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A Winter Break at Lake Balaton

Tourism

The first time I saw Lake Balaton, I almost didn’t see it. But, in my five years of coming to Hungary, I’d never seen Hungary’s inland sea and I was determined to stand on that fabled shore.

On the morning of our last day in Siófok, I left the splendidly warm and comfortable bubble of Residence Balaton, where my partner and I had gone for a few days of pre-Christmas wellness, and tottered the block or so down to the lake. It was draped in a heavy, whispering mist and I could see practically nothing.  

I scampered back to Residence Balaton down an unpaved road that ran between holiday villas and pensions closed for winter, thinking this would be the perfect setting for a horror movie.

My constitutional walk to the lake had taken all of five minutes. Although it was tempting to hurry back inside the hotel, I’d told my partner, who I’d left reclining in bed, not to expect me back for an hour at least. I’ll check out Siófok, I thought.

In German, Siófok is ‘Fock’. I wondered whether that might relate to the town’s pre-1989 history as a popular destination for reluctantly socialist East German tourists enjoying the comparative freedom of Hungary. The name actually comes from ‘fuk’, the term for a small brook. I have to say that the river that now runs through the middle of Siófok is a lot larger than that.

If you’re thinking about taking a winter break in Siófok, I would suggest you waste no time exploring the town. There are a couple of good cake shops but that’s not much use when you’re on a wellness break.

Bursting at the Summer Seams

Summer’s a different matter, apparently. This is when Siófok’s 17 kilometers of coast are packed and the hotels, bars, restaurants and night clubs are bursting with Hungarians on holiday and determined to party. In winter, Siófok becomes one of the country’s most popular wellness and conference destinations.

This meant that, when she began researching into places for us to stay where we could get in some much-needed wellness and I could see Lake Balaton, my partner had plenty of options. In Residence Balaton, she chose wisely.

If it’s your thing, some of Siófok’s discos must be open all-year round. The bar at Residence Balaton was dead by 9 p.m. but we were woken in the wee hours by the sound of male voices raised in cheery song and laughter. Next morning at breakfast, the flock of young guys gathered round a long table guzzling coffee and juice and wolfing down fried breakfasts looked nicely hungover and decidedly sheepish.

The problem with all-inclusive wellness breaks – at least for me – is that the sustenance side of things is usually catered for by all you can eat buffets. Another challenge, as wellness people would say, is that the food on offer is often of the deep-fried, carbohydrate-packed variety. I don’t dare weigh myself before and after a Hungarian wellness break.

I’ve learned my lesson insofar as we now only pay for half-board. At least there’s an entire 10 hours between my five-course breakfast and dinner, which I’ve managed to get down to a maximum of three visits to the buffet.

Incidentally, what’s your strategy when it comes to breakfast? I’ve never figured out in what order to have my eggs and whatever, muesli and pastries. Normal meal logic would dictate savory followed by sweet, but I often see people having sweet stuff like fruit first. It’s an endlessly fascinating conundrum.

Healthy Options

Anyway, one of the really good things about Residence Balaton is ‘kreatív séf’ (creative chef, if you couldn’t work it out) Gábor Krausz has included plenty of healthy, light, vegetable, soup and salad options alongside the meat fest you’d expect on a Hungarian menu. I believe you can also go vegan if you wish.

Despite Residence Balaton bending over backwards to offer a healthy menu, this is Hungary. Which meant that part of the fun was watching how many times people went back to the buffet during the course of dinner. The most I counted was 11 times.

The person I surreptitiously observed wasn’t actually overweight. Perhaps they’d been making diligent use of the Residence Balaton spa.

It was great that the spa at Residence Balaton includes a decent sized indoor pool, jacuzzi, plunge pools and so on. But my partner and I are sauna connoisseurs, and this is what wellness is all about for us. Residence Balaton didn’t disappoint.

I sweated and she perspired in the usual, ferociously hot sauna. We fell asleep in the salt and infrared sauna. Salt therapy, also known as halotherapy, is meant to ease your breathing by helping to dry up bronchial infections. Infrared saunas heat up your body rather than the air around you which makes them much more bearable. If 15 minutes in a conventional sauna sounds like your idea of hell, 45 minutes in an infrared sauna is, as I say, so pleasant it’s easy to relax so much you drift off.

There’s also an aromatic sauna but this was pretty boring. Imagine sitting in a vaguely warm shed where some herbs once lived, and you get the picture. Still, we smelled suitably fragrant as we sashayed off to the buffet.

Trains go to Siófok every two hours or so from Budapest’s Déli (Southern) station. It’s not a great idea to arrive at Déli in plenty of time to get the train, especially on a cold day. If you go to Lake Balaton from this station, you’ll understand why. Residence Balaton can be found online at www.rhb.hu


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