Rare birds, shadoof, broncos, Hungarian cowboys (‘Csikós’), unadulterated Hungarian sense of life. It is none other than Hortobágy, Europe’s largest saline wilderness.
Wilderness. Adjective. One that lacks from it or lack about it, all that is usually there, belongs to it; empty, barren, abandoned. Put your hand up who act in haste to get their heart medicine after reading this excitement. Well, yeah! But what if despite all the defamatory meanings of its “wilderness” name it turns out to be a place that refutes this?
Because Hortobágy seems to lack all the qualities that would arouse the slightest interest in the superficial observer. But when you look more closely at the largest grassland in Central Europe, you will find a captivating world that attracts crowds of visitors from all over the world by not an accident.
The word wilderness not only reminds us of loneliness, but also freedom, which is as important as air for humans. It is no coincidence that we cannot find any other Hungarian landscape that inspired the “birth” of so many literary works and fine arts.
Nowadays, there are fewer and fewer undisturbed areas, and so are those which at first, may not be in colored and redolent brochures. The rawness, the stiff hardness identified with the wilderness lifestyle, is becoming a much-desired variety compared to the everyday living space of desks and workstations. Here we can look again, evoking an age in which all this was not a specialty.
Don’t lose the experienced road for an inexperienced one!
The importance of the Hortobágy is not proven better than the establishment of the first national park of Hungary on January 1, 1973, on 52,000 hectares. Today, 82,000 hectares are preserved not only for their special natural values, but also for their unique cultural traditions and ethnographic memories.
After WWII, when the Communist leadership wanted to turn it into one huge economy, literally destroying one of the most important natural and cultural treasures of the country and the continent, it had made a huge journey. This was made possible by the people living here and the professionals who have recognized its irreplaceability. As a result of their work, Hortobágy has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999.
It is worth starting to admire this heritage at the National Park Visitor Center. Here, we have access to all the information we need to navigate safely in the infinite wilderness.
As a significant part of Hortobágy is specially protected, we can obtain the appropriate permits at the visitor center. Here, we can sign up for those tours that take us into areas that are only in an organized condition. We can do all this without the fear of nature guards firing from their shotguns. The free exhibition we can see here can also help us to choose our destinations and their order.
There are countless ways to get to know the wilderness. There are thematic walking tours that take place throughout the year. There are dozens of different hikes to explore the Hortobágy bird and plant life, the life of the shepherds and the everyday life of the national park. We can take part in the ringing of birds, watching the night sky with the help of expert eyes, or seeing the wild geese that live here. Each season, the Hortobágy shows a different face, so it is really worth returning several times to see as much of it as possible.
Those lazy people hiding behind the mask of searching for an authentic wilderness experience can travel huge areas on horseback through nearly twenty designated hiking trails. Beginners and advanced riders alike can jump in the saddle, but it is also possible to take part in the training led by true wilderness riders. There’s no need to be afraid of tree branches striking our faces, wild boars attacking from lures, or hiding gorges, the only obstacle is the horse’s capacity of carrying.
Those who are afraid of the animal, the bicycle can be a solution. It is possible to take part in guided and unguided bike rides in the park, but in both cases, we will need the appropriate permits that can be obtained at the visitor center. During guided tours, not only continuous riding will be an experience, but also we can get to know the history, culture and natural specialties of the affected areas. If a desire to ride hits us spontaneously, we can rent a bike at the visitor center.
It is not only in these ways that we can roam the Hortobágy, as the Hortobágy River, which crosses the spacious steppe as a special liquid highway, is a serious disturbance.
The river, which in the traditional sense has no spring and sometimes flows backward, offers an opportunity to look at the wilderness from an unusual perspective. By choosing the waterway, we can get to know the wildlife of the river and its surroundings, fishing traditions and even try traditional fishing tools.
Everything that you want
Of course, when the wanderer becomes tired during the great trip, as it was no different from the wilderness people, the herdsmen, the shepherds, who have to travel great distances, the point of infinity at this point is the inns within a short distance.
The inns lost their importance with the advent of the railway, and these stations of the Wild East slowly disappeared into the fog of the past. However, the oldest and most famous inn of Hortobágy, the Nagyhortobágy Inn, still stands as a living memento. The date of its origin is June 1, 1699.
Unlike in the old days, small budget wilderness wanderers are not the targeted audience. In return, the guest will taste the specialties of the region, such as the famous goulash soup, made from excellent ingredients and using a traditional recipe. In addition, there is an exhibition on the history of the inns, showing usual guests and their way of life, as well as famous guests staying here, and if you like, we can also dress up the people of Hortobágy in a dress fitting.
