A Liquid Wilderness – Light & Darkness at Balatonfured

Balatonfured is the kind of place that makes you wish you were born there. There is something about this town set on the sloping hills north of Lake Balaton that seems to fill visitors with happiness. Perhaps it is the bluish green water of Lake Balaton, expansive and alluring with a hypnotic quality. No wonder this place was a magnet for convalescents. Water has made the town what it is today; a resort, a place of healing and a refuge for relaxation. Walking along the lakefront promenade, it is hard to imagine that winter ever occurs here. Perhaps in some alternate universe the lake does freeze. Locals have even been known to skate figure eights in the dead of winter on Hungary’s largest seasonal sheet of ice. This is exceedingly hard to fathom on bright and sunny days. Of even greater difficulty, is trying to imagine the darkness that on one notable occasion cast a shadow over these beautiful shores. Balatonfured has not always been a place of fun and frolic. It also has been consumed by tragedy. This place has a history much like Hungary’s, of light and darkness.

A Spa Town – Nursing the Nation Back to Health
The tidy streets and colorful buildings bright dispositions literally beam. Visitors stroll around in a languid, unhurried pace. Here at Balatonfured life is to be enjoyed. The town and its accompanying shoreline have cast a spell on visitors for well over two centuries. Balatonfured was designated a spa town in 1772, the first of many that came to line the shores of Central Europe’s biggest lake. From that point onward, its popularity began to grow, especially with intellectuals, artists and political elites. They came to soak in the waters, not only of Balaton, but also of the sulfurous springs just beneath the town’s surface. The healing qualities of Balatonfured’s mineral springs soon became legendary.

Famed Hungarian novelist Mor Jokai arrived here in 1862 at the age of 37 suffering from a life threatening case of chronic bronchitis. Magically, the soothing mineral waters of Balatonfured nursed him back to health. His already prolific literary output soared in the years following that first visit. He would soon rise to even greater fame. It was only a decade after his initial visit to Baltonfured that he authored “Az Arany Ember” (The Golden Man), whose translation was said to be Queen Victoria’s favorite novel. Jokai decided to take up residence in the town. He spent many more productive days in this refreshing environment. Today visitors can see The Jokai Memorial House where they can learn more about the man who is known as the “Hungarian Dickens.” Insight can be gained into the life of a man who produced thousands of pages of popular literature after settling here.

Monument to the Pajtas disaster that stands on the Balatonfured promenade

Monument to the Pajtas disaster that stands on the Balatonfured promenade

A Tragedy of Indifference – The Pajtas Disaster
Down by the promenade, close to one of the docks where waterfowl flock and float to the shoreline, a small monument looms. It is a testament to the fact that even in the sunniest of climes danger looms. A lone arm with five outstretched fingers is attached to a stone block. The hand seems to coax the viewer forward, as though it were alive and pleading for assistance. This is a sad reminder of one of the darkest moments to occur in the waters of Lake Balaton.

On May 30, 1954 the steamship Pajtas was traveling on the lake carrying 178 passengers. They were intensely watching a sailing competition. While attempting to get a closer look at the sailboats scurrying past, the passengers all went to one side of the ship. Their combined weight caused the boat to overturn. Suddenly passengers were flailing in the water. Emergency response was all, but nonexistent. Personal flotation devices and life boats were nowhere to be found. The accident led to numerous fatalities from drowning. Crowds standing along the far away shore line were reported to have heard screams and cries. They were unable to offer any assistance, as they stood helpless, watching the tragedy unfold.

Liquid Wilderness
The total number of victims is still not known today. Estimates range from twelve – given by communist news sources trying to cover up the tragedy at the time – to over forty counted by a first-hand witness. No matter what the number, the fact that the story was hushed up is a striking example of official indifference. Communism was supposed to be for the people, in reality it was often against them. The monument on the shoreline is a reminder that Balaton for all its beauty is not any ordinary lake. It may be alluringly, entrancingly beautiful, but it is also a liquid wilderness. Storms have been known to sweep across its waters with stunning and deadly swiftness. Balaton has the power to cast darkness as well as radiate light. Those who seek refuge along its beautiful shores would do well to keep this in mind.

This essay along with many others on the history and culture of Hungary can now also be found in the ebook: A Touch of Imagination: An Intelligent Traveler’s Guide to Hungary

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