The healing mud of western Hungary, European Capital of Culture 2023

3 mins read

Every year, the EU awards gives one city a massive tourism boost by awarding it the esteemed title of European Capital of Culture. This time, “city” doesn’t quite fit. In 2023 the focus is on an entire region. Healing mud awaits visitors in the west of Hungary.

Cultural manager Can Togay can already feel the tingle of anticipation of welcoming guests from all over the world in front of his own living room next year. 

“I like sharing the experience and the love of the region,” says the former Hungarian actor who once worked alongside stars like Isabelle Huppert.

Today, he’s the chief artistic and creative advisor to the Hungarian Capital of Culture project, which the European Union has once again awarded to an entire region in 2023: the city of Veszprem and an extensive area around the nearby Lake Balaton, which is likely to be familiar to a number of holidaymakers throughout Europe.

Provincial charm in Veszprem

Veszprem, on the other hand, a city of 60,000, is probably a blank spot on the map for most visitors and most likely known mainly to sports fans. The local handball club is at the top level in Europe and has won a number of Hungarian championships and cups.

Otherwise, it’s the distinct charm of the region that dominates here. At the time of my visit, there was a painting exhibition in the intimate rooms of the House of Arts; the concert hall, where a pianist is preparing for her performance, is just as small and fine.

You won’t find a classic castle in Veszprem’s castle quarter. Flower tubs stand in front of façades in yellow and pink, while a viewpoint offers a view of the Bakony Mountains.

Must-see stops on the stroll through the city include the St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica, the Holy Trinity Column, the old fire-watch tower and a bronze effigy of Michael defeating the devil. 

Like many cities before it, Veszprem is hoping for a boost from the EU title. Since the Capital of Culture region was announced, initiatives have been underway to combat vacant shops and offices in the city centre, and new pubs and wine bars have sprung up.

Jewellery made from coffee capsules

Every second Sunday, the smell of local delicacies such as cheese and sausages wafts through the air, as the market takes place on the main square.

Magdolna Sasvari’s stand catches the eye. The artist transforms used coffee capsules into brooches, tiaras, rings and candle holders. “The necklaces sell the best,” she says. She admits that sometimes she drinks coffee not based on the flavour, but according to the colour of the capsules she needs for what she’s planning on making.

Art can also be found outside of Veszpre, for example at the Herend Porcelain Manufactory, one of the most important in Europe. The attached museum has a lavish collection of vase, cups, jugs and figurines. 

Visitors can take a look at the handiwork in the show workshops. The decorative and utility objects don’t just gather dust on a shelf, but are sold in 58 countries.

The largest lake in Central Europe

Ten kilometres south of Veszprem, a short drive through hills and woodland, lies Lake Balaton. The body of water is the largest lake in Central Europe. If you stand on its shore, you feel like you’re at sea, not able to see land. “Every Hungarian has a close connection to Lake Balaton, including myself,” says cultural manager Togay.

He reminisces about the historical culture of bathing, villas and steamships, as well as the fact that “East and West met here during the Cold War”. Because Lake Balaton is relatively flat and benefits from its own microclimate, it gets slightly warmer in summer. The southern shores are particularly popular with swimmers.

Sparkling wine is part of the Balaton lifestyle

Wine-growing has a long tradition in the area around Lake Balaton, dating back to Roman times. Basalt soil gives the wine a mineral aroma, especially the white wine variety Kéknyelü, which holds its own against international wines. The same goes for the regional sparkling wine, which is made from Furmint grapes.

The “freshness of the sparkling wine” suits the lifestyle around Lake Balaton, says agricultural engineer Bence Laposa, who runs the winery on his family’s estate. “Sparkling wine is on trend right now, but it will take a few more years before it really catches on.”

Shouting from the rooftops is not Laposa’s style. So he only mentions quietly that he considers Hungarian wines, especially white, to be underestimated. He says: “The Rhine, Wachau, Tuscany: our wines can keep up with the best of them.”

Bence Laposa himself likes to drink a fruity Welschriesling. Culinary accompaniments to wine here in the restaurants include pikeperch, duck liver, sauerkraut soup, goulash and ham from woolly pigs (Mangalica), which melts like butter in the mouth.

A baroque palace and healing mud to go

We continue along the north shore to Keszthely on the northwestern edge of the lake. At the baroque Festetics Palace you will find a carefully tended park. A highlight of the palace is the 200-year-old, lavishly stocked library with more than 90,000 volumes. A separate entrance takes you to a carriage museum.

Just behind Keszthely, the small town of Héviz boasts a year-round bathing season. The water of the town’s thermal lake changes naturally several times a day. 

For visitors looking to take the lake’s healing mud home with them, you can buy it to take away in five-kilo buckets. ©dpa

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