The former settlements of the temporary Stone Age are probably covered with water today, but since 6,000 BC, since the Neolithic age, a series of finds, settlement features and burials have proved the presence of man. More than 80 archaeological sites are known in the territory of the town. Keszthely can take pride in a number of special archaeological features: the middle part of the Neolithic age is characterised by the Keszthely group of the Linear Pottery culture in the majority of Transdanubia; a 50-meter-long cult building with a unique spiral horn is known from the Middle Copper Age; Hungary’s only urn grave of the Kostolac Culture from the end of Copper Age was found in Fenékpuszta. The chamber tombs of the Late Bronze Age’s Tumulus Culture were excavated in the eastern edge of the town; the bronze sword found here is called the Boiu-Keszthely type. In the last part of the prehistoric times, the Celts, the first ethnic group known by a name, appeared on our territory.
The Roman Age
In 15 BC, the Roman conquest reached Transdanubia. The local Celtic population quickly romanized, that is, the Celts took over the Roman customs. This was partly due to the fact that, already in the 1st century, a settlement where Italian merchants lived was created along the important long-distance and military road connecting the Adriatic Sea and the Danube elbow region. A number of villa rusticas operated in the region. The area was attacked several times by the barbarians. It became a densely populated area in the late period of the Roman Empire. One of the largest fortifications in Pannonia province was built both for the protection of the local population and, mainly, of Northern Italy in the middle of the 4th century in the spit of Fenékpuszta. The basic area of the fortress was 400x400 m, it had 44 round towers, and its walls were 2.6 m thick. The huge fort was repeatedly attacked but rebuilt after every destruction. Therefore, some of the population remained here even in the migration period.
In the migration period, Transdanubia was seized by the Huns in 430; two of their rich burial sites are known in Keszthely. In 456, the Ostrogoths appeared here, and King Theodemir, the father of Theodoric the Great, had his seat in the fortress of Fenékpuszta. Many distorted skulls were excavated in their burial sites. After 535, the Langobards invaded the area, and following their departure for Italy, from 568, it became part of the Avar Empire. In addition to local indigenous peoples, German and Byzantine mercenaries and artisans were deployed by the Avars, thus creating a unique culture, which was given the name, Keszthely Culture. They took part in the campaigns of the Avars, so their graves were very rich. Although the Avars themselves settled here from the 630s, these peoples could preserve their Christian faith and cultural autonomy for two centuries.
The foundation of Keszthely
At the beginning of the 9th century, the Avar Empire collapsed, and Transdanubia became a part of the Karoling Empire. The area’s centre of power and administration was moved to Zalavár where the Slavic Pribina established the centre of his county (Mosaburg). Although the fort of Fenékpuszta was still inhabited, the conquering Hungarians destroyed it completely around 900 BC. The Hungarian common people settled here only at the end of the 10th century, but continuity is indicated by the fact that the name of Keszthely comes from the Latin "castellum" through the Slavic word "kostel". In the area of today's Keszthely, a number of settlements were formed, the houses of which were located far away from each other. Soon, the first churches were built. The walls of St. Lawrence Chapel can be seen in the Castle Garden. This chapel was a rotunda (circular church), which was erected in the 11th-12th century, and expanded by a rectangular later, in the 13th century.
The first documented reference to Keszthely dates back to 1247: Keszthely was first mentioned in the charter of the chapter of Veszprém. This document referred to St. Martin's Parish Church, which was located on the place of the fountain in front of the castle, and to St. Lawrence's Chapel. Village centres developed not only in the area of the castle and the Main Square but also on the territory of St. Nicholas Cemetery, where the third church of Keszthely was erected during the 13th century. Keszthely was a royal domain, but the Marcali Family obtained it prior to 1291. Thereafter, the new order of the settlement was formed. The serfs’ inner grounds were surveyed along the north-south main road of the long one-street village. Thanks to the improving trade, the town was continuously enriched, and its population increased. Between 1332 and 1337, the parish priest of Keszthely paid 100 dinars as a papal tithe, which was the highest amount of its kind in the area.
In the middle of the 14th century, one of the most prestigious barons of the country, István Lackfi II secured Keszthely. The development of the settlement accelerated during his tenure. It is a proof of abundance that he settled the Franciscans, the monks of a begging order around 1368. Their church and monastery were built on the Main Square after the demolition of St. Lawrence Chapel. István Lackfi, accused of conspiracy, was executed by King Sigismund in 1397. His mortal remains were buried in the shrine of the Franciscan church. His tombstone can be seen in the wall of the sanctuary today. The town gained the right to hold a national fair from King Louis I (The Great), which was a clear sign of urbanization. From 1403 onwards, charters consistently call Keszthely oppidum, ie a market town.
