The Gentle Lake In the Little Puszta
My family has a special attachment to Lake Szelid, which is why I took Mike there as the first stop of our cross European trip’s Hungarian section. The lake is 100 kilometres to the South of Budapest along the Danube which dissects the East and the West of Hungary.
We were lucky with the mid-September weather which was an unusual 30 degrees for several days. This was ideal for relaxing swims in Lake Szelid which became a summer family tradition started by my great grandparents.
My mother’s family spent each spring in their house in the town centre of Pécs and their vineyards in the southwest of Hungary. However, when it started to get hot around June, the family set off to spend the summer months at their villa at Lake Szelid. The family owned land around Szelid and in neighbouring villages which was all confiscated by the Communist government after WW2.
When my mother took us as children to the lake in the early 60s, some old farmers came to visit us to talk of the “good old days”. Hungary had already gone through several attempts at socialist land reform between the 30s and 40s.
This culminated in the total confiscation of all property under the USSR-led regime after the War. Peasants and workers sadly were no better off through the reforms, as state administrators and party members took over the running of estates and factories. They had neither qualifications nor experience in managing such undertakings, and corruption was still rife.
Kalocsa, the nearest town to Lake Szelid
Lake Szelid is around 16 kilometres from the little town of Kalocsa. This is in the Hungarian plain, called “Little Puszta”. One can see the twin church towers of the town Kalocsa from a long distance away. Kalocsa is the seat of one of Hungary’s four Roman Catholic archbishops of Hungary. As a consequence the town has a beautiful cathedral and archbishop’s palace. And, since the fall of the Iron Curtain, it has also boasted a seminary.
The church and the Archbishop’s residence attached to it is in the elaborate Baroque style. The bright yellow facades are particularly stunning with the burning sun illuminating them.
Kalocsa is also famous for its surroundings with many fields of paprika peppers and its annual Paprika Festival in the autumn. These paprikas are dried to be ground before use and are a really unique seasoning. This accounts for the fact that one can really enjoy genuine Hungarian Goulash soup only in Hungary.
The Little Puszta
The Little Puszta is a very fertile area, with vast expanses of sunflower, wheat, corn, and water and honeydew melon fields. There are orchards of apricots, peaches, apples, pears and several nuts and, of course, grapes both for sale as delicious fruits or for wine making. The area is also famous for growing sweet and hot red chilli peppers, made into the spice used in the well known Hungarian beef stew which in Hungary is called pörkölt. Here is my family recipe for a Goulash (pörkölt).
Freshwater fish are in abundance in the Danube and several smaller rivers as well as the special lake at Szelid. They are used in fish soups, or fried or battered as an alternative to the otherwise very meat-rich Hungarian diet. As a little warning to people ordering meals here: the portions are huge and some restaurants offer half or children’s portions which I recommend unless swimming has made you ravenously hungry.
Lake Szelid, meaning gentle lake
Lake Szelid is a slightly salty lake formed from a spring which joined an old arm of the Danube. The lake has a maximum width of 200m and is only 4 km long. Its shallow beaches make it popular with families with children.
In the middle, it can be around 3m deep. It warms quickly in the summer, sometimes reaching 28 degrees. Apart from the therapeutic effects of the medicinal salts, the lake is also a centre for relaxation and fishing.
Fresh fish and fowl
All along the road leading from the Serbian border to Budapest, there are little inns with delicious menus from local produce, including freshly caught fish cooked into spicy fish soup or locally reared chickens that you can see roaming around freely in large yards surrounding the inns.
It is a land of plenty, and local people are hard-working and very proud of their traditions. We observed several groups of colourfully dressed people spread out in the fields in 30+ degrees hand-picking red paprika as their ancestors did ever since the vegetable was introduced to Hungary by the Turks.
Horse shows and arrows
Mike and I arrived here after the end of the summer holidays and thus missed the horse shows with riders in traditional costumes of the Hungarian herdsmen. I would have liked Mike to see the traditional competition of archers who, hanging off the sides or at the belly of the horses, shoot at more and more distant targets.
The rule of Stephan
These displays are reminders of the fact that Hungarians were warring nomadic tribes until, in AD 1000, King St Stephan decided to settle them in the Carpathian basin. He also forced the population to convert to Christianity and brutally rid the country of opposing forces.
More of St Stephan’s will follow when we visit Buda’s Castle District as part of our Budapest tour.