Lake Balaton – Duck Heaven

There’s nothing that Duck Holiday likes more than a nice lake (unless it’s high quality wholemeal bread and a glass of oatmeal stout, of course) and Lake Balaton is quite palpably a nice lake. It’s a pretty big one, too, in fact the biggest in Central Europe.

How nice a view do you want from a hotel room?

How nice a view do you want from a hotel room?

Naturally enough, it’s a tourist magnet, but don’t let that put you off. Going at the height of the summer might not be the best idea, but a visit in May or September is likely to be considerably quieter and you’d be a bit unlucky if you didn’t get some decent weather.

The biggest town around the lake is Keszthely, situated at the western end of Balaton. The town is not far from the border with Croatia; Keszthely is roughly half way between Budapest and Zagreb. It’s also in grape growing country, so a glass of decent wine is never too far away, either.

The idea – and someone suggested this in all seriousness – that there is nothing to do is absurd. Clearly, it depends on what you like doing, but there should never be a shortage of options. You don’t have to spend the time sitting around or hanging about in Keszthely (though both are pleasant enough options for a short time). There are places to visit and things to see.

A trip to Budapest isn’t too difficult. There are both bus and railway stations at Keszthely, but the bus is probably a better bet. Times vary, but there are quick buses that will get you to Budapest in less than three hours. Unless you’re planning to stay in Budapest, you will only have the opportunity for a fairly quick look around the capital from a day trip, but for a first-time visitor, it provides a nice little taster and will leave you eager for more at a later date. Neither the bus nor the train will cost you a fortune.

Keszthely bus station is a haven for House Martins during the summer and the whole area is a magnet for birds. Anyone staying near the lake can hardly fairly to notice the weird chirring and reeling bird sounds in the early morning. Closer investigation reveals warblers. Not just any warbler; these are Great Reed Warblers, warblers with both size and attitude. They are the biggest European warbler, not far off the size of a Song Thrush. At the risk of stating the obvious, they nest in the many reed beds around the lake and they’re not difficult to spot, often clinging to the tops of reeds to unleash their distinctive song.

House Martin apartments

House Martin apartments

Even a short walk around the margins of the lake should reveal plenty of birds. This part of Europe attracts lots of bird, as well as human, visitors, so migrant warblers, flycatchers and many other species can be seen. Herons and egrets lurk around the edges and it’s not too difficult to encounter relatively exotic species like Purple Herons and Great White Egrets. If you’re lucky, you might also spot an osprey fishing on the lake.

Lurking egret

Lurking egret

There is one bird that it’s easy to overlook because a superficial glance will probably suggest that you’ve just seen a robin. Not necessarily; it might just be a Red-breasted Flycatcher. A good way to tell the difference is in the behaviour. Flycatchers will hunt from a favourite perch, speeding off to catch their prey before returning to the perch time and again.

There are plenty of ways to get around. In addition to the buses and trains, there are regular boat services to lakeside towns. There’s a pleasant day to be had by taking a boat trip, visiting a couple of places by bus and catching a train back to Keszthely. Since all of the towns and villages are postcard pretty, any trip of this sort is unlikely to be aesthetically disappointing.

Out on the lake

Out on the lake

The prettiest of the towns on the northern shore is probably Balatonfüred, or simply Füred. Although it’s the third largest town by the lake, it’s a small place of stunning Baroque beauty. It’s also renowned for its spa waters and wine. Those looking for a bit more action should head to the other side of the lake and the town of Siófok. This is the place for the 24-hour party people, which rules out Duck Holiday, who favours a much more sedate existence.

Public transport is cheap and it’s worth having a trip on the train as there are stations at almost every little town or village by the lake and thankfully Dr Beeching had no Hungarian equivalent. If you’re planning to do quite a bit of travelling, you can buy a combined ticket for trains and boats. A seven-day ticket costs about £15, so it’s good value if you intend to make a few trips.

Keszthely has attractions of its own, however. Situated in a large and rather lovely park, there’s the splendidly Baroque Festetics Palace, for a start, which houses the Helikon Castle Museum, notable for its substantial and extensive library. There are several other museums in the town, including the Marzipan Museum for those with understanding dentists.

