CNN Photos

Historic lake draws landlocked Europeans

For centuries, landlocked Hungarians, deprived of sea access, have taken to the beaches of Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe.

Surrounded by 13th-century castles and World War II relics, the lake’s reflective emerald surface serves as a giant mirror of Hungary’s sky, attracting scores of regional tourists who not so long ago were divided by the so-called Iron Curtain.

Zsofia Palyi spent several years photographing the lake and its visitors, searching for swimmers who personified her own memories of Eastern Europe during the Communist era.

“I love the Balaton beaches with its broken-down look and vintage atmosphere,” Palyi said. “I realized how it changes every year ... so I would love to freeze its characters and its flavor with the help of photography.”

That “flavor” she alludes to is very subtle, like a brine. A stolid character floats over the lake’s horizonless water, a reference to Hungary’s frustrated desire to have a sea. Other cultural references seem to have a personal relevance to the photographer's own memory.

"Some of them are wearing an old wallet, a typical accessory in the 1970s and 80s,” she said. “Others are using pedal boats shaped after a taxi or swan. And there are the two sisters wearing Central European-style ‘peace’ T-shirts.”

All subjects are photographed within the same background of water and sky, floating in timelessness. Even the small waves appear to have slowed down.

“If you look carefully, you can always see the sky on the surface of the water. There is always a connection between the two,” said Palyi, who shot the project on film.

Once a resort for aristocratic Hungarians, Lake Balaton became a de facto neutral ground during the Cold War, as opposite sides of the Iron Curtain came to congregate through state-sponsored vacations. And to some East Germans, it became a way out.

“In the photos, my characters look like witnesses or sculptures of an era,” Palyi said. “It also reminds us of the past, when it basically functioned as a real sea resort for the Eastern European bloc, living its golden age in the 1960s and 70s.”

Palyi photographs what she sees as a fading culture that goes hand in hand with the lake’s signs of aging.

“We slowly recognize the other side and horizon, and Balaton still remains only a lake — although the local people ironically still call it the Hungarian Sea,” she said.

- Helena Cavendish de Moura, Special to CNN