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20060904_P_0193 diary pic
Lots and lots of sunflowers! (and the fields stretch on for ages)
20060904_P_0219 diary pic
What's Hungarian for "cranberry sauce"?
20060904_P_0242 adj diary pic
Long-horned Hungarian cattle

Despite the hotel’s four stars, the shower must rank as one of the worst we have had anywhere. At breakfast we were the only guests in the large dining room. We drove into “town” to the visitor’s centre. This was clearly very new. We got some useful information about areas we could visit independently as well as contact details for a guide. We had tried to contact one yesterday but the man we spoke with didn’t instill any confidence. We called there and then and made an arrangement with the guide, Szándor (Alexander) for tomorrow morning, for an early start!

This seemed to be the right place to look for a real shepherd’s hat, to add to our (my) growing collection – started unwittingly but now beginning to look rather decent. In the central space there were stands with all sorts of local goods, for the tourists of course: gleaming copper kettles for use over a camp fire, and whips, large horse-whips that, handled correctly, could let off a sharp crack. The female vendor demonstrated deftly and a prospective buyer got increasingly frustrated and flayed the thing more and more wildly trying to extract a crack, but without result other than a painful shoulder. There were only tourist versions of the hats, not the real deal, i.e. not good enough for the collection!

From Hortobágy we drove west along the main road leading through the national park. “National park” here didn’t mean a pristine unpopulated part of nature but refers to a protected area, with some bits which are strictly off-limits to visitors, or less strictly, only if accompanied by a guide, and other areas are simply generally accessible. Yet other parts have farms and houses, probably with restrictions on development and rules on maintaining the traditional character of the region. This makes it more a living environment instead of a museum piece. On either side of the road, north and south, the Puszta stretched off into the distance, a landscape of grasslands, steppe, reeds.

The character did vary from one part to another, with different plants and colours, but was relentlessly flat. There were some stands of trees, some distant farm houses, some nearer by. Long low white buildings with thatched roofs, usually a few set together around, or near, a traditional wooden waterwell, consisting of a wooden arm and pulley on a wooden A-frame, rather like a rural version of an oil derrick. A scenic landscape, but impossible to photograph. All you would see on the photograph would be a lower panel of green and an upper panel of blue sky.

We reached the western end of the protected part – we had gone too far, past the bird hides and walking trail we were trying to find, and turned back. We stopped at the hide, a short walk from the small car park, and met a pair of Dutch tourists en passant – they’re everywhere, my compatriots. At the hide we sat with the binos and camera for a little while, looking at the reed beds in the watery wetland ahead of us, and saw herons, ducks, geese, and various little birds – but I have no idea of which ones. Still, it was great just to watch the environment quietly.

Next we drove to the little puszta zoo just outside Hortobágy. Anywhere else this would have been a relatively straightforward collection of farm animals, from ordinary to rather rare breeds, but here, on the Great Plain of Hungary, evolution and man’s breeding have resulted in some pretty quirky forms of these animals. Most famously, the massive grey cattle with their unnaturally long horns, and the racka sheep, long-haired sheep, almost like Rastafarians, with horns that spiralled around straight axes in a wide V-shape from their heads. We wandered round the little zoo, and then drove across the Nine Hole Bridge, and parked to visit the small shepherds museum, in a large thatched house/building.

It housed a collection of old pictures and farm implements, shepherds outfits such as their very broad-shouldered thick felt coats, characteristic hats and shepherds staff. At the far end of the museum a diaroma showed, against a backdrop of a wall-sized real photo from the period, what the scene would have looked like here, just by the Nine Hole Bridge, in days gone by. The bridge had become a venue for the annual fair, hence its fame and place in Hungarian folklore. The pictures, as in other ethnographic musea we have visited, showed life in a totally different era, capturing people’s expressions, their faces and there was even some video footage from the 1930’s.

From the tourist information we had obtained a name and address of Gyula Mihalkó, a real hat maker, for the traditional shepherds hat. He lived in Balmazújváros, a nearby village, and that’s where we went next. This village was less visited by tourists but still boasted the customary zimmer frei signs and had a much more ordinary, quiet sleepy “rural service centre” atmosphere. With some asking around from locals we found it. It would have been impossible otherwise. The hat maker’s daughter was happy to oblige and showed us the workshop, in the house itself, although the hat maker himself was not there and we could not see him at work. With “hands and feet” communication we managed to buy a real hat (not cheap at €65 though) and left, mission accomplished.

From here we now drove west again, back past Hortobágy and towards the marsh area which was good for bird spotting. By now it was late afternoon so we hoped to see some more birdlife. The marshland here consisted of a series of shallow man-made dyked-off artificial lakes, rather like the tank of Angkor in Cambodia, but dense with reed beds. A tram track ran the length of the marsh area, several kilometres in a straight line away from the road. They were clearly still developing it, with a narrow gauge train track intended for future visitors. We walked a good way along the track, with a narrow canal alongside and with branches off at various points. We stopped at a viewing platform and used our binoculars to try and view stuff. We walked on, and then headed back. All in all it was a pretty decent walk, and it was nice for a change to walk along the flat in a straight line! In the late afternoon light the water looked intensely blue as it reflected the sky, and the grasses and reeds looked intensely green. It’s always a nice part of the day, the late afternoon, with that special “glow” as the sun lights things up at a different angle.

We returned to the Hortobágy Club hotel and headed for the hotel’s pool. It wasn’t just a little pool but a full-length four lane pool, suitable for competitions and at one end there was a separate large shallow Jacuzzi-type pool. The latter was occupied by a bunch of drunk Russians, so we simply swam lengths in the main pool until the Russians had had enough and they swapped for the big pool and us vice versa. After this we felt very very relaxed! Later, after spending some time in our room, we went out in Eddie and drove to the csarda - a Hungarian inn usually with gypsy musicians – by the Nine Hole Bridge.

We had hoped for an atmospheric, if rather touristy, evening but it was virtually deserted. There were a few diners outside, and no signs of any music, whether live or recorded. By now the mozzies were out so we sat inside. Only a limited menu was available but that didn’t matter. We had some Hungarian nosh: veal paprika and “noodles” for me, and turkey goulash for Ness, and as Ness was driving I had a beer and a barack pálinka, Hungarian apricot schnapps. On the way there and back Ness dodged the many little frogs which were frozen still on the road in the headlights – mostly successfully. Guess what… it has been another great day! Oh, we’re steeling ourselves for an early start tomorrow, to go “birding”.