Plain talking in Hungary

Cold winters and scorching hot summers in Hungary's Great Plains

7 mins

You’ll just have to trust me that the spillage of letters heading the next paragraph is really a word. Rather than what you’d get if you let a sugar-accelerated toddler run a toy truck back and forth across a computer keyboard for a couple of minutes. And then pressed the ‘print’ key.

Elkáposztásíthatatlanságában. That’s it. And, frankly, as a word that trips – and stumbles and staggers – off your tongue, elkáposztásíthatatlanságában tells you pretty much everything that you’ll ever need to know about the Magyar language.

For Hungarians, elkáposztásíthatatlanságában has something to do with cabbages, apparently. Something rather complicated I suppose. Though what, exactly, I’m none too sure. It’s merely instructive that the Hungarians talk about a very basic vegetable with a length and complexity of word that other nations’ scientists wouldn’t even give to the final stages of a rare and incurable disease. As a language Magyar advertises just how different Hungary is from every other country in Europe. Though I’m really not sure that it advertises the differences quite enough.

Because, like its language, Hungary’s history is less straightforward and, quite frankly, more Lord of the Rings-y than that of most other European nations. There was the time of Attila and his band of merry Huns, for a start. Then the subsequent brawlings and rampages of tribes of Longobards, Gepids, Goths, Avars and, for all I know, hordes of hirsute-footed Hobbits. Followed, in the first century AD, by the arrival of a horse-powered – and ludicrously-languaged – Finno-Ugric tribe, the Magyars, who cannoned out of the east to make the flat grasslands, between the Danube and the Tisza, their home.

King Stephen, a descendant of Árpád (one of the early Magyar leaders) was crowned and blessed by the then pope on Christmas Day of 1000, effectively establishing modern Hungary. But from this first rubber-stamping of the new nation right through to our own times, the Magyars had to weather a number of cruel – and very Tolkien-esque – upsets. For a start, being placed hard on the eastern marches of Europe meant that, in the 13th century, Hungary caught the full brunt of the incoming Mongol invasions. And the Hungarians had hardly got the place tidied up after the Golden Horde’s gate crashing before they had to face, first, repeated assaults and, then, an almost total occupation by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. 

Through all this the history of Hungary revolved around the Great Plains – the year-round pastures of the flatlands. So, even today the spirit of the nation still resides in the symbols and life of the puszta – the ‘empty lands’. The land’s flatness means brutal winter freezes, languid summer heat, spectacular thunderstorms and confusing mirages – the fata moragana. “The puszta is the place,” they say locally though, obviously, in less-pronounceable words, “where sky and earth meet.” On a clear day in the plains, the horizon and infinity become interchangeable. The Hungarian plains are so flat that if you had really, really good eyesight you could gaze off in any direction and, a week later, you’d see the back of your own head. 

The plains have their own unique domestic animals, some of the oldest breeds still found in Europe: racka sheep with long, straight horns, spiralled along their lengths like those of unicorns; Mongolian hairy pigs, tufted in thick curls like shag carpets; white cattle with horns as wide as those of African buffalo and with tempers to match. And each of the three has specialist herders who still graze them across the pastures of the Hortobágy National Park, aided by the three types of herders’ dog – the puli, the kuvasz and the komondor – each in a size appropriate to its ovine, porcine or bovine charges. The dogs all sport thick, matted dreadlocks of hair, making all the mutts on the puszta look as if they’d been crocheted out of hanks of wool and knots of sisal by bored grandmothers passing away long winter evenings.

Above all, life on the plains revolves around horses. Therefore at the top of the rural hierarchy are the horse-herding csikós. Their uniform reflects their status: black top boots; ornately buttoned waistcoats; tricorn hats; and long flowing, pleated skirts worn over their breeches. Theirs is an operatically flamboyant outfit; though any temptation to poke fun at the csikós’ costume tends to die on the lips when one notes their three-metre, heavy lashed whips which they can crack with the force and explosion of firecrackers. Or, quite possibly, flick out to knock a smirking man off the end of a lighted cigarette – and that without a second thought. Naturally, I think their costumes are wonderful. 

