In Hungary’s heartland

The Puszta or the traditional Hungarian landscape is a barren, treeless flat country full of folklore, writes Inder Raj Ahluwalia

A historical building in Szeged, the Southern Great Plain’s cultural and economic capital
A historical building in Szeged, the Southern Great Plain’s cultural and economic capital

The sweet smell of plums and apricots was quite endearing to the senses. But it was the ghost-like riders in the failing light with their shrill cries echoing across the countryside that captivated the imagination.

In fading light of dusk, apricot and plum brandies provided a welcome relief at the Old Tanyacsarda premises in Lajosmizse, a remote country ranch that’s home to some of Europe’s most prized horses and skilled riders, and lots of folklore.

The drive out of Budapest to the Puszta, the Hungarian Great Plain considered to be Hungary’s great heartland, is through vast stretches of flat landscape. It is also the historic region where the country’s foundations were laid centuries ago by fierce tribes.

The Puszta or the Great Plain is well preserved. Its stories and legends are those on which the foundations of the literature of an entire society rest. The land’s enmeshed in local folklore, its vast expanses fostering much of Hungary’s romantic literature.

The land still retains memories of herds of wild horses racing across the barren plain; and of the famous outlaw, Sandor Rozsa, the noble-spirited brigand who robbed the rich to help the poor.

 A traditional hut in the Puszta. The terrain here is hard and forbidding but still it offers some of Hungary’s richest flora and fauna
A traditional hut in the Puszta. The terrain here is hard and forbidding but still it offers some of Hungary’s richest flora and fauna — Photos by the writer

Of all the images thrown up by this remarkable land, perhaps the most endearing is that of the daring csikos astride five horses, racing across a lonely track of barren land, a feat known as the ‘Koch five-in-hand’ after the German artist, who painted this as an imaginary scene.

Not surprisingly, the legends of the land are its major attraction, enhanced by cheerful inns and taverns, friendly people, and a congenial atmosphere.

The terrain’s vast, varied, hard and forbidding. Though not blessed with rest of Hungary’s otherwise temperate weather, the Puszta offers some of the region’s richest flora and fauna that is as resilient as the people who inhabit the land.

All towns dotting the Great Plain happen to be set exactly 27 km apart. In the Middle Ages, this was the supposedly distance merchants could cover per day on foot. At the end of the day they pitched camp at suitably sheltered places, and in time, a town was born.

A csiko astride five horses, racing across a lonely track.
A csiko astride five horses, racing across a lonely track. It is a feat known as the ‘Koch five-in-hand’ named after the German artist who painted this as an imaginary scene

Next on the tour itinerary was Szeged, the Southern Great Plain’s economic and cultural capital. A flood in 1879 that washed half the town away, prompted inhabitants to opt for modern town planning. The result is boulevards and avenues not unlike the ones gracing Budapest and Paris. The main town landmark is the neo-Romanesque Votive Church, an honour it shares with the adjoining 13th century Romanesque Demetruis Tower. The statues of 100 Great Hungarians are displayed at the National Memorial Hall around the Cathedral Square.

Szechenyi Square is among Hungary’s biggest and liveliest parks with tastefully laid out fountains and charming statues. Flanking it are the neo-classical Zsoter House and the Zopf-Art-Nouveau style Town Hall.

But monuments and boulevards apart, Szeged is famous for its cuisine, and is home to the famed Fisherman’s Soup, and what connoisseurs will tell you are Europe’s tastiest salamis.

Early next morning once again it was time to hit the road. The drive was through country as flat as a billiards-table. Kecskemet was a city full of surprises. It is a treasure house of historical buildings. The Hungarian art nouveau style Cifra Palace, now an art gallery; the world-renowned Zoltan Kodaly Teaching Institute; and the beautifully refurbished 19th century Town Hall, are all notable landmarks. Much of the city’s charm is owed to its spacious main square with its promenades and churches of various denominations.

Another day, another urban settlement. The first thing that strikes one when one drives into Hungary’s second city after Budapest, are its shades of imperial opulence. Debrecen is a major city, famous for its sundry tourist establishments, upscale restaurants, and the renowned thermal baths. The world descends here to seek the ‘body beautiful’ and for the cure of various ailments.

Buildings of stature greet visitors, with the local architectural lineage extending to the Town Hall; the nationally famous building of the Reformed College; and Nagytemplom or the Big Church, a beautiful classicist structure.

Nothing personifies the Puszta’s rugged spirit and character better than the Opusztaszer, the National Memorial Park. Built as a tribute to Hungary’s conquest by the Magyar tribes over 1,100 years ago, Opusztaszer is a first-class cultural centre and major tourist attraction.

This is Hungary’s heart. This is where it all began in those ‘guts and glory’ days. Various sections of the complex preserve those momentous memories. But the park’s undisputed showpiece is Arpad Feszty’s ‘cyclorama’, a stunning 15-metre-high, 120-metre-long work of art that’s counted among Europe’s biggest and best paintings. The hauntingly life-like painting narrates in superb detail, the region’s invasion and conquest, which was a prelude to its becoming a nation.

As the sun sets over the Puszta, the mist quietly moves in, turning everything pale and ghostly. It’s time to partake of the sweet bread of the peasants and drink their strong brandy, before sitting back to listen to music that recounts the birth and history of the country.

Fact file

n Hungary’s, and the Puszta’s main gateway is the capital Budapest, whose international airport, Ferihegy, is serviced by several international airlines.
n The Puszta region has many cities and towns offering vast and varied accommodation, traditional restaurants and taverns, tourist and information offices, and shopping outlets. The region is a year-round tourist destination, but winters are cold and woollens are recommended.