King Sigismund mortgaged Keszthely several times, and, in 1427, the sons of János Gersei Pethő, László and Péter, received it along with the Rezi castle estate. The Pethős and their descendants remained the owners of Keszthely for almost three centuries. The members of the extended family did not only have a manor house in the present site of the castle but several family members built houses in the town too. From the beginning of the 16th century, the stone houses of richer citizens, merchants and artisans were already mentioned. Keszthely still had only one street, but its length was over 2 km that time. The rich settlement was repeatedly attacked and looted by the landlords of the surrounding area. The continuous development was interrupted by the appearance of the Turks after 1532.
The Turkish Era
Around 1552, the Franciscans fled. The Pethős stationed soldiers in the Franciscan monastery. After the fall of Szigetvár (1566), Lake Balaton became the boundary of the territory under the Ottoman rule. The monastery and the church were transformed into a border fortress that time. The picture shows a surveying made by military engineer G. Turco around 1570. The fort was besieged several times by the Turks, but they could not occupy it. The town's shape changed completely: the southern part of the town became depopulated, but the inhabitants crowded around the Main Square and today's pedestrian street. The small side streets between Kossuth and Deák streets were formed then. In the 17th century, trenches and ditches surrounded the town centre. Due to the lively cross-border trade activity, the town's population did not decline. The northernmost part of the town, Civil town, later Kiskeszthely (Small Keszthely) became independent and paid taxes to the Turks. The villages of the area became depopulated.
Keszthely and the Festetics Family
Due to the reoccupation of Kanizsa, the Turkish Era also ended in our area in 1690. In the Rákóczi War of Independence (1703-1711), the fort of Keszthely no longer played a military role, because most of the ramparts were destroyed. At the beginning of the 18th century many people, especially the Pethős’ heirs of female lines shared in the town. Kristóf Festetics became the exclusive owner of Keszthely in 1739 by buying up their shares. In 1745, he started building the Baroque mansion and moved the administrative centre of his vast lands here. Constructions and land management created many jobs. Keszthely became the second largest settlement in Western Transdanubia. In 1772, 215 independent artisans, forming 12 guilds, were listed in the town.
There were a number of conflicts between the Festetics Family and the residents, who insisted on the basic freedoms of the times when they were fighting against the Turks. However, the residents of Keszthely never came out on top of these conflicts. Despite the conflicts, Keszthely can owe a lot to the Festetics Family as Kristóf had a hospital built in 1759, and Pál, who obtained the title of count in 1772, founded a grammar school in the town. The spatial extent of the settlement grew slowly because many citizens moved to the vineyards of the depopulated villages around Keszthely fleeing from the burden of quartering the army staying in Keszthely from 1710. This is illustrated by the town map of 1769, in which the major buildings were numbered. These, as well as the wealthy merchants and artisans’ houses, were built of stone, and they occasionally had more than one storey.
Following the defeat of the War of Independence, the military occupation lasted only a short time. However, the economic development of the town stagnated. Real changes could be observed especially in the field of culture: a stone theatre was built in 1862, the country’s first Farming Educational Institution opened in Keszthely in 1865, teaching began in the multi-storeyed building of the Higher Elementary Girls’ School in 1872, and in the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy in 1882. In 1892, the Grammar School, which was organised into a Main Grammar School, and, in 1897, the Farming Educational Institution moved into a new building. In 1898, the Balaton Museum Association, the first museum of the county and the Balaton region was founded. In Keszthely, which was downgraded into a large village, a number of social organizations worked. The most prominent social organizations were the Trade Association and the Social Club (Casino). Town magistrate Vencel Reischl (1861-1893) paid an important role in the development of the town.
At the beginning of the 20th century, until the First World War, the development of tourism was spectacular and continuous. It was due to the fact that the surrounding area of the thermal lake in Hévíz had not been developed yet, therefore the people visiting Hévíz stayed in Keszthely. New hotels and restaurants were opened, new villas were built, and the majority of the residents provided private accommodation service for the tourists. The Main Square was also altered: it was transformed into a walkway. In 1902, the statue of György Festetics was inaugurated, and the first cinema, the "Uránia Theater” was completed. The town became more easily accessible following the opening of the Keszthely-Tapolca railway line in 1903. The station building was relocated to its present location then. Close to the station, one of the town's most beautiful Art Nouveau buildings, the "Resti" was erected, but it was unfortunately demolished in the 80s.
