In the early 1980s, when Hungary was still deeply cloaked within the Iron Curtain, when grocery lines wrapped around city blocks, infrastructure crumbled, and travel outside the country was restricted, my uncle Gabor in Budapest saved what money he could and headed for the scenic grasslands in the east.
It was an escape, a yearning for beauty amid economic malaise and depressing city life. He had been enamored for years of the 19th-century poetry of Janos Arany and Sandor Petofi, who evoked the plain’s quiet, boundless, bare beauty and who wrote eloquently of lonely shepherds, withered peasant women and wild horses. Through Hapsburg and Ottoman rule, this vast, empty plain, called the Puszta, was for Hungarians their own Big Sky Country, and it remained an untamable, immutable terrain symbolic of liberty, even when the nation’s farms were collectivized under the Soviets.
In 1973, most of the great plain was designated Hungary’s first national park, and in 1999 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
My uncle, who taught high school English in Budapest, recalled recently how when he walked across the fields during that visit, “you could see and feel each of the words of these great poets, one by one — words that as a schoolboy, I had to learn and know now by heart.”
When he told me this, I was preparing to visit Hungary, specifically Hortobagy National Park in the Puszta. It was September, and the refugee crisis at Hungary’s southern border with Serbia was an exodus of biblical proportions. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban was vociferously defending his state police and the construction of a wall to keep out the refugees.
This all gave me pause: My father — Gabor’s brother, and a refugee of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution — had followed the same route toward Austria (and then onward to the United States) that the Syrians and others were now traversing.
Perhaps I could balance, in a way, the distressing images of refugees with scenes from my country’s heritage by visiting the majestic Puszta. I was keen to see this landscape that my father, a mostly irascible man, admired as much as Gabor did — though my father never had the chance to travel there himself.
When he died, in 2012, I was all the more determined to see this mystical region that filled his imagination, and that he had, sight unseen, vividly described for me when I was a child. A print in our living room had depicted cowboys in billowy trousers galloping across the wheat fields and shepherds in floor-length sheepskin robes, and I still have a 1973 Hungarian stamp from my childhood collection that shows a detailed rendering of the Nine Arch Bridge in the town of Hortobagy. I was especially eager to go horseback riding in the area.
Upon arriving in Budapest, I took the train to Hajduszoboszlo, where I was met by Reka, my guide. After throwing my backpack in her army-green Suzuki Samurai, she drove me past stalks of sunflowers and cornfields baking in the early autumn sun, with bicyclists — teenagers as well as seniors — weaving in and out of traffic. I could see large nests atop chimneys. (More than 240 bird species, including herons, egrets, warblers, eagles and cranes are sighted in the Hortobagy National Park annually.)
After checking into the Sovirag Hotel just off of the main road in Hortobagy, we sat for lunch outside at a nearby roadside inn, the Hortobagyi Csarda. Built at the end of the 18th century, this inn, like others in the region, was a popular resting spot for cattlemen and shepherds, as well as traveling merchants selling salt from the mines of Maramureș County in present-day Romania. As we sat outside, it was quiet, but I could imagine gypsy musicians meandering about as guests drank palinka, Hungary’s traditional and potent fruit brandy.
Reka encouraged me to order the goulash, telling me that the beef comes from the Puszta’s distinctive gray horned cattle. I know the dish well — I grew up eating it — but this meal was exceptional, with the paprika sauce at a perfectly flavored pitch and the beef extra tender.
A nap afterward would have been welcome, but I had arranged to ride. A short walk took us to the green-and-white gabled bungalow of Albert and Judit Hajdu. Behind the thick ivy draped across the front, we entered a courtyard filled with a riot of lavender, roses, lilac, geraniums, marigolds, rosemary, amaranth, zinnias and trees heavy with enormous quinces. The hosts, neither of whom spoke English, greeted us warmly and then led us to a handsomely carved wooden table with benches and offered us espresso. Albert soon vanished around the side of the house and reappeared leading two horses. After tying them to a tree in the courtyard, he set about gently lifting up their hooves and cleaning around the shoes with a knife. He then saddled up.
Judit, meanwhile, brought me a paper and motioned that I should sign it. Written in barely passable English, it seemed to be a waiver of liability. I’d had to sign the same in California the previous month when I’d had two hours of riding instruction at a Bodega Bay ranch. I shrugged and signed my name.
