A guide to the New East
Unlikely escapes in the new east
Return to Lake Balaton
Revisiting communist Hungary’s favourite summer holiday resort

Hungary’s Lake Balaton is the largest enclosed body of water in central Europe. As Hungary is landlocked, the lake is often called the “Hungarian Sea”.

Under communism, Balaton was a major destination for working Hungarians as well as visitors from across the Soviet Union who were rewarded for their work in building socialism with a permit to travel across the border.

As a child, Polish photographer Michael Solarski made the trip to Balaton each summer with his family, driving 300 miles south in a tiny Fiat loaded with luggage.

“For us, coming from sad, cold, and almost monochromatically grey Poland, it was like a window to the world,” he recalls.

“Equipped with government-issued food vouchers and a small amount of pocket money in local currency, we were driving to a warm, colourful place.”

“As we couldn’t dream of travelling to Spain, Italy or Greece, Balaton was the closest and most achievable destination for ordinary Poles to see ‘what’s out there’.”

Twenty-odd years later, going through the pages of his family album, Solarski could find only one photograph of the family’s six successive summers at the lake.

The surviving image is a blurry snapshot of him and his sister taken on one of the lake’s piers.

In this photo essay Hungarian Sea, Solarski returns to Balaton, tracing his childhood footsteps and “strolling among the ruins of the glamorous concrete villas of Castro, Brezhnev and Honecker”.

Much has changed since then, not least the fall of the Soviet Union.

But Lake Balaton still remains a popular summer holiday destination for Hungarians.

And in creating his essay, Solarski hopes to fill in the missing pages of his family photo album.

“These images are my attempt to create what my parents failed to do,” he says.

Balaton “is almost exactly the same as I left it...

...perhaps a bit more rusty, but the atmosphere remains the same.” 

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