. I did not have enough English material to find out.

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Hungarian pots along the road.

Update: I just found my answer to the pot question. Indeed, they are for cooking a spicy fish stew made from carp and paprika.
"Carp, found in many varieties, is also popular. Hungarian Fish paprikas (halaszle), is a soup favored by most natives, with large chunks of fish in a semi-hot (spicy) soup. Well worth trying in a restaurant, to indulge in real local cooking. Sometimes prepared in a very nostalgic "nomad" way, in a large kiln pot, hung on a tripod over an open fire."

First of all, nobody but nobody speaks English. Secondly, no Americans ever go to Lake Balaton. And third, Hungarians are not terribly friendly and they culturally do not seem to smile. Sometimes they were extremely unhelpful to the point of being rude. Finally, the Hungarian language is not related to nor derived from any other language on earth. Somehow it came into being in an isolated fashion and survived. Lucas, being a linguistics major, loves this sort of thing. The problem it gave us was that we could not figure out what anything meant when it came to signs or menus. At least French, Italian, Spanish and German have enough similarity to English that you can figure out a menu or a label at the grocery store or what someone may have said!

The economy was difficult to figure out as well. Slovenia, on the other hand, is going gangbusters. They are the richest new nation to join the European Union. Construction of new homes and upscale shops were all over the place in Ljubljana. Lake Balaton had dingy communist era buildings but interspersed would be these new or newly refurbished vacation cottages and homes. Miklos, our host for the cottage we rented and the only person we met who spoke English, explained that in the 1990's Lake Balaton was a hopping place. When the Berlin wall and the Iron Curtain existed, Hungary, though communist, was the only place German families from both sides could meet.

West and East Germans were equally allowed to travel here. Folks lined up to rent "dog houses" and "wine cellars" for vacation, he said. Today, the economy is beginning to rebound but still all of the tourists are German. He wondered why in the world we were there. Miklos, handsome and not even 30, was quite the entrepreneur. He was developing properties around the lake and seemed interested in our opinion on ways to attract Americans. He actually has a friend in Seattle and said his dream was to watch the Seattle Super Sonics and eat popcorn. I am certain one day he will.

Since we were there during World Cup and in June, there were actually very few tourists, who would be German, at Lake Balaton. In fact, they seemed to be gearing up for the tourist onslaught in July. I think the Hungarians have a love/hate relationship with the Germans based on history---the do not like Germans but they like their tourist money. I believe people assumed we were German and probably could not even tell from our speech. Always, German was spoken to us. Regardless of the cold shoulders everywhere, we thoroughly enjoyed our stay in this odd place.

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Lake Balaton--beach

Public beach parks were everywhere and they were spotless. Typically, the park was grassy with trees and the beach had a cement wall with steps into the water. The lake was shallow and warm with a muddy sandy bottom that felt wonderful on hot tired feet. Very very pleasant--we swam every day. Hungarians, due to their rich fatty food, don't look so great in bathing suits so we felt just fine in ours. We learned quickly from a large Hungarian woman in her underwear and with half of her teeth that the metal rusty chairs in the beach parks are not to be used unless you pay some mystery person some money. At least I think that is what she meant---we were not going to argue, that's for sure, so we gave her the chair.

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Our vacation cottage.

Our cottage was brand new and unlike many places in Europe, it had two bathrooms. We had three bedrooms, a fully stocked kitchen, and a Weber bar-b-q to cook outside. Also notice the satellite dish so we could keep track of the World Cup. All of this and we spent about $70 per night for the four of us to stay here. It was really hot the first day but with the skylights, doors and windows and our fans, we were able to keep it cool enough to sleep.

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Paprika Hut covered in red peppers.

Paprika is everywhere in Hungary. The best sweet peppers and tomatoes grow in this area. The grocery store had these fabulous yellow green peppers that I have never seen in America. We grilled them and they were just yummy. I tried goulash but it was a little rich for me. But I did buy paprika potato chips. Mmmmmmm!

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Our last evening in Lake Balaton

We found this nice restaurant and they actually had English translations of their menu. Our friendly waiter did not speak English but with pointing and a little German that Lucas had picked up like a sponge, we managed just fine. The dish on the table was a fish sampler with trout, perch, and zander. No carp. We were petrified of ordering carp by mistake. It is a garbage fish in Montana and there was no way we would try it. I was even leery of ordering trout so I had goose leg (in front in the photo) and it was delicious. This meal was extremely inexpensive compared to a similar meal in Seattle. It was a joyous and enjoyable dinner.

All in all, Hungary was a great bargain and a fun place to experience. It was nothing like anyplace else!