There is a general rule among journalists, which says that you meet the best dudes and stories when you would least expect it. We can confirm this, because we had the most interesting conversation of our trip to the northern Balaton area with Balatoni Borok Háza in the cellar of the Festetics Kastély in Keszthely. He works at the wine house as an expert, but at the same time he is the number one sauna master in Hungary.
In the basement of Festetics Palace, there is a giant wine cellar and wine store called Balatoni Borok Háza (The House of Balaton's Wines); it is an enormous cellar which could have been perfect scene for a Saw movie. We visited to talk to Zoli Szabó - the host of the wine segment - about the best places in the area. Our meeting was taken to a whole new level when he started to share his stories with a proper amount of exhibitionism and self-irony. We tried to imagine him putting on a sauna show dressed in a Celtic costume, sprinkling mead beer with every dance move in front of sweating German tourists. We tried to take notes about his favorite places and his comments like "they give you a pizza as big as my back", but while we blessed these moments it was hard to stop laughing. Actually, we couldn't.
Zoli is living his la vida loca
Zoli is a major player who likes to double the pleasure of every situation. He's hell-bent on finding the best wines and dishes of Balaton using himself as the guinea pig. When he's up for some fun, he jumps in the car and hits the road to the downtown pubs of Pest. He says it is worth the 200 kilometers ride to check out Trafiq, or have a drink in Doblo, but he's not on the same page with his friends on this one, 'They called me a non-human last time, because they have no idea how I am capable of being at Pest until 5 in the morning, then start my shift in Keszthely at 10.' Zoli is not keeping it simple when it comes to his jobs either, since he has three different business cards from three different workplaces. Besides Balatoni Borok Háza he works as a masseur and a sauna master as well, because he doesn't want to get bored. If you think a sauna master's duty is to keep the chamber hot, you couldn't be more wrong.
A western sauna scene filled with whiskey? Really?
When we asked him to describe the job of a sauna master, we thought he was just making the whole thing up. I dress up in different costumes and I give entertaining shows to the guests while the temperature is about 100 centigrades. Imagine you're sitting inside the sauna, some Irish folk music kicks in, and a guy who hardly looks like Ryan Gosling suddenly appears in clothes with skulls and clovers on them. He gives away honey beer cocktails then he starts to fan the burning hot air with two huge deer's skin. If you want to see this performance on video, just play the video here. Zoli won the 3rd Sauna Séance Oscar in 2012. Yeah, we're not kidding, it does exist.
'A few years ago, using the sauna was just some relaxing activity, but nowadays it is a real wellness experience led by an animator. The sauna master's first goal is to introduce the guests to the world of sauna. The second goal is to hold an interactive séance - not the kind where you communicate with ghosts, demons, or the likes, mind you - which lasts for 15-20 minutes. I hold entertaining séances with music and costume. Every one of them has its own plot, choreography and costume. I can present for example an Indian purifying ritual, a Tibetan meditation, an Irish pub séance and wild west séance with whiskey. If you're up for any of it, I'm easy to find at Zenit Hotel Balaton in Vonyarcvashegy.'
Balaton – through Zoli's eyes
It is basically impossible to catch up with Zoli's explorations, but following his lead is quite an adventure as well. If you want to live your life to the fullest just like him, you should definitely pay a visit to these spots.
Várvölgy: Szent Domokos Vendéglő: "It is located in a teeny tiny village in the valley, but if you want to have dinner on a Wednesday night, you have to book a table. The menu is nothing special: fishes like catfish, or carp and other traditional food, but it has some kind of natural romantic style."
Keszthely: Jóbarát Étterem: "You're always in the mood to grab a bite here, because it's so friendly. Nothing fancy here, but its okay and their kitchen is more than fine. I recommend the zander with almond, or the steak as the hunter likes it."
Keszthely: Capitano Pizzéria: "You will find it by the "wonderful" promenade near the coast. The owner used to work in Italy, so he learned to make two important things: pizza and coffee. I'm a strict judge when it comes to coffee, but Capitano passes the test. If you're up for a real Hungarian treat, ask for my favorite hot pizza sauce. It's massive."
Artisan markets: "Hévíz, Gyenesdiás, Vonyarcvashegy are three great ones, but the best is Káptalantóti. It is well-known, a lovely old woman founded it in the woods. The authorities want to fine her every week, because the place doesn't meet the regulations at all, but the products are awesome (like cheese, pálinka, strudel), and a band plays music in front of a wall covered with ivy."
Keszthely: Végh-Pataki Rétesház és Szendvics Mekka: "My favorite place for lunch; when they see me, my hamburger is almost ready. Everything they offer is handmade: like the strudel with bacon and onion, or the pogácsa with Bolognese sauce, lecsó, or sausage. Their best stuff is the strudel cake though!"
Geocaching: "The geocoaching by bicycle is the best, for example around Kis-Balaton. There are a lot of treasures to find!"
Rezi: Csodavár: They have cold-pressed poppy oil, and there's some fun going on every Thursday. Traditional goulash, Hungarian folk music, wine tastings.
New Year's Splash in Szigliget: Winter here is about waiting for the summer, but in the meantime we have a few programs. The New Year's Splash is one of them around January 2 or 3. The weather is extremely cold, so it doesn't hurt if the ice cuts your leg. According to my Finnish mate, under 3 degrees it doesn't matter how cold the water is.
Marrow Toast in Gyulakeszi: As you arrive from Tapolca, you will see a small bar with the sign "egész évben nyitva" (meaning: open all-year long). I think it must be the name of the place, as that's the only thing written on it.
"They give you a delicious marrow toast. The slices are gigantic, they could be as big as my head, really. You'll get two slices for an unbelievably cheap price."