Festetics Palace

Festetics Palace

The town also has a decent variety of restaurants, including vegetarian. This being a tourist area, they’re not the cheapest around, but you shouldn’t have to pay a fortune for a decent meal. They are certainly cheaper than hotels, and that applies to having a drink as well. One nice way to spend an evening, assuming the weather is nice, is to sit at one of the little bars by the lake, where you can watch both the sun and the beer go down. For a pleasing snack to accompany your drinks, try a potato pancake, or lángos in Hungarian (a personal preference involves plenty of garlic). Civilisation doesn’t come much better than this.

One can, of course, indulge in the local wine and there is plenty of it. There are five wine regions around Lake Balaton. Balatonboglár, on the south side of the lake is the centre of Balaton’s wine trade, but there are vineyards all along the northern shore as well. Many of the wine cellars can be visited by the public, though it’s safer to make a booking in advance.

Those who prefer to treat holidays as exercise camps have plenty of options, from water sports to cycling and hiking. There are myriad cycle routes around Keszthely and lots of countryside to tramp around in. If you’re high enough in the hills on a clear day, you can see a long way. As The Carpenters almost sang, you’ll be on top of the world, looking down on Croatia.

A Duck Holidayer relaxes

A Duck Holidayer relaxes

Even in the busier parts of the tourist season, there’s no need to be swamped by the crowds. There is plenty of space and there are plenty of places to find some peace and quiet. Several thousand ducks cannot be wrong.

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Istanbul’s Great Buildings – Rumeli Hisari

By 1451, Constantinople was surrounded by Ottoman forces. The city, however, obdurately refused to fall and Sultan Mehmed II was getting impatient. The result was Rumeli Hisari, a fortress built on the European side of the Bosphorus, at its narrowest point.

The Ottomans could now control the sea and particularly traffic arriving from the Black Sea, from where aid and supplies could be delivered to the besieged city. The fortress was completed in 1452 (within four months) and the end came in the following year.

Rumeli Hisari

Rumeli Hisari

In truth, Constantinople was all but finished after the sack by the so-called Fourth Crusade in 1204. Although it was to struggle on for almost another 250 years, it was economically impoverished and close to being politically irrelevant. A city that had boasted a population of around half a million people had about 50,000 inhabitants by the time of the fall. With grim irony, it was the destructive greed of a Christian army that effectively made Constantinople an easy target for the Muslim Ottomans.

Rumeli Hisari may not be an architectural masterpiece in the manner of Istanbul’s great churches and mosques – after all, it was built in quick time for very pragmatic reasons – but it is still impressive and for anyone with an interest in history, it is one of the most significant buildings in Europe. This was where the life was strangled out of the remnants of the Byzantine Empire, which by then effectively meant the city of Constantinople.

View across the Bosphorus

View across the Bosphorus

The fortress offers modern day visitors wonderful views over the Bosphorus, which of course was one of the primary reasons for its existence, though its defenders were not there to admire the scenery. It was subsequently used as a customs house and prison. These days, the place functions as a museum and outdoor concert hall.

The site is open daily with the exception of Wednesdays. For anyone with a sense of history, it is a genuinely evocative place.

Istanbul’s Great Buildings – Süleymaniye Mosque

The vast Süleymaniye Mosque was built in the 1550s and like the later Sultan Ahmed Mosque, lifts its hat in acknowledgement to Hagia Sophia. The three buildings have a similar appearance, all being dominated by a large dome. It was, as its name suggests, ordered by Sultan Süleyman (‘the Magnificent’) and completed some eight years before his death.

Süleymaniye Mosque

Süleymaniye Mosque

The Süleymaniye is, perhaps, the most impressive of Istanbul’s mosques. The courtyard is particularly splendid, with its elegant colonnaded arches. Inside, the space feels huge, the area (almost) a square with light flooding in. The interior does not have the abundance of ceramic tiles of the Sultan Ahmed, with rather more subtle decorations being the order of the day.

Courtyard

Courtyard

The lovely gardens house two mausoleums, one containing the tomb of Sultan Süleyman. Also here is the tomb of Mimar Sinan, the architect charged with designing the mosque. Fittingly, Sinan designed his own tomb, a triangular affair that is modest in appearance, suggesting that his deserved reputation as the greatest of Ottoman architects did not go to his head.

Sinan tomb

Sinan tomb

The architect of the Blue Mosque, Sedefkar Mehmed Agha, was a pupil of Sinan and the influence is clearly visible. It’s a pretty safe bet that any sizeable mosque with a domed roof that you encounter in Istanbul was either designed by Sinan or one of his protégés.

As with most large mosques, the Süleymaniye is a complex of buildings and includes a hamam (bath-house). It is open to the public for use, though there is something faintly disturbing in that free life insurance is offered during a bath.

