Long before eclipse day, I had chosen Lake Balaton in Hungary as the optimum viewing site, given the information from Fred Espenak and Jay Anderson.I wanted to be in a location that was quintessentially European, as this was the only total solar eclipse to pass through the heart of the continent in our lifetimes.
We arrived at Heviz, a resort on a thermal lake, on August 9, my birthday.The sky was perfectly clear and the surroundings were beautiful.We had planned to view the eclipse from the Tihany Penninsula to the north near the centerline, but on our site scouting excursion the day before the eclipse, we found a stunning spot near our hotel, the ruins of the 13th century Castle Ovar high on a hill called Szigilet overlooking shimmering Lake Balaton.The Tihany Pennisula lacked the charm of Szigilet and seemed to have more clouds.Later that day, the sky became overcast and looked threatening.At 4:30 a.m. I was awakened by thunder and lightening.I did not panic.I got up at 6:30 a.m. to find rain and the sky thick with clouds.
Within an hour, there was sunlight on the lawn and the sky was turning blue.By 9:30 a.m. the clouds were largely gone and we set off for the castle.We sacrificed about 20 seconds of totality by locating at Szigilet rather than the Tihany Penninsula, but the atmosphere was intoxicating.The ruins of the castle stretched over the hill above a forest and an idyllic Hungarian village.There were battlements, and foundation walls and crumbling stone tower walls.Our group set up in an area that had a great view to the west so that we could, hopefully, see the shadow approaching.The sun was high in the sky above gorgeous Lake Balaton and the passing storm had left the sky crystal clear.We were overlooking a colorful patchwork of hayfields and vineyards and thatched-roof villages, quintessentially European.We were joined by viewers from all over the globe.Clutches of people were spread out among the ruins and it never felt crowded.
A tree beside our set-up cast incredible crescent patterns on the ground and I noticed the light changing earlier than usual, about 45 minutes before totality.I think this was due to the clarity of the atmosphere.I usually notice these shifts in light and pigmentation about 30 minutes before totality.We could see the color of the grapevines and rolled hay bales changing.
During the partial phases, we had only one small cloud pass over the sun, otherwise we had perfect skies.A minute or two before totality, as the solar disc diminished, I turned to the west to look for the shadow.On the far horizon, in a gap between the distant hills an edge of deep, powder blue appeared.It rose up, almost like a wave, higher and higher, devouring puffy clouds.The shadow was blue, and stunning.It rose higher and then spilled over the distant hills into the valley, and for a second or two, I could see the edge of the shadow moving over grapevines toward us.I could see the diference between the lighter area near us and the actual edge of darkness! It was transcendant.
Suddenly we were in totality.I saw the end of the diamond ring and then, I wasn't sure I was really seeing what I was seeing.The eclipsed sun was surrounded by symmetrical, spikey streamers, perfectly symmetrical, like a stylized rendering of a star.I had never seen a sight like that at any of my five previous eclipses.And the prominences, all around the disc there were distinct, scarlet-rosey prominences.I could see Venus and Mercury.Someone shouted that they could see Saturn, I glanced but didn't want to look away from the prominences for too long and could not find the third planet.
A beautiful diamond ring blossomed and I looked to the distant shore across Lake Balaton which was glittering with hundreds of thousands of flash bulbs as the edge of the shadow rushed away from us.I looked down and saw the most stunning shadow bands, clearly defined, rippling across the towels we had brought to sit on.They were about an inch-and-a-half wide and lingered for long enough for me to call out and get everyone looking down.It was wonderful.About fifteen minutes after totality a large swatch of thick cirrus clouds moved over, obscuring the sun.We were delirious with our success and lingered among the castle ruins until fourth contact.I only hope that I shall, at some time in the future, once again know the indescribable bliss and ecstacy that I experienced on August 11, 1999.
Last revised: 2008 Jan 28