Before long, I was sitting atop Madar, or Birdy. Albert leaped onto his own horse and then led me outside the courtyard. We veered toward a road bordering a field and railroad tracks, and, while trying to follow Albert’s instructions in Hungarian, I discovered he could, thankfully, speak German, as do I.
We trotted onward at a pleasant pace until we reached a crossroads. Albert directed me to turn right and cross railroad tracks. But, try as I might, Madar refused — deaf, too, to the belting out of commands by Albert, who was also clearly losing his patience with me.
“I thought you said you know how to ride?” he growled at me, exasperated. “How can you get on a horse and not know how to ride?” I reminded him that when we met at his house, I’d told him and his wife I’d had only two hours of instruction.
“But that paper you signed claims you’re an experienced rider!” he shot back.
He angrily slung a rope around Madar’s neck and pulled hard so that we might follow him. I was chastened, and not just a little afraid as we headed into the open fields with Albert barking orders at me. “Just like my father,” I muttered to myself.
But in leaving the road and entering the wild grasslands, both Albert and the horses mellowed. He pointed out clusters of fall aster and blackthorn, wild pear trees and lustrous rosehip bushes, looking as though they were on fire in the setting autumn sun. In the distance, we saw a shepherd with his two Kuvasz herding dogs and headed toward them.
Suddenly a wild hare jumped across our path. Although Madar took it in stride, Albert’s horse was spooked, throwing his rider to the ground. It took some minutes before Albert regained control and composure, but he was clearly — just as I’d been earlier — chastened. We continued in silence, the sunset radiating before us. He gradually turned jovial, talking about his favorite Creedence Clearwater Revival tunes and Gary Cooper westerns. When we reached his house, Judit offered us quince palinka and Albert toasted our ride, and the Puszta.
The next day, Reka and I met Albert for a wooden carriage ride. He dressed as a driver from an earlier time, with a black vest and riding boots, and a feather in his fedora. We passed several of the Puszta’s traditional sweep wells and happened upon a barn as a shepherd was letting out his flock of Racka sheep, kicking up a dramatic dust storm. And when we neared a clearing in a forest, Albert pointed out a herd of gray cattle behind an electric fence and suggested I could crawl underneath to get closer for a photo. Skeptical and timid, I eventually shimmied underneath the wire and gingerly approached these magnificent beasts which, to my surprise, held perfectly still while eyeing me, as if posing.
As we turned toward town, Reka and Albert chatted in Hungarian as I watched a flock of cranes gracefully circle above and until we reached a meadow with some neglected farmhouses in the near distance. What caught my eye then were fluttering ribbons in the red, white and green colors of the national flag. I saw as we approached that they adorned a small dried wreath affixed to a wooden post. Albert stopped the carriage before them.
This was a memorial, he said quietly. Between 1950 and 1953, at the height of Josef Stalin’s purges across the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, several thousand Hungarian families were rounded up and imprisoned in the remote Puszta. These farmhouses, said Albert, had served as quarters for one of those labor camps — rare artifacts, because when Stalin died in 1953 and the camps were dismantled, almost no trace of them was left.
We sat in the carriage as Albert translated the inscription on the post. I then got down and walked alone toward the farmhouses. I had thought of my father during the previous day’s horseback ride, mostly of how he pined all his life for the beloved homeland he had left. He had had no choice, I thought — but no, he had, and he chose freedom. And so, as I stood before these pitiful farmhouses on the windswept plain — and later that evening, watching television images of refugees on Hungary’s southern border — I thought of Petofi’s musings on the dilemma of liberty:
Liberty and love
These two I must have.
For my love I’ll sacrifice
For liberty I’ll sacrifice
Zach is a fellow at Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West.
More from Travel:
4071 Hortobagy, Czinege J. u. 52-53
A Hungarian bed-and-breakfast designed like a Swiss chalet, with a pretty courtyard and sauna. Rooms about $51.
Petofi ter 1, Hortobagy
hortobagyicsarda.eu (only in Hungarian)
This traditional whitewashed half-timbered inn has outdoor seating and a museum of Puszta memorabilia. Main dishes between $5-$8.
Hortobagy, Sarkadi Imre u. 15.
Bird-watching tours are about $71 for four hours. Horseback tours are about $24 an hour and carriage rides are about $30 an hour. The owners speak Hungarian, German and French.