Early in January 1999 a group of 4 of us decided that we really wanted to see the eclipse in August. We bought the Royal Greenwich Observatory guide and checked on the maps to find where was covered. We looked into Cornwall, but after seeing the prices that were being charged and the number of people that they were expecting to arrive there, and the 45% chance of seeing it anyway we decided to look elsewhere. The next place we looked at was Aldernay, and were nearly laughed off the phone when we rang to see if there was any availability. Our friends also were looking around in brochures and suggested Lake Balaton in Hungary as one of them had been there before, it was charging any more at the time for a weeks holiday, and had a 55% chance of seeing totality. So, we booked that up.
We arrived at Budapest off a Malev airlines flight from Heathrow, it wasn’t the best flight I’d ever been on, for one thing we were at the back of the plane in the seats that don’t recline, for another Richard and I were the last people on the plane to get our food, so much so that they were already bringing out the coffee before we had cups to put it in. The plane was also a no-frills plane with no monitors or music or anything. Anyway we arrived about an hour late and went to meet our rep. We waited at the airport and boarded a fairly basic coach to take us the 140 km to Tihany. The coach had no air conditioning and the weather was very warm. Before heading off to Tihany we had to go around Budapest to pick up the people who had been doing two centre holidays, and we seemed to go around the same parts of Budapest 2 or 3 times. Eventually we’d picked everyone up and could move off. The coach didn’t have enough luggage space and so cases and bags were piled at the back of the coach, with at least one blocking the emergency exit.
When we arrived at the hotel, it was worth it as the hotel looked spectacular. It had been a communist owned house and as so was very impressive. The only downside was that we had to eat at the concrete block next door. Over the next few days we did a bit of an explore of the village, and found different restaurants to eat in every day. The main tourism is aimed at the german market although most of the restaurants now have English menus as well. The village is quite pleasant, and the abbey dominates the sky line over the lake. We spent a lot of our time relaxing by the lake, reading, playing with the beach ball and the like. We took the ferry from Tihany to Balatonfured one day and had a look around there. It is a town and is a bit larger and more touristy than Tihany. We bought ourselves some Lilos and a frisbee from one of the shops before discovering the wine festival. Balatonfured has a wine festival for 2 weeks every August and it is an opportunity for local wine producers to offer their produce to tourists and locals alike. We sampled some which cost us 50 forints – about 20 British pence.
Eclipse day was magical. We decided to stay by the lake and watch it from there. The hotel had leased it’s grounds out to Pannon GSM, one of Hungary’s mobile phone networks and construction of tents, stages etc had been going on for two days. We were very worried that this was going to ruin it for us, and so quite a lot of the guests and gone to other places on the peninsular to watch it. As it happened the Pannon people were not intrusive at all, the event only lasted from 11am-3pm and they shut everything off for totality. We watched the eclipse from first contact when there was just the smallest nibble taken out of the sun, and with about 20 minutes to go we opened the first of our 2 bottles of Hungarian champagne (4 British Pounds per bottle). With about 15 minutes to go it got noticably cooler, and the light changed to a sort of floodlight type effect, where it was a paler white blue type of light. The swans and ducks on the lake put their heads in amongst their feathers and the mosquitoes came out. As soon as totality happened everything went mostly very quiet with the exception of the odd scream. The sky over the other side of the lake took on the pink colour off a sunset and lots of flashes from cameras could be seen. Venus and Mercury were visible to the bottom right and bottom left of the Sun. It didn’t go pitch black, it went more like dusk. It was a truly awesome experience and I intend to see another one. Unfortunately the 2 mins 20 secs was over far too quickly and before we knew it the moon was moving on. There then followed about 10 minutes of us, and the other British people around all standing around discussing it and saying “Wow” a lot. It was incredible. We then opened our second bottle of champagne to celebrate. From people we met later in the week, some hotels/bars/restaurants etc had upped their prices for eclipse day, and Lake Balaton was estimated to have crammed 1 million people in for that day.
We decided to go to Budapest for a day whilst in Hungary and had chosen Thursday to do so. The tour company operated a trip on Friday, but as we left on Saturday we didn’t want two long days, and after the coach we’d arrived on we weren’t prepared to trust them when they said luxury air-conditioned coach. We choose our day badly as all of the tourists that had packed into the Balaton area for the eclipse were packed on this train back to Budapest (we’d taken the first train out in the morning). Consequently, we had to stand, or sit on the floor all the way. In Budapest we wandered to look at the houses of parliament, took a boat trip up the Danube to see the city from the river, and also spent some time in Buda looking at the Fisherman’s bastion and the church. The train back was fine, and we all had seats.
The journey back from Tihany to Budapest for the airport although far from enjoyable wasn’t as unpleasant as the journey the week before, and the plane also was better.
Hungary was a very interesting place to visit, and I hope that I might return one day to see some more of the country (probably when there isn’t an eclipse and also when it isn’t so warm that all you can do is doze by the lake). And the eclipse, well that was phenomonal and I’m planning where to be for the 4 minute one in 2001.