The Nine-hole Bridge (Kilenclyukú híd), one of the symbols of Hortobágy, is located as far as a peasant’s hairline from the inn. Crossing the Hortobágy River, the building is the longest stone bridge in the country, meaning a 167- -meter- long crossing. The bridge, which was handed over in 1833, was built using 400,000 locally burnt bricks and, according to a legend, it was made from a mortar made of milk. For centuries, herds of cattle have been driven to Western European markets on the bridge or the wooden bridge of its predecessor.
The bridge is as closely linked to the annual bridge fair as the nine holes. Fairs were held in the area as early as the 15th century, but first in the immediate vicinity of the bridge only in 1825.
At that time, only horses were bought or sold, and from 1846 cattle were too. The golden age of trade fairs was the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, when the works of various masters were included in the repertoire. Nowadays, it is mainly a fair of folk arts and crafts, as well as an annual meeting of local shepherds, during which the Shepherd’s statue is crowned at the end of the shepherd’s parade.
It is not the only time when we can meet the shepherds, their life, their existence in the wilderness in symbiosis, is revealed to us by the Shepherd’s Museum, which was also nearby, and which was created from the former cart-house of the Great Tavern.
The exhibition showcased the shepherd life typical of Hortobágy at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries with realistic pieces, live pictures, projections, and audio materials. And in the Circlehutch (Kőrszín) near the building, traditional local crafts are brought to life, giving us a glimpse into the workshops of various craftsmen.
I have already written a comprehensive article about Hungarian herding dogs. Worth checking out.
The fauna are at least as important a part of Hortobágy as man. Many traditional Hungarian species graze the pastures, but the really special species are awaiting us in the Hortobágy Wildlife Park.
Here we can see animals that have either died or disappeared from the Carpathian Basin or lived here before the appearance of man. Wolves, jackals, broncos, vultures, pelicans, wild cats, meadow eagles, or red-footed falcons live here.
If we really want something extra, Extra Safari is a must-have program. In the adventure tour, a specially designed vehicle allows us to observe from body close up large, hoofed animals on the display pasture, of which two species are introduced: the Przewalski bronco and the reconstructed aurochs.
There is nothing to question the central role of nature in Hortobágy, but man also takes some space on this spacious stage. Throughout the year, interesting programs offered for visitors, many of which follow the rhythm of the wilderness. An example of this is the St George’s Day celebration of sprouting.
One of the great events of the shepherd’s life was St. George’s Day. On that day was the first time that the animals were driven out of their winter lodgings. The festival is enriched by craft fairs, folk music programs, and concerts.
Contrary to the name of the National Goulash Competition and Shepherd’s Meeting, it is not only a gastronomic event but a kind of wilderness sport event. Gray cattle herdsmen and goulashes are comparing their craftsmanship on that day. The competition includes pulling water from a shadoof, counting animals, estimating the number of animals crossing the bridge as accurately as possible, counting ears, using a whip and throwing a goulash stick, and a paddle throwing.
The Hortobágy Riding Days have become a major event in the region in recent decades. Its main purpose is to present the past and the present of the shepherd culture which is typical of Hortobágy, as well as the horse breeding work of the Mátai Stud.
The riding days feature the bride and groom of Hungarian equestrian life, from enthusiastic amateurs to routine professionals. There are racing and international show jumping; at the Hortobágy Csikósok Competition, practitioners of this traditional genre compete with each other. In addition, of course, there are numerous concerts, fairs, and children’s stages.
The cycle of wilderness is framed by the St Dömötör’s Day Recovery Day, which comes with the cold weather. The animals are then driven from the pastures to their winter lodging. The celebration of Dömötör Day,- which was also the patron saint of the shepherds-, was a “great event” among the shepherds, for which they were well prepared.
This folk tradition comes alive at the Feast of Recovery, where shepherds accompany their animals across the Nine Hole Bridge. After the spectacular procession, it is also possible to get acquainted with the shepherds and their cattle. And if that wasn’t enough, folk music concerts, folk dance performances, recipe competitions, handicrafts and cauldron meals waiting for the farewell guests of Hortobágy.
Why visit Hortobágy?
No matter how incredible it is, the passages above give just a taste of what such a barren, often unfriendly, empty land can provide. There are so many secrets to discover here that it is impossible to list them all. But Hortobágy itself is a fascinating earthly phenomenon.
It is not infinitely oppressive, it is rather an inviting slice of the country, which includes so much of what is Hungarian. Just stop here, close our eyes, take a deep breath, and let the time stop with us.