Culture manager Can Togay can already feel the tingling anticipation of welcoming guests from all over the world in front of his own living room next year. "I like to share the experience and the love for the region," says the Hungarian, who once stood in front of the camera as an actor with stars like Isabelle Huppert and was a professor for film development at the Film University in Babelsberg.
Today he acts as the artistic-creative chief adviser to the Hungarian Capital of Culture project, with which the European Union is again exceptionally ennobling a region in 2023: the city of Veszprem and an extensive area around Lake Balaton (German = Lake Balaton), which many summer vacationers should be familiar with.
Veszprem, on the other hand, with a population of 60,000, is a blank spot on the visitor map and is probably best known to those interested in sports. The local handball club is at the top level in Europe and has won multiple championships and cups in Hungary.
Otherwise, the charm of the province dominates here. At the time of my visit to the House of Arts, an exhibition of paintings was running in intimate rooms; the concert hall in which a pianist is preparing for her performance is just as small and exquisite.
You won't find a classic castle in the castle district. Flower pots stand in front of facades in yellow and pink. You can see wooden doors with fine indentations. A vantage point offers a clear view of the Bakony mountains.
Stops on a stroll through the city include St. Michael's Basilica, the Trinity Column, the old Fire Tower and a bronze effigy of Michael defeating the devil. Like many cities before it, Veszprem is hoping for an upswing from the title of the EU: Since the announcement of the Capital of Culture region, initiatives against vacancy in the city center have been running, and new pubs and wine bars have emerged.
Every second Sunday, a market takes place on the main square, where it smells like cheese and sausages - and not like tourist junk. Magdolna Sasvari's stand is an eye-catcher. She used to be a branch manager of a sports shop. Then she turned her life upside down and became an artist. Since then she has transformed used coffee capsules into brooches, tiaras, rings and candlesticks.
The recycling art is original. "The chains sell best," she says. At home in her village of Balatonalmádi, she occasionally gets free supplies of raw material. "Neighbors hang bags of used capsules on our fence," she says. Sometimes she doesn't drink coffee based on the flavor but based on the color of the capsules she needs for work.
The leitmotif of art drives a piece out of Veszprem to the Herend porcelain factory, which is one of the most important in Europe. The manufactory museum presents a lavish collection of vases and cups, jugs and figurines.
In the demonstration workshops, you can follow the manual work and learn, for example, that it can take two days to paint a plate. The decorative and utility objects are not dusty, discontinued models, but are sold in 58 countries.
Ten kilometers south of Veszprem, just a short drive through hills and mixed forest, lies Lake Balaton. The body of water spreads out over an area of almost 600 square kilometers and is therefore larger than Lake Constance.
Characteristic are the reed belts, the bird life and the colors of the lake, which oscillate between milky green and blue. If you stand on the shore, you feel like you are on an inland sea. "All Hungarians have a close connection to Lake Balaton, including myself," says culture manager Togay.
It is reminiscent of the historical culture of bathing, villas and steamships. And the fact that "East and West met here during the Cold War". Because Lake Balaton is relatively flat and benefits from a microclimate, it warms up slightly in summer. The southern shore of the lake is particularly popular with bathers, especially families with children.
High above the northern shore you go to Tihany, which scores with dream views of Lake Balaton and with the baroque splendor of the church of the Benedictine monastery. Lavender has also been cultivated here since the turn of the millennium.
The first harvest is in July, and there may be a second harvest at the end of August. Then biologist Csilla Ujhazi grabs scissors and knives in the fields and helps to cut off the top parts of the plants. Otherwise, she works in a family-run factory making perfume and soap.
In everyday life, she swears by the natural product, which is "good against inflammation" and "for relaxing in the bathtub". On the other hand, the lavender liqueur that is sold in the monastery shop is not really her cup of tea.
Speaking of alcohol. Wine growing in the area around Lake Balaton dates back to Roman times. Basalt soils give the wine a mineral aroma, especially the white wine variety Kéknyelü. It does not need to shy away from international comparisons. The same applies to the regional sparkling wine, which is made from Furmint grapes and produced using the Prosecco method.
The "fresh feeling of sparkling wine" suits the lifestyle around Lake Balaton, says agricultural engineer Bence Laposa, who runs the winery on his family's estate. "Sparkling wine is trendy, but it will take a few more years before it really catches on."
Loud tones and hard-hitting advertising offensives are not his nature. So Laposa mentions only quietly that he considers the Hungarian wines, especially the white wines, to be underestimated. Traditional prejudices are "probably still due to mass production in the days of the Eastern Bloc".
They couldn't change the image of an entire country as individual winegrowers, he says. You have to come here to feel the quality. "Rhine, Wachau, Tuscany: our wines keep up." Laposa himself prefers a fruity Welschriesling. Culinary accompaniments to wine here in the restaurants are zander, duck liver, sauerkraut soup, goulash and ham from woolly pigs (Mangalica), which melts buttery softly in your mouth.
We continue along the northern shore to Keszthely on the northwestern edge of the lake. At the Festetics baroque palace you will find a carefully tended park. A highlight in the castle is the 200-year-old, lavishly stocked library with more than 90,000 volumes. A separate entrance leads to a carriage museum.
Right behind Keszthely in the small town of Hévíz is the bathing season all year round. There is a thermal lake here, the water of which changes naturally several times a day. The healing mud is also sold to take away, in five-kilo buckets.
Whatever you think of it, you can hardly accuse the region of not being multifaceted.
As the creative director of the Capital of Culture project, Can Togay naturally knows how to get people excited about the area. He raves about the "southern atmosphere" around Lake Balaton, the light in summer. And he says: "The people here are more open and the colors are brighter than anywhere else in Hungary."
According to the organizers, up to 2.5 million visitors should come to the region during the Capital of Culture year. The opening ceremony in Veszprem is scheduled for the weekend of January 21st and 22nd. Things really get going in spring and summer 2023.
Worth mentioning are, for example, the art and culture festival "Gisela Days" from May 1st to 7th (named after Hungary's first queen), the international dance festival (May 23rd to 28th), the Hungarian film festival (May 7th to 11th June), the Operetta Festival (July 8-11), the Veszprem Music Festival (July 10-16), the Street Music Festival (July 19-22) and the Auer Festival of Classical Music (July 2-22). August 7th) and the Balaton Wine and Gourmet Festival (September 28th to October 1st).
All information about the program can be found on the official website https://veszprembalaton2023.hu/en
How to get there: By train or plane to Budapest, from there to Veszprem, 120 kilometers south-west, and to the Balaton region.
Accommodation: There are small hotels in Veszprem. The area around Lake Balaton is well prepared for tourism with numerous accommodations.
Currency: 1000 forints = approx. 2.50 euros (as of November 2022)
Information: https://visithungary.com/de (Hungarian Tourism Authority website); www.veszpreminfo.hu/en (Veszprem Tourist Office website)