The economic crisis hitting the country following the World War and the Trianon peace treaty affected Keszthely only for a short time. The Helikon Monument was inaugurated in the park at the late centenary event of the Helikon Celebrations, and it became a symbol of the town. Due to the fact that most of the internationally renowned bathing resorts had already been located in the successor states, Lake Balaton became more valuable for domestic guests. In Keszthely, several new public buildings: schools, post offices, private hospitals, churches were built, and the Neo-Baroque building of the Balaton Museum was erected with state support partly from the building material of the demolished stables that had stood beside the castle. In the eastern and southern part of the town, new areas were parcelled out, where the construction of modern holiday homes soon begun. Keszthely and Kiskesthely, which had already grown together, were finally united in 1925.
The population of Keszthely doubled during the six decades between 1881 and 1941, rising from 6,000 to 12,000. After the outbreak of the Second World War, tourism declined sharply. Many young people from Keszthely died at the eastern front. From August 1944, the town was repeatedly bombed claiming many lives and causing damage to houses. At the turn of 1944-45, the battle line did not move from the southern shore of Lake Balaton for months. The town and the Hungarian culture suffered a great loss when, at the end of March 1945, the train transporting the collections of the Balaton Museum and the Székely National Museum of Sepsisentgyörgy was destroyed with bombs at Zalaegerszeg train station. The town was evacuated by the Hungarian and German troops on March 30, 1945. During the siege, the church on the Main Square was hit, and the bell cast in 1509 was damaged.
After the front line moved away, the castle was looted, but the unique material of the walled-up library was luckily preserved. Life consolidated relatively fast, but the democratic transformation was followed by communist dictatorship in 1948. Even the statue of György Festetics was removed and replaced by a Soviet heroic monument. The Hungária Hotel became party headquarters. Due to the administrative reform of 1950, Keszthely and its surroundings became the subject to the administrative supervision of County Veszprém. In 1954, Keszthely regained its status as a town lost in 1871, but being considered as a reactionary town, it received little money for development. The local residents enthusiastically joined the Revolution of 1956 and Keszthely was the only town in the country that commemorated the fallen heroes by erecting the statue of the White Man on 1st November 1956. “To the fallen from the living who might die tomorrow for freedom.”
Due to the disadvantaged position of the city, the town centre preserved its original atmosphere, only a few “wounds were inflicted” on it. After the consolidation of the Kádár Era, Keszthely started to develop too. The number of inhabitants doubled compared to the pre-world-war population. New residential areas and housing estates were established, and public institutions and shops were built in their neighbourhood. Industry, primarily light industry was introduced in the town. In 1979, Keszthely was replaced under the administration of County Zala. From the 60's on, more and more guests came from abroad, so new hotels, corporate holiday homes were built to serve the dynamically growing tourism. The most significant hotel on the shore of Lake Balaton was the Hotel Helikon (1971). The cultural offer and the number of sights were broadened by the restoration of the Festetics Mansion to its original splendour.
After the political transformation
In 1990, the change of regime took place in Keszthely as well. The local government was established. The life of the town was governed by the Mayor as the head of the 18-member elected local authority. NGOs played a growing role in social and cultural life. The economic transition involved the winding-up of state-owned enterprises and the termination of many jobs. The economy of the town became almost one-sided, with the majority of the population working in tourism-related areas in some form. Mass tourism diminished, and most of the corporate holiday homes turned into hotels. Due to private initiatives and private equity investments, many small businesses were established, trade enjoyed a boom, and most of the buildings in the town centre were refurbished.
The aim of the city administration has been to help the development of tourism, including quality tourism, in addition to serving the population's needs to the highest standards. Since 1992, "Helikon" has been re-organized every two years, with nearly 4000 students from all over Transdanubia showing their artistic skills. The pedestrian street has been rebuilt using quality paving materials, the Fejér György Town Library has received a new building, and the Balaton Theater and Congress Center has opened in 2002. The “Szigetfürdő” has regained its original form, and a marina has been built on "Libás” beach. Keszthely is on the right track to stand all demands of being the "Capital of Lake Balaton".
Since 2006, Keszthely has achieved exemplary success in exploiting the European Union's tendering opportunities. A long-term urban development strategy has been created and the administration of the town has worked out several development projects and has designed investment plans. In 2010, the residents could take over the newly built Ferenc Csik Swimming Pool, named after the Olympian of Keszthely. Also in 2010, the first step of the large-scale renovation project of the town centre started. This project aimed to give the atmospheric old town of Keszthely back its old shine, and at the same time to combine it with modern elements. The pleasant walkway and the vibrant, bustling, and diverse town centre also contribute to the boosting of quality tourism. The renovation of the shore of Lake Balaton in Keszthely serves the same purpose: floodlight has been installed on the waterside promenade, the square at the entrance of the pier has been renewed, and the surroundings of the listed buildings of Hotel Hullám and Hotel Balaton have been improved. An important element of the plans has been the development of a festival area suitable for holding larger open-air programmes. Keszthely is on the right track to stand all demands of being the "Capital of Lake Balaton".