Sunday, 16 August 2015

Hungary – Langos on Lake Balaton

August 13-15

Hello everyone!

My latest backpacking adventure is coming to a close with one more country to visit before returning to Prague. It’s an intriguing country which is fairly unique in Europe, and one in which travellers rarely venture away from its capital.

Lake Balaton, Hungary

I’m guilty of this as well. Budapest is a beautiful and wonderful city which I’ve had the pleasure of visiting two times: 2008 and 2009. During the latter occasion I went to Sziget festival, which at the time was an interesting and up-and-coming player on the European music scene.

Sziget festival, 2009

Carl and I posing with a very sweaty dancer at Sziget festival, 2009
Fast-forward six years and Sziget has become huge, an enormous invasion of ravers and revellers. I do enjoy festivals but this surge in visitors, in addition to the fact that I’ve visited before, led me to decide that I would find an alternative place in Hungary to visit. That place is bigger geographically, though with far fewer people: Lake Balaton.

The view from the boat which links Balatonboglar and Revfulop
Don’t get me wrong, central Europe’s largest lake is definitely a tourist destination. It’s just a very different place with a different genre of visitor, mainly Hungarians. Being a landlocked country, it is their watery playground (they actually call it the Hungarian Sea).

Apartments and villas line the land close to the shore

Lake Balaton from the northern side
The lake, which at a maximum of 14km across is surprisingly slender considering its size, has many sleepy villages which awaken during the summer to cater for an influx of Hungarian families desperate to cool off and escape urban life. Most accommodation comes in the form of rented villas or apartments, with one hostel in the town of Revfülöp on the northern side.

The village of Revfulop

To get to Revfülöp (which roughly translates as ‘Philip’s ferry’), I had to cross the lake from a place called Balatonboglar. Many villages start with Balaton as a prefix, resulting in some rather large names. This particular point had a free beach (I’ll talk about that shortly); with two hours to kill, I settled down against my backpack and made some observations.

This image might give you an idea of how long some of the names are
The main thing I noticed immediately was how many people seemed to be standing in the lake. Not just close to the rocky shore either: some seemed miles out. What I learnt upon stepping into the cloudy water was that the lake is very shallow for quite a long time. Apparently this can be a problem if storms arise, as waves can quickly form and sweep up unsuspecting bathers standing far away from the land.

The view from Balatonboglar beach
The other interesting point to make is that the beach itself isn’t sandy nor concrete like many of the southern European bathing spots. These beaches are grassy knolls. The bottom of the lake feels like sand when you’re walking through it; picking it up, however, will show you why it’s not used on the shore. Black silt.

A Hungarian 'beach'

The combination of the heat, swimming and having little to do but wait led to me becoming hungry. Hungry in Hungary: who’d have thought it, eh? A friend of mine had recommended that I try langos. What I received was a disc of thick, fried bread drizzled with a garlicy cream and smothered further with cheese. It is as unhealthy as it is delicious. The fact that I didn’t finish it might suggest to you how calorific one is.

Langos: a 'snack' more filling than a meal

At the risk of sinking the boat with most of a langos inside of me, I crossed to Revfülöp. This is where I learnt that not all beaches at Lake Balaton are free. The grassy areas are fenced off and a fee has to be paid in order to use them during the daytime. This money-making scheme ceases at 6pm, when many of the beaches can be freely accessed. Which is exactly what we did.
Sunset at Lake Balaton from Revfulop
I would have liked more time at Lake Balaton but a miscommunication (i.e. complete lack of communication) from the bus company returning me to Prague meant that I couldn’t alter my bus ticket in time to leave later. The upshot was leaving for Hungary’s second city of Györ the following afternoon. The Hungarian language is…challenging, and the pronunciation of this area is a prime example. It seemed to me that they way to say Györ closely resembles the way a child would imitate the growl of a bear.

Strange sounds were present within Györ as well, specifically a German-speaking rock band that were performing an open-air concert near the river. People flocked to see them play their hits, which I would firmly place in the ‘alternative’ category.

The German-singing band in one of Gyor's plazas 

Györ seemed to be a pleasant place, with pedestrianised areas and open plazas. Possibly owing to the band playing, it was tremendously busy. Other than that though, and the fact that I had goulash, there isn’t much else to say about the city.

Gyor city centre's main square: Szechenyi ter

Goulash: tastes better than it looks!
Many travellers I’ve met this summer were going to Budapest…and nowhere else in Hungary. If they had been earlier in their trip, they would inform me that it is stiflingly hot and has been throughout the summer thus far. The flipside of these facts is perhaps that the natives of that city all flock to other areas of the country, specifically Lake Balaton. I’d certainly recommend a visit if time allows, simply to cool off after sweltering in Hungary’s capital.

