Threats mount up against top European beauty spot in Hungary

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Lake Balaton in Csopak, Hungary on May 18, 2021. Lake Balaton is the largest lake in Central Europe and one of Hungary's most cherished natural treasures. But some worry that the lake's fragile ecosystem and the idyllic atmosphere of the quaint villages dotted along its banks are in danger because of speculative developments. (AP Photo/Laszlo Balogh)

SZIGLIGET – Fishermen in small, wooden boats drift among the reeds and placid waters of Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe and one of Hungary's natural treasures.

Like many of the villages dotted along the shoreline of what is popularly known as the “Hungarian sea,” the quaint village of Szigliget has against the odds maintained and nurtured its traditional character for centuries.

Its towering fortress, whitewashed peasant homes and small vineyards on gentle slopes have remained virtually unchanged despite two world wars, 45 years of Communism, and Hungary's transition to a market economy.

New and formidable threats are looming, however. Real estate speculation, clearance of the countryside to improve access for tourists and climate change are combining to cast a shadow over this whole area.

Many of the lake’s settlements have already fallen prey to speculative property development. The mayor of Szigliget, Daniel Balassa, says a recent surge of construction makes him fear his village’s idyllic atmosphere could soon make it the next target.

“We don’t need huge buildings here, or for the whole shoreline to be built upon. We have a beach and a marina, we don’t need anything else,” Balassa told The Associated Press beside a reed bed on the lakeshore.

The lake is nearly 50 miles (80 kilometers) long and has 120 miles (200 kilometers) of shoreline. With its silty bottom and shallow waters — the average depth is only about 10 feet (3 meters) — the lake is home to a delicate ecology that provides a seasonal destination for a variety of migratory birds.

But Hungary’s government views the lake as a potential goldmine for domestic and international tourism.