On my second visit to Hungary, we decided to try our hand at birdwatching and wildlife spotting in Balaton-felvidéki Nemzeti Park on the shores of Lake Balaton for my boyfriend’s birthday.
We arrived in Budapest and spent the night there going to the Gellért Baths. The next day we picked up the hire car and drove south to Lake Balaton.
Our first stop was Tihany, a tiny town on the shores of Lake Balaton. It is in the middle of the Balaton-felvidéki Nemzeti Park so I was hoping for some good wildlife watching. I did forget that not everywhere is as well set up for birdwatching as the UK, so I was disappointed that I didn’t see more.
On our way, I insisted that we visit the buffalo reserve in Kápolnapuszta which was a farm that showed off traditional Hungarian country life, hence the buffaloes. They weren’t really free-ranging as they were in a paddock. The adults liked to stare you out but the young ones were pretty cute.
They weren’t the only exciting mammal to live this ranch! We also saw European ground squirrels bobbing around the fields and I nearly exploded from joy! A new mammal spot in Europe is a rare thing and should be treated as such!
Ground squirrels like to forage for shoots and leaves during the day, but they are at constant risk from predators. They are a key bit of meat for many raptors and polecats so they often hide and depend on camouflage to save themselves, during the winter months they hibernate. They have sadly been listed as a vulnerable species by the IUCN due to habitat loss and fragmentation. Their decline is also bad news for the predators who rely on them as part of their diet.
We returned to Tihany to check into our flat and get some birthday food for my boyfriend. Tihany’s main attraction is its abbey, which saw the most action after WW2 when Austrian Emperor Karl I squatted there while trying to reclaim his Hungarian throne (before he was handed over to the British).
We ate a massive meal at a traditional restaurant that the flat owner had recommended to us. It tasted great and we drank ourselves merry for my boyfriend’s birthday. In the morning, we went down to the lower part of the town and walked to the inner lake, a lake within a lake if you will!
This turned out to be a great decision as we saw a small flock of penduline tits which was a new bird for me! I originally thought they were red-backed shrikes but that seemed unlikely, so I looked through my European bird book and found them. I loved their little bandit masks and watching them flit about the reeds. After that birding experience we drove to Tapolca.
My main reason for picking Tapolca was the underwater caves. I picked these in lieu of the ice caves of Salzburg, which were closed in the winter due to…ice. It was a hard thing for Tapolca’s lake caves to live up to the grandeur of the ice caves and they didn’t manage to which was my fault.
The entrance to the cave is right in the centre of Tapolca so we parked up and joined one of the tours. The only problem was that it was in Hungarian and we had to listen to the entire thing whilst walking around the whole museum before we got to go in the cave.
We weren’t the only people who were bored out of our faces from looking around the room. When we eventually did get in the cave, you paddle your own metal boat through the tunnel. It’s a bit of a squeeze so it’s hard to avoid hitting the walls. In fairness, it is more like a museum with a small show cave attached.
We were on to a partial win with the hotel, it was located on a lovely pond in the centre of town with a water wheel attached. The water was full of fish and several cats were patrolling around. The only bad thing about the hotel was the dead animal head collection as clearly the owner loved hunting. Sadly, shooting wildlife is a big thing in Hungary. I did not like it.
After we finished at the cave we ate our disappointment with some lunch at the restaurant by the pond. When we got back in the car, I knew that I had planned something whilst doing my research, but I couldn’t remember what it was. This meant that we drove around aimlessly which annoyed my boyfriend who was behind the wheel.
The annoying thing about Balaton is that it is so quiet out of season with nowhere to drive up to the water that isn’t some sort of kids park or yacht club. Every inch of land around the lake seems to be owned, or at least in the places we visited. ‘
We saw two woodpeckers in a kids play area and we found a few places to stand and look at the water, but it wasn’t really the natural paradise I imagined. It was more of a play area for rich people and I hate when beautiful places are over-exploited. There may have been other areas that were more pristine and there certainly was wildlife in there somewhere, we just weren’t in a place to see it.
That night we had tea in the same restaurant as lunch, as there are not many eateries in Tapolca. During our meal, we had an awkward chat about people we’d slept with, borne out of boredom and frustration with each other and then I had potato pancakes. I also remembered that the thermal spa resort of Lake Hévíz was where I had planned for us to go.
The next morning we headed to Lake Hévíz to finish my forgotten part of the itinerary. It is Europe’s largest thermal lake and the second largest in the world after New Zealand. It was first used by the Romans and became a spa resort in the 18th century.
Today, it offers some form of medical treatment for rheumatic and locomotive disorders, as the water contains goodies such as sulphur, radium and minerals. The water was warm in the covered area but freezing outside, some people were pretty hard as they swam in it! After our swim we went for saunas, a jacuzzi and a steam before heading to Sopron.
Lake Balaton is a great place to drive around and spot wildlife! If you’re a serious birdwatcher I would recommend hiring a guide and bringing a scope to find as many birds as possible! On our way to Sopron we saw lots of deer and hares so you will certainly come across those on your journey.