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For thousands of vacationers, holiday means Lake Balaton. Located in Hungary's trans-Danube region, Lake Balaton is Central Europe's largest lake. The Zala River is its main water source. Less than two hours southwest of Budapest, the lake's 147 miles of shoreline is affectionately called Hungary's seacoast. Covering more than 146,500 acres, Lake Balaton spans three of Hungary's counties: Somogy, Vaszprem, and Zala. It isn't solely Hungarian vacationers who flock to the welcoming water in this landlocked country; visitors from all over the world arrive at Lake Balaton prepared to have fun. Many years of catering to tourists has the Lake Balaton area supplied with a full complement of the activities and destinations that please every type of vacationer.
Since the opening of the Sio Canal in 1863, lower lake levels have opened up more flat shoreline for development. Nearly the entire south shore is a series of beaches, hotels, spas, villages, shops, parks and holiday villas. The south shore contrasts with the higher slopes of the north shore, known for centuries for their excellent vineyards and wines. The shallow waters offer excellent swimming beaches and fishing. As private motor-powered boats are prohibited, Lake Balaton has maintained its tradition as a sailing and yachting paradise. Commercial powered cruise and sightseeing launches are allowed to access the lake as are commercial shipping vessels. The Central-Transdanubian Environmental and Water Directorate controls access to the Sio Canal as well as determining when sluice gates will be opened to release water into the canal.
Several cities share the shoreline of Lake Balaton, all with their own personalities. Keszthely at the western end of the lake is a university town popular with students. For visitors wishing to see the more historical side of Balaton, Keszthely is home to the Festetics Palace as well as several museums. Nearby, the small thermal lake at Heviz is one of the most visited areas of Hungary, as holiday visitors come to soak in the refreshing warm mineral springs.
The southern basin of Lake Balaton is shallower, allowing for many family-oriented resorts along the south shore. At the eastern end of the south shore, Siofok is a municipality that is known for its bars, dance clubs and party atmosphere. Here, surrounding the Sio Canal entrance, marinas and yacht clubs house much of the pleasure fleet that sails Lake Balaton each summer. Dams and water control structures on the canal control the lake level, keeping it stable. Siofok also caters to a young adult crowd, with active sports such as kite-surfing, gliders and beach parties. The population swells to four or five times its winter population during the summer holidays. The summer season is full of activities, including swim competitions, folklore and music performances, and beer and wine festivals. The Sio Channel Festival draws thousands of visitors as do the other annual cultural festivals such as the Spring Festival, Stephanie Festival, the late summer Feast of Bread and Wine, and October's most popular country-wide event, the Egg Festival. Casinos are popular year-round.
Visitors with quieter tastes enjoy the northern shore of Lake Balaton: Szigliget offers a picturesque experience with its medieval castle ruins tucked among lush green forests. The northern slopes are an ideal place for hiking and trekking; the many wine cellars of the region will provide a great taste of the Uplands. Several historical ruins of castles and fortresses dot the high summits of the old volcanic hills, including an old Austrian - Hungarian fortress that was besieged by the Turks; stone projectiles are still visible in the walls. Along the lakefront, Badascony showcases its striking tabletop mountain with magnificent basalt rock formations, and the Tihany Peninsula offers both a picturesque abbey and Hungary's oldest National Park.
A bicycle track circles the entire lake and is an excellent way to discover the varied terrain, towns and historic attractions in the Lake Balaton area. Not far west of the western shore, Kis Balaton (Little Balaton) is one of Europe's top wetland nature reserves and a favorite spot for birdwatchers. Nearby is Kapolnapuszta, a buffalo reserve where where water buffalo brought to the area centuries ago from Asia thrive. The resort area extends back from the shoreline several miles, with small towns and farm villages offering rustic lodging opportunities at reasonable prices. Hungary is one of the few Central European countries that encourages foreign real estate ownership, and lovely lake view properties are nearly always available. Those wishing to find vacation rentals can choose from a full complement of holiday cottages, youth hostels, chalets, timeshares and caravan resorts.
Fishing is also big business at Lake Balaton, with commercial fishing occurring over several centuries. The hobby angler will find bream, carp, zander or perch-pike, asp, ziege or sabre carp, pike and European eel. Some of these fish form the basis of one of the popular regional dishes, halaszle with pasta, or fish soup. In the winter, the lake often freezes, providing ice fishing and ice skating to delight winter visitors.
A visitor to Hungary will likely want to spend some time exploring the museums and attractions of Budapest about 60 miles to the east of Lake Balaton. One attraction that children especially enjoy is the Childrens Railway west of Budapest. Founded by the Communists in 1949 as a Young Pioneers' project, the 6.8 mile narrow-gauge Childrens Railway runs through the forest of the Buda hills. Between 40 and 70 children ages 10 through 14 control the stations and daily traffic on the line, which is run strictly to the rules of the Hungarian State Railways. Only the diesel and steam engines are driven by adult engineers. To be selected to work on the railway is a great honor offered only to the best students.
One trip to Lake Balaton won't be enough for the average visitor. No holiday is long enough to see everything there is to see, or experience every activity one wishes to try. So come to Lake Balaton and start a life-long love affair with the green waters and Hungarian culture. The friendly local residents are eager to welcome you.
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