HEVIZ, Hungary — In a land once overrun by bath-loving Romans and Turks, it's little wonder that thermal spas and the luxury of soaking endlessly in a tub of hot water are almost a way of life for Hungarians.
This small town just off the western end of Lake Balaton (Central Europe's largest freshwater lake and a major European resort) has its own body of water of almost equal renown.
Lake Heviz is Europe's largest thermal lake, where the water temperature is between 93 and 79 degrees year-round.
Indian-red water lilies bloom on the lake's surface during summer months, and in winter, swimmers cavort in comfort with snowflakes falling in their faces.
The eversteaming waters are said to be most effective for rheumatism, arthritis and other motor ills of the body.
Heviz is at the heart of an area of Hungary formed by land southwest of the Danube as it flows eastward along the Czech border to Budapest, then due south to the Yugoslav frontier.
Apart from its curative waters, Heviz's gentle climate and rolling green countryside of cedar, poplar, birch, oak and fruit trees make it a haven for those seeking a pastoral summertime setting, undisturbed by the unbelievable hordes that descend upon the shores of nearby Lake Balaton every year.
Getting here: Fly KLM, Swissair, Pan Am or SAS to Budapest from LAX with changes, or the Hungarian airline Malev nonstop from New York City. An advance-purchase, round-trip fare from Los Angeles costs about $1,203 to $1,381, depending upon the month and day of week flown. A bus ride from Budapest to Heviz takes about three hours and costs $4 U.S. one way.
How long/how much? Although you can do the town and surroundings in a couple of days, it takes a week or two for the spa treatments offered by the city and hotels. Lodging costs are very reasonable, dining even more so.
A few fast facts: Hungary's official rate for the florint was recently 63.2 to the dollar (available at all hotels). The best time for a visit is from May until the end of September, but spa activity at the lake and in hotels goes on all year.
You'll also need a visa, which should be purchased for $15 before you leave. The cost of one on arrival is twice that.
Getting settled in: Thermal Hotel Aqua ($85 B&B double) is a modern hotel surrounded by a forest just a short walk from Lake Heviz. The hotel, with an indoor pool fed by warm lake water, has its own spa, plus fitness and therapeutic programs.
There is also a large outdoor pool, saunas, exercise rooms, gardens and an extensive tour program to Budapest, Lake Balaton and other parts of Hungary, led by knowledgeable and super-friendly guides.
Bedrooms are spacious and comfortable, and the restaurant has both pension meals and an a la carte menu of Hungarian and international dishes.
Hotel Park ($59 B&B double) also has a great location just 50 yards from entry to the lake and nearer to the village center. Its guests enjoy the pool, spa, fitness center and other facilities of the four-star Thermal Spa Hotel, just across the road.
The Park is made up of two buildings--an older, traditional villa and a new one of contemporary architecture containing a reception area, small bar and restaurant with terrace. Fresh flowers are everywhere, and the staff is friendly.
Hotel Napsugar ($45 double) was built as condos. Double rooms have kitchens and mini-suites have two bedrooms connected to a bath and kitchen.
All rooms are on the small side but are pretty and comfortable, each with terrace or balcony.
Regional food and drink: Lake Balaton provides plenty of fresh fish, which is often used in rich and flavorful soups given body and tartness by the addition of sour cream and paprika.
Fogas (pike perch) is a favorite Balaton fish, as are catfish, trout and carp from the lake and rivers. Most fish are grilled, sauteed or deep-fried in a batter or Gypsy-style with onions, tomatoes and peppers.
Hungarians are great carnivores, so pork, beef and veal are prepared in many ways, besides just in goulash. One of our favorites is rablohus , a "robber's meat" brochette of beef, pork, lamb and perhaps sausage grilled and served with pickles and potatoes.
Keknylu is an off-dry white wine from Balaton. The lake region's reds are hearty, but a bit more sweeter than those of Sopron farther north.
Good local dining: Betyar Csarda (Sumeg Road) is named for the highwaymen who favored this csarda since its opening in 1729.
Old rifles, pistols and original documents calling for the capture of certain outlaws grace the walls, and two unlucky robbers who were flushed and shot nearby in 1862 are buried beneath a weeping willow just outside the inn's walls.
The csarda (a Hungarian wayside inn) is very typical: a stark-white building, thatched roof, woven-twig fencing surrounding the place and a horse corral where wayfarers once stabled their stock.