Even if you’ve never straddled a horse in your life, and have no intention of doing so until they come equipped with working brakes, power-steering, Volvo-quality crumple-zones and airbags to smooth out the worst collisions, you’ll still enjoy the horse stuff on the plains. And if you actually like hands-on (or rather bum-on) horse stuff then you’ll be in your element.

In May I swung into the saddle of one of János Lóskas’ Kisbéri horses and, along with a small group of riders, I rode out for a week’s trip across the northern plains and into the Bükk Hills. Over the years, since I’d made my first journey through Hungary on a mid-80s kayak down the length of the Danube, I’d returned numerous times to zigzag around the country. My travels had been on foot, by train, in buses and once – wonderfully and surreally – lounging in the back of a chauffeur-driven limousine. But a horse, I could see, was the best way – the Hungarian way – to experience the plains. 

As we cantered across the fenceless grasslands, the warm spring sun and morning dews had flowered the ground in tiny yellow, red and blue asterisks.

A Montagues harrier flapped and fluttered on stop-start wing beats above us. Bee-eaters swooped, rainbowed and fluted up from the ditches. In the distance a horse-drawn charabanc, full of non-riding, plains-bound travellers, rumbled over a dusty track from the stud at Máta. Like us they were heading for a low, long, thatched barn that rose as a faint bump of heartbeat on the otherwise ‘flat lining’ read out of the horizon. 

In the lee of one of the gantry like sweep-wells, a mob of Máta csikós were galloping through an al fresco circus of tricks. Though thrillingly showy, the stunts had their roots in serious history and the time of the betyárs – unmarried men – who, when dispossessed of their herding rights by the growth of agriculture in the 18th century, turned to outlaw life. It’s a history now as romanticised as our stories of Robin Hood. A folklore celebrating carousings, wild dancing and Gypsy music in the rural inns, the robbing of the rich to give to the poor and the masterly acts of horsemanship needed to survive life on the plains and to evade pursuing posses. 

So, as we watched, the modern csikós laid their horses flat on the ground at a spoken command, in the way used to hide your steed on the open plains when being tracked by bounty hunters in the old days. Another sat his horse down and tucked himself in underneath its stomach, between its front legs, as if in a sentry box, just as the betyárs once sheltered from the fierce puszta rain storms. Then there was a wild galloping round-up of a herd of grazing horses, the csikós riding on girth-less saddles at full speed with whips cracking exuberantly and their horses canted over into acute turns to swing the free animals around in a tightly packed hoof-thrumming thundercloud of horse flesh. 

The final part of the show, though, was a circus trick and no more. A case of life imitating art. But spectacular for all of that. In the early 20th century an Austrian artist, inspired by the romance of the csikós life, painted from his imagination a man standing atop two horses’ rumps and driving, at full gallop and guided by the reins alone, another three ahead. The csikós of the puszta took it as a challenge to bring the painting to life. It took a while, but at Bugac in the 1950s a horse herder finally managed to pull off the ‘puszta five’, surfing a wave of tight-pressed, flowing, tumbling horses. Once done for the first time, ever more csikós attained the strength, balance and guts needed and the ‘puszta five’ became the centrepiece of the numerous riding shows put on in the plains.

That night János took the seven of us to the horse barn at Máta for a birthday party given by the horseherders. A cauldron of slambuc – plain’s stew – bubbled over a fire, heavily spiced with the crimson paprikas we had seen hung to dry from the eaves of the thatched cottages in the villages we’d ridden through. There were numerous toasts with pálinka, a potent fruit brandy. Magyar may be difficult but one word I can always say is egészségére. ‘Cheers!’ And faultlessly. Even after numerous shots of pálinka. The hospitality of the Magyars has ensured me plenty of practice. 

While we were drinking and singing around a trestle table laden with food and wine, the herd of black Nonius horses – nearly a hundred of them – stood quietly in the gloom of the barn behind us. Hens fluttered and gently clucked as they roosted on the beams over their heads. One of the men returned from walking among the horses to check them, and beckoned us all to follow him. In the middle of the herd a mare was giving birth to a foal. We stood around in marvelling silence, the csikós as awed by the miracle as the rest of us, as the colt eased out. It lay on the ground for half an hour, then unsteadily gathered its stilt-awkward legs under it and, after a few attempts, managed to heave itself up. As, swaying back and forth like a stage drunk, it took its first drink at its mother’s udder, we raised our glasses in a toast. Egészségére indeed.