Love you all


Friday, 14 August 2015

Croatia – Picturesque Plitvice and her seemingly luminous lakes

August 10-13

Having seen some beautiful sights in Bosnia and Hercegovina, I had to pop back into Croatia in order to continue my journey back to Prague. I visited two vastly different places.

St. Mark's Church, Zagreb

Plitvice Lakes National Park

I took a nine-hour train (which passed surprisingly quickly) from Sarajevo to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital and largest city. I wasn’t overly excited about visiting Zagreb, mainly because I had already been to the city on my Interrail trip seven years ago. In 2008 it was very hot: 2015 was no different.

The map shows you the two locations in this blog: Zagreb and Plitvice

Ban Jelacic square, Zagreb

The place strikes me as Prague-lite: the statue in one of its main squares is a man on a horse; there is lots of greenery in the immediate outskirts of the town centre; and one of the main attractions is a ‘clock’ which doesn't work as a clock (this one stopped during the 1880 earthquake).

I learnt two particularly interesting things during my time in Zagreb. Firstly, the cravat was invented by Croatia. The French witnessed this when it was sported by a Croatian regiment working with them in the seventeenth century and, being naturally fashion-conscious, adopted the cravat into their clothing style.

I'd like to see someone try and wear this...

The other story, which I overheard from a walking tour, involves Zagreb’s cathedral. One day in the 1930s it was noticed that a man was atop one of the spires…doing a handstand. More people observed this whilst the police were called. As more people watched in awe at the performance, the police referred the case to the fire brigade. Whilst getting the man down, they asked him why he had decided to perform his precarious circus act. His response was that the very fire brigade had rejected his application to become a fireman, his lifelong ambition, so he wanted to prove to them that he was brave and had a head for heights. Apparently he was hired.

Zagreb Cathedral

Zagreb itself is a lovely city. The main reason for my sojourn in northern Croatia, however, was to visit a national park two hours to the southwest of the capital. The park, Plitvice Jezera, has many incredible sights, most of them involving strangely-coloured water.

Jezera, you see, is the Croatian word for ‘lakes’. Plitvice hosts fourteen lakes of all shapes, sizes and the most magnificent colours.

The pictures – of which there were hundreds to choose from as I was so infatuated by what I was witnessing – simply do not do justice to the vibrancy and iridescence of the shimmering lakes. Some were royal blue, whilst others were a luminous turquoise. A couple of lakes even struck me as resembling emerald green rather than blue. Apparently the lakes change colour regularly; if I were to visit again in the future I might see a different hue.

The lakes flow into one another from south to north. How the water moves from one to the next is the other reason to become awestruck at Plitvice.

Waterfalls. Everywhere. The soothing sound of gushing water flowing from one lake to the next is omnipresent. Cascades feed the vivid green moss which seemingly grows out of each descent.

The main waterfall – funnily enough, called the ‘big waterfall’ in English – is approximately 100 feet high.

There are many other waterfalls around the national park, many of which can be seen as you hike around. There are several walking routes, the largest (which takes in both the upper and lower lake areas) being over 18km in total. This route, known as the ‘K’ trail, pulls you away from the crowds and lets you enjoy the spectacular scenery in peace.

As you can see, this is a beautiful, wondrous area. Some argue it is one of the most attractive in Europe. The upshot of this is that many people want to see the Plitvice Lakes national park for themselves. Many, many people. I queued for 90 minutes on my first day and, even with arriving before most of the day-trippers from Zagreb or Zadar, 45 minutes on my second. They are queues which I would associate with Disneyworld.

The ninety-minute queue to enter Plitvice

This is why the lines are so long...

It’s an interesting comparison as Plitvice struck me as being a magical kingdom at times. The crazy colours of the water made me think of a Disney-esque water park. Some of the smaller waterfalls made me think that this would be the perfect ‘Shire’ from Lord of the Rings. Yet whilst those places of fantasy are imagined and contrived, Plitvice is completely natural and real.

One of the main rules is that you cannot swim in the lakes. I understand why they have taken that stance as there is every chance that human intervention could damage some of the natural flora and would be difficult to manage with the sheer volume of people marching through the entrances. It does, however, get stiflingly hot at times when walking around, which makes it incredibly frustrating that you can’t dip into a smaller lake to cool off or dunk yourself under a waterfall.

At least, you’re not supposed to…

Breaking the rules was never more necessary! 

Plitvice Jezera is an amazing place. Yes it is very expensive but you have to hope that much of the 180 kuna (roughly €24) for a day ticket goes to the maintenance and preservation of the park. Yes it is busy but you have to accept that something so beautiful will bring tens of thousands of people flocking to it on a daily basis. Many hostels and travel agencies do a day trip from Zagreb but that wouldn’t give you enough time to stroll around and truly enjoy the natural beauty.

No filters have been used on any of these pictures - these colours are completely real

My words and pictures cannot capture the splendour of the Plitvice Lakes National Park. Go for yourself and witness a natural treasure.

Love you all