Rhapsodic Hungary

A hilly land of grapes, horses, and castle ruins--wrapped around a beautiful lake--lies just a morning's drive from Budapest.

Hungarians say the area around Badacsony, on Hungary's Lake Balaton, held on to its charms even in socialist times. Maybe it was the vines. People don't have yards in this part of Hungary: They have grapes, strung from trellises and covering every available piece of the gray, volcanic soil. It has been that way since Roman times. Against such a well-entrenched viticulture, even communism didn't have a chance.

These thoughts occur as I sit outside a friend's stone cottage high on the slopes of Mt. Badacsony, an extinct volcano. I got here by roads so narrow that branches slapped the car windshield. Wild pigs were a traffic hazard. Now, fresh trout sizzles on a charcoal grill as I sip a glass of rustic, oaky rizling, or riesling, from my friend's own tiny vineyard. The sun sets over the lake below, which is remarkably peaceful thanks to a ban on motorboats.

In 1822, French geographer François-Sulpice Beudant declared Balaton the most beautiful place in the world. That may be a bit effusive, but there is a Tuscan quality to the landscape. The area's proximity to Budapest, about 2 1/2 hours by car, and Vienna, about 3 1/2 hours, make it an ideal spot for a two- or three-day sojourn between business meetings. The proliferation of low-cost flights by airlines such as easyJet and Wizz Air make Balaton accessible from many points in Europe.

A few miles from Badacsony proper, where I stayed, the village of Badacsonytomaj seems to have resisted the excesses of capitalism as well as it resisted Marxism. Some parts of Balaton are overbuilt, with concrete-slab hotels and water-slide parks, but the most prominent building in Badacsonytomaj is a twin-steepled church built of black basalt. Drive a few minutes more to the thinly settled inland, and there is little to remind you of the 21st century. Horse breeding is still a major industry, and mares canter across the pastures. Thatched roofs are common, as well as grand villas that once belonged to the aristocracy and now are more likely the weekend retreat of a banker from Vienna or an entrepreneur from Budapest.

Here are some suggestions for things to do around Badacsony:

DINE ON LOCAL FOODS. Eat lake catfish with homemade noodles at a restaurant such as Kvirag, in the village of Koveskal, about 15 minutes inland from the lakeshore. The next day, work off the crepe-like palatschinken, the national dessert, by hiking or mountain biking on the cone-shaped hills, many of which feature a castle ruin on top. Most towns in the area have a bike-rental shop, and some hotels (like the Kali Art Inn, below) loan bikes free to guests.

STAY AT THE KALI ART INN. The small, beautifully kept hotel is located in a restored former officer's mess three miles from the lake, also in Koveskal, with rooms in renovated stone stables.

CRAWL ACROSS LAKE BALATON. The 3.1-mile cross-Balaton swim, from Revfulop to Balatonboglar, attracts thousands of swimmers from around Europe every year. This year's event will be held on July 21. Boats are spaced along the route every 100 feet or so for safety, and a ferry takes swimmers back to the starting point afterward (go to www.balaton-atuszas.hu).

LIFT A GLASS. The wines are excellent, if not yet as good as the best from France or Italy. They're best sampled by hiking the vineyards above the lake and stopping in wherever you see a sign for bor. That's Hungarian for wine, and in these parts it's a word worth knowing.

By Jack Ewing

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