Something to recommend the Süleymaniye is that you don’t get the hordes of tourists that frequent Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. A visit feels much more leisurely here, and there is a row of pleasant little cafés and restaurants next to the mosque, where you can sit with a cup of coffee and admire the architecture and watch the activity.

Interior

Interior

If you find that your visit coincides with a time for prayer, the mosque is next door to the University’s Botanic Gardens, which is a pleasant place to stroll around for a while until the worshippers have gone.

Istanbul’s Great Buildings – Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Built in the early 17th century, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is more commonly known as the Blue Mosque. The reason is not apparent from outside, but on entering the building, the blue ceramic tiles of the interior give the game away.

The mosque sits alongside Hagia Sophia and one can immediately see the similarities, particularly in the style of the domed roof. Like the great basilica, the structure is about awe-inspiring size. With its vast dome, a further eight smaller domes and six minarets, it’s not a building to be overlooked. The six minarets also make a statement – no mosque had ever had so many.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Local legend says that the sultan had asked for a minaret in altin (gold), but the architect misheard and thought he’d asked for alti (six) minarets. No harm was done, as the sultan was delighted that the mosque now had more minarets than any previous structure.

If the exterior is impressive, the inside is stunning. With more than 20,000 handmade tiles, the Nicaean ceramic industry was kept in business for a few years. The theme is mainly flowers and only a trained botanist would realise that there were so many different varieties of tulip.

Like Hagia Sophia, the building is afforded plenty of natural light by a plethora of windows, in this case 260 of them. Disappointingly, the original coloured windows have largely been replaced by something more prosaic. At least they do the job of allowing light into the mosque and there are also low-level chandeliers, though these look a little tacky.

Inside the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque looks pretty stunning at any time, but it makes for an especially impressive view at night, when it is lit up. The domes and minarets, floodlit against the night sky, make for an unforgettable sight.

Istanbul’s Great Buildings – Hagia Sophia

The first church on the site of Hagia Sophia was inaugurated in 360 CE during the reign of Constantius II. Historians continue to debate whether it was Constantius or the earlier emperor, Constantine the Great, who ordered the building of the church. Either way, the largely wooden structure burned down in 404.

The church was rebuilt under Emperor Theodosius II in 405 and was to last a bit longer than its predecessor. It was also, however, destroyed by fire in 532. A few marble blocks remain from the structure and can be seen in the courtyard of the present building.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

The third incarnation is essentially the one that stands in today’s Istanbul. Justinian’s grand design was far beyond what had gone before, though astonishingly, the huge new church was completed within six years. The building has been damaged by a combination of earthquakes (a common event), fires and the ravages of the so-called Fourth Crusade, when Latin ‘Christians’ looted and ransacked their way through Constantinople.

After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, which it remained until the founder of the present Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, decreed that it be turned into a museum.

Other than the sheer size of the building, it’s probably the dome that takes the breath away. The dome was the world’s largest until the construction of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which is around ten metres bigger. The effect in Hagia Sophia is magnified by the windows around the dome, providing a huge amount of natural light into the building. You can spend a considerable amount of time simply staring in wonderment at the dome.

The dome

The dome

It’s hard to imagine what the mosaics would have looked like before the various depredations of the Crusaders and the coverings that took place after the conversion to a mosque (where religious iconography is not permitted). Earthquakes have taken their toll as well, but there are still some impressive examples, notably above the Imperial Door and in the upper galleries. A little glimpse of the church’s origins can be seen in the mosaic depicting the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus receiving gifts from the emperors Justinian and Constantine the Great. The mosaic is in the doorway above the south-western vestibule.

Justinian mosaic

Justinian mosaic

A look at the biggest mosques in Istanbul suggests that the Ottomans were as impressed as everyone else by Hagia Sophia. Just a glimpse of the mosques of Sultan Ahmed (popularly known as the Blue Mosque), Süleymaniye and Rüstem Pasha calls Justinian’s great cathedral to mind. The resemblance is quite striking.

Considering the events that Hagia Sophia has witnessed over more than 1500 years, its condition is remarkable. The building requires almost constant maintenance, but the cost of losing such a wonderful structure cannot be quantified. One of the supreme ironies, of course, is that the great seat of the Eastern Christian Church was treated with a great deal more respect by its Muslim curators than it was by the Crusaders who hypocritically travelled under the Cross. For that, we should all be grateful.