But Hungary is not just about horses. Nor life on the plains and no more. My favourite of Hungary’s towns, Eger in the north, provides a full menu of other Magyar pleasures. Eger has hot springs to lounge in, a surrounding region of vineyards producing rich wines, particularly opulent architecture and, of course, plenty more dollops of complex and heroic history. It also has Europe’s most northerly minaret, a relic from when the Turks took and held the city in the 16th century. 

To do so the Ottomans laid siege to Eger Castle, pitting 100,000 soldiers against 2,000 defenders for 99 days. Huge ramparts and carefully spaced towers provided defence. Immense stores were laid up in the cellars. Three springs provided water. And some 15kms of tunnels through the cores of the thick walls allowed the besieged to speed from one part of the castle to another. As I walked down a dark underground corridor my guide showed me niches in the stonework where drums with sand spread on their skins were placed; attempts to mine into the walls from outside set the sand vibrating and, duly alerted, soldiers could rush to the battlements above the attackers and pour boiling oil on their heads. There were heavy cannon poking their muzzles through slits in the walls. And stories of crude, but effective, wheeled bombs rolled downhill into the midst of oncoming attackers.

Though the Turks eventually took the castle and occupied Eger, the town continued to prosper. And when the Ottomans were finally expelled from Hungary, a surprising number of Turkish families opted to remain there. Then in the peace that followed the establishment of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Eger became a seat of learning with a university, some 33 churches and a famed library, with a camera obscura which still gives a view over the whole town. A view which includes the tip of the minaret, whose very survival is a token of Magyar tolerance. 

A 40m high needle of cut stone, the 400-year-old tower shoots up from a small square like a child’s drawing of a rocket. It’s unlikely that many other nations would allow visitors to climb the minaret’s vertiginous and constrictingly narrow spiral staircase, and then squeeze out onto the tiny and very frail balcony at the top. But it’s almost certain that nowhere else would allow an old woman to sit at the bottom of the tower selling toy gliders, water pistols, super-bouncing balls and other toys whose antisocial nature could only be increased by letting wicked children fire them off from 40m up in the air over the heads of unsuspecting adults. 

Naturally, as I waited my turn to climb up the minaret, I bought a small balsa-wood plane. I would have preferred a water pistol but couldn’t see anywhere to fill it up. A breathless ten minutes later I popped out of a tiny door onto the balcony. I could look across the roofs, over the battlements of the castle and to the wooded hills rising to the north. Out of sight to the south, the plains I’d ridden across began to unroll like a carpet of flowers and grass between the two great rivers, the Danube and the Tisza. I dropped the glider off into space and watched it turn long, lazy ellipses on the warm breeze. I thought back over the past week. Remembering the long warm days riding across the plains. The evenings drinking pálinka and dancing in country inns. The starlit night when we’d wallowed and sung songs in the outdoor thermal pools at Egerszalók. The wine tastings in the caves of the ‘Valley of the Beautiful Women’. Hungary was, I was glad to realise, a country of complicated linguistics but simple pleasures. Which was, obviously, better than the other way around.

Of course, given a vocabulary asplutter with words like elkáposztásíthatatlanságábans or even egészségére, it’s not surprising that, even after numerous visits to Hungary, I still don’t have more than a two-year-old’s grasp of Magyar. No, what I still find surprising is that the Hungarians themselves manage to speak Hungarian. Rather than having reverted to sign language, say. Or Morse code. Or, at the very least, having stopped talking about cabbages.

When to go:Hungary’s mid-Europe position and flat lands make for cold winters and hot summers. The latter are wonderful if you’re out in the country, preferably by a lake, river or swimming pool, but can be sticky in Budapest. Sudden and violent summer thunderstorms are a Great Plains trademark. Late spring gives the best of all worlds, with its flowers, sun and fewer tourists (remember that many of the neighbouring Germans, Austrians and Ukrainians enjoy their summer holidays in Hungary).

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