Over one million tourists come to Central Europe's largest lake every summer, essentially supporting the region. Yet the residents have realized that they can't just market Lake Balaton, but also have to protect it.
Lake Balaton has attracted tourists since the 19th century
Hungary's Lake Balaton is famous for its fiery goulash, smooth white wine and affordable prices. The people here used to live from winegrowing and fishing. Today, tourism is the main source of income.
But residents have been worried for some time that pollution and endless streams of tourists are endangering the lake's beauty. After all, the lake isn't just their home; it also ensures their livelihood.
Back in the 1990s, the men in the local councils discussed the growing problem of pollution. But hardly any action was taken. Ultimately, the women of Balaton rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
In 1995, they founded the association "Women for Balaton." But only women can join, says member Margit Szanyi.
"Smart women can only do good things and this is what we want for Balaton," Szanyi says. Information is the key
Winegrowing is also part of Balaton's heritage
Some 600 women are involved in 17 regional groups. They work on protecting the environment and preserving Balaton's cultural heritage. The groups regularly organize information meetings for both residents and tourists.
Andrea Varga has been a member for four years now. She says it's important to spread the word about protecting Balaton.
"People often do something that isn't good for the lake, but sometimes they do this damage unknowingly," Varga says. "They're not informed." Legends are also part of Balaton's heritage
The women also tell tourists many of the old stories and legends surrounding Lake Balaton. One of them took place on the lake's northern shore, in the small town of Vonyarcvashegy. Here, a small, whitewashed chapel with a black roof stands on the top of a hill. Saint Michael's is the only fishermen's chapel in Hungary and home to a legend from the year 1729.
Saint Michael's is home to one of Balaton's legends
According to the tale, it was winter and the lake was frozen. 46 fishermen went out on the ice to fish. Then, all of a sudden, there was a storm and the ice broke off and drifted into the lake. Six fishermen died immediately. But then, just as quickly as the wind appeared, it shifted and pushed the block of ice with the 40 fishermen to shore.
"They promised that if they were saved, they would build a chapel on the hill at that spot," Szanyi says. "That is the legend and we want to preserve it forever."
Szanyi isn't just a member of the Balaton women's group. She is also actively involved in the association to protect Saint Michael's. She says she's committed to the conservation of the chapel and to the environment.
"It means a lot to me because I am an enthusiastic resident here," Szanyi says. "I always say: Vonyarcvashegy is the center of the world for me and in this center, the chapel is a treasure." Viewing Balaton through women's eyes
The region around Lake Balaton is a tourist stronghold. The water with the right temperature and the mild climate already attracted numerous guests to the lake in the 19th century. Today, some one million tourists come to Lake Balaton every year for various reasons.
Lake Balaton is Central Europe's largest lake
Yet the numerous holiday guests in the summer months particularly strain the environment. Especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, developers continuously built new cottages and created new beaches, taking away the areas of retreat for the many rare animals on Lake Balaton's shores. In addition, tourists often left behind huge piles of garbage.
"Since our association was founded, it's been our goal to view Balaton with women's eyes, differently than other parts of society do," says chairwoman Vetöné Zsóka. "We want to pass on our experiences and our opinions about the lake and the region to both foreigners and locals." But the Balaton women's organization still has a lot to do to ensure that the region continues to attract visitors while maintaining its heritage.