Jutting out into the middle of Hungary’s famous Lake Balaton lies a rocky peninsula. Once formed from two violent volcanos, millions of years later Tihany has seen a tranquil makeover resulting in the breezy, lavender scented “Fairy Island” present today.
Tiny boats sail across the lake, dotting a tapestry of blue and green hues that change at the whim of the light. The aroma of harvested lavender perfumes the air, while golden specs of light glimmer on the lakes filling the volcanic caldera. Tihany is a place where magic lingers in the air. Its local nickname, “Tundérsziget”, which translates as “Fairy Island” (even though it’s a peninsula and not an island) feels appropriate in the early hours of the morning and with the last light in the evening.
A Peninsula in Central Europe’s Largest Shallow Lake
Set in the heart of Central Europe, Lake Balaton is one of Europe’s largest lakes, formed by tectonic sagging 25,000 years ago. Despite its expansive water volume, Balaton is incredibly shallow, dipping to a mere 3.2m on average. The Tihany peninsula sticks out into the top into the middle part of the lake, diving the east and western parts of the coastline, and almost linking the northern and the southern coasts together. The surrounding landscape is volcanic, where ancient silhouettes of dead volcanoes line the northern shore, including Tihany itself.
Apart from its curious landscapes and geological curiosities, Tihany is also a place that’s fascinating for it history. Inhabited since prehistory, the peninsula’s legacy traces back to the Bronze and Iron Ages and even the Roman era. With a complex history of Roman and even Visigoth and Ottoman accents to this Hungarian story, Tihany has since grown into a place spiced with local history and legend.
The Two Faces of Tihany Town
With centuries of visitors coupled with its natural beauty, it’s only natural that Tihany has become a popular spot for visitors. At the heart of the peninsula, crowning the top is the town of Tihany, founded in 1055 by King Andrew I as a burial place for the royal family, and shortly became the site for a monastery.
Perched up on the hill, the town looks down across Lake Balaton with views across the horizon to other popular resorts in Balaton, such as Siófok and Balatonfüred. Strolling down the cobbled lanes, the place is full of Hungarian restaurants, lavender boutiques and even a house decorated from head to toe with dried paprika popular with coach tours.
By day Tihany can feel like a crowded tourist trap, but during the mornings and evenings, the magic comes to life. When the crowds hop on the bus back to Budapest or onto other resorts, the town empties out, leaving behind the locals and a few guests staying at the local pensions. Even around the iconic Benedictine Abbey of Tihany, authorised in the 13th century to issue the official deeds, after being founded in the 11th century, Tihany resumes the tranquility of rural life.
The Abbey played a significant role in Tihany’s history, where even during the Turkish occupation of the 16th and 17th centuries, it was used as a fortress and the original monastery demolished. The Abbey seen today was rebuilt in the 18th century and has become a core landmark punctuating the local landscape in all directions. It’s hard to say whether Tihany is touristy, during the day it’s littered with days drippers, but off hours, the magic returns as if it never left the peninsula.
The Echo of Tihany
Up on “Echo Hill”, about a kilometre away from the Abbey on the opposing hill, visitors shout across the promenade by the statue of the Tihany Echo, screaming and shouting words in numerous languages. The hill earned its name in the 19th century, when words shouted from the hill would be reflected back from the wall of the abbey building in the distance. Since then, this spot has become a tourist attraction since the middle of the 19th century, when many guests would travel to Tihany’s legendary to catch the echo, which was said to relay up to 15 syllables.
While the Tihany Echo has became immortalised in Hungarian literature through various poems, today’s crowds screaming incoherently kind of makes it lose the romance, but worse than that, the echo effect seems to have died out after the area has been built up over time.
After the bells of the abbey toll at 7am in the distance, no one is shouting or screaming. Only the sound of the wind and silence hangs in the cool morning air. In the Echo Cafe whose terrace overlooks the calm blue waters of the lake, normally full with visitors sipping lavender lemonade and tea under the midday sun, its wrought iron chairs lie unoccupied under the dew drops early in the morning.
The Calvary and the Hermit’s Cave
Tihany is a place of secrets, opening only the pages it wants its visitors to see beyond its nuclear centre, limiting their visit to the Abbey, eat pots of goulash in its restaurants and buy packets of lavender soap in the numerous shops. Just next to Echo Hill is the Calvary, constructed in the 20th century symbolising the suffering of Christ and the Way of the Cross.
At the top of the Calvary, a rocky path leads down towards the Óvar hill, where the iron age settlement once stood but is also home to a curious network of volcanic caves, transformed into a rock-carved hermit colony that once housed Greek Orthodox hermit monks. The hermits hollowed out these caves to create their cells, a simple chapel and a dining room in the 11th-14th centuries. It’s the only place of its kind in Central Europe.
At the end of June, Tihany’s fields rival Provance with its waves of intensely purple and fragrant lavender fields. And during the off-season months, shops and restaurants fill up with everything lavender, from oils and soaps to even lavender flavoured alcohol and chocolate.
Gyula Bittera, once an esteemed herbalist, established the first lavender field in Hungary in the 1920s, after bringing the flowers over from Provance. Tihany’s climate closely resembles the one in Provance, making it the ideal place in Hungary to grow the aromatic flowers. Some even say that the lavender oil produced in Tihany rivals its French counterparts.
Two volcanoes form a part of Tihany’s unique landscape, where their calderas have become landmarks in their own right. The Belső-tó, the Inner Lake, lies at the foot of the town and is the easiest one to visit. Today, the former volcanic caldera filled up into a lake is now home to a diverse eco-system populated with fish and birds, and has become a popular place for fisherman. The Külső-tó, the Outer Lake, looks like a marsh from above, covered with reeds and a paradise for birds.
Beyond the lakes, the peninsula’s volcanic history also manifests in the thermal springs and geyser hills. Curious rock formations can be found all across the peninsula, it’s just a matter of knowing where to look and explore.
On my lone morning walks around Tihany, I feel that the magic immortalising this peninsula in Hungarian literature and lore really comes to life. From the feeling of the wind on my skin at the lakeside on the peninsula looking up to the Abbey or walks around the Inner Lake or to the Echo, Tihany is a place with many stories to tell.