Lake Fertő is the Carpathian basin’s second largest lake; since 2001, the lake and the surrounding region have been considered a UNESCO World Heritage site. The lake has been known as Hungaricum since 2013. Four-fifths of the lake belongs to Austria, while the surrounding area within Hungary is called the “Hanság”. The lake is a natural marvel bursting with unique biodiversity and scenic landscape. It offers plenty of man-made attractions as well. The landscape today is the product of continued change and development – a testament to the generations in the area that were forced to adapt to the ever-changing, sometimes dangerous environment.
Lake Fertő is not only on the border of two countries, but also on the border of two geological regions: the lake itself is geologically part of the Little Hungarian Plain (Kisalföld), but the western coast of the lake is lined by the Sopron Mountains. Aside from this, the lake is a very interesting environmental formation: being Europe’s westernmost steppe lake, its water is salty – approximately 33 times saltier than Lake Balaton’s. The lake is fed by only the small Wulka river, and apart from that, relies on ground and rainwater, thus making the water levels susceptible to extreme variation. Variation to such a degree, in fact, that the lake will dry up entirely every 100-120 years. The last time this occurred, from 1865 to 1871, automobiles replaced the usual boat trips between Ruszt (Rust) and Illmic (Illmitz) and various business buildings were constructed in the basin of the empty lake. On the other hand, thanks to heavy rains and flooding, the lake is capable of swelling to the size of the Balaton, reportedly even flooding five nearby villages.
The environment of the lake and the surrounding area is quite rich, populated by many plants requiring salt water. The fields of reeds, which are characteristic of the region, are a result of the lake drying up in the early 20th century. There are thirty known species of fish in the lake and three hundred types of birds in the area. Within the region of the Hanság, there are many more protected and rare species. Since 1991, the Hungarian region alone established the Fertő-Hanság National Park which can be visited at various lookout points on the water or on the ground, or by guided tour.
The Lake Fertő region has been located at this cultural meeting point for 8000 years; archaeological digs have found that the area has been inhabited since 6000 BC. The Romans left their mark there, most namely in the form of the Fertőrákos Mithraeum temple. In addition, they developed the grape and wine culture there, which remains characteristic of the lake’s shores, and was many villages’ leading source of income. Aside from the buildings’ typical noble, but simple, architecture — a style found in nearly every village— the Baroque castles and religious relics also demonstrate the prominence of the local culture. Culture is valued all around the lake. Throughout the summer, Austrian and Hungarian cultural events are usually held at the following locations: St. Margarethen, the Fertőrákos Cave Theatre and Theme Park, the Mörbisch Lake Stage or the Fertőd Esterházy Castle.
A mystical atmosphere floats over the lake and the adjacent marshes of the Hanság. For example, there was a time when the marsh was the hide-out of bandits, but it is also the setting of many romantic stories and legends taking place in the wilderness and impassable reeds of the Hanság. The most famous of these is the fable of Hany Istók. According to legend, fishermen from Kapuvár caught an odd, ten-year-old-looking boy in the marshes. His hands and feet were webbed and he could not speak, only uttering animal sounds. He ate grass and hay, never wore clothing and if he saw humans approaching, he always attempted to run away. The boy lived in Kapuvár for one year, but one day jumped into the nearby Rába river and swam back to the marshes, never to be seen again. In every version of the story a wispy flame appears, which researchers say is the result of the marsh gases’ spontaneous combustion. However, people have various explanations for this occurrence — ranging from depressing to terrifying. Other awful stories took place up until 1990. Countless tragic endings came of people trying to cross Lake Fertő and the marshes in an attempt to escape to Austria.