It was a cold early morning in Budapest and I spent an unreasonable amount of time watching spirals of steam rise from the bulging River Danube as it barrelled sluggishly, timelessly past my hotel because Laszlo was late.
An affable chauffeur and one of the go-get-’em entrepreneurs that emerged in post-Soviet Hungary, Laszlo had created his own very successful hire car business.
To the tune of a head-turning tyre screech, he arrived in the hotel driveway accompanied by an interpreter called Enika who, together, would ferry me down to the legendary Puszta, the Great Hungarian Plain, or what’s left of it.
Southeast of Budapest, bordered by mountains and covering half the country’s land mass, the Puszta was, historically, a topographic mishmash of sandy wastelands, marshy wetlands and prairie badlands that became home to nomadic tribes of Magyars when the warrior horsemen first thundered in from the icy steppes of western Siberia in the 9th century AD yelling in a language like no other.
In time the Great Plain became Hungary’s equivalent of America’s wild west, arid, almost treeless grasslands where fiercely independent Hungarian cowboys called csikos raised horses, grey longhorn cattle, curious looking woolly pigs called mangalica and racka sheep with long straight corkscrew horns, creating a reputation across Europe for outstanding horsemanship.
They galloped through the ensuing centuries and a landscape of whitewashed farmhouses, spindly sweep wells they called gemeskut and thatched czardas (roadside inns), their voluminous shirts and baggy blue trousers billowing in the dust.
But the Puszta we were seeing didn’t quite live up to its past. The veteran white farmhouses had stood their ground well but much of the grazing land had come under cultivation and electricity pylons vastly outnumbered the few remaining gemeskut.
The longhorn cattle, the racka and mangalica were still there too and so were the csikos who managed them, although most now worked at vargas, sort of horse resorts, where they performed their equine tricks to keep their skills and traditions alive and to enthrall wagonloads of tourists.
Although extensive irrigation and drainage projects carried out in the late 19th century had caused much of the old Puszta to disappear, the spirit of the gutsy csikos apparently hadn’t.
Imbued with the moral fibre of his forebears, Leadfoot Laszlo scorched down the M5 motorway at speeds up to 180kph making up for lost time and babbling in incomprehensible Hungarian to Enika who responded occasionally with “OK, OK, OK” and “uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh”.
Our target was the century-old Varga Tanya Hotel, now an equestrian farm resort just west of the county capital, Kecskemet and set on the edge of an acacia forest next to the Kiskunsag National Park with 16 hotel rooms and 16 traditional Puszta-style villas.
There was a 20-metre pool, a comfortable bar and a large rustic dining room complete with old peasant pots and pans where hearty regional dishes like stuffed paprikas, bean soups and bogracsgulyas (goulash) were prepared in the open air.
There’s a saying in Hungary: “God created Hungarians to sit on the back of a horse”, and horses are what Varga Tanya and its ilk are all about.
There are riding courses for kids and beginners, galloping over the plains for the more advanced or just plodding peacefully around the Puszta in a horse-drawn dray, picnicking or popping into a village pub to sip the regional barack palinka (40% strength apricot brandy) with the locals.
But the highlight in dusty arenas at these horse resorts right across the Puszta are the stunning demonstrations of csikos equitation in which the riders sit, stand and lie on their bareback steeds galloping at breakneck speed facing forward, sideways, backwards and upside-down, turning, twisting and whip-cracking in action-packed displays.
They leap off the horses, which suddenly drop on their sides in explosions of perspiration and dust, allowing the csikos to stand and lie on their prone bodies or settle in the joints of the hind legs in scenes reminiscent of a travelling circus stunt.
Imre Aczel, known to his fellow csikos as Szöcske (Grasshopper), explained, via Enika, that these flamboyant displays had deadly serious origins. They were a means of survival in the old days, not only for the horse herders, but also for betyars, the outlaws and horse thieves who constantly threatened them.
Laying a horse on its side and disappearing into its embrace was often the only place to hide in the vast flatness of the Puszta. It was often the most comfortable place to sleep and close enough to whip into action or make a sudden escape if the situation suddenly took a turn for the worse.
Grasshopper stood on the prone animal’s belly cracking a 12-metre bullwhip just over its head, the way his ancestors familiarised their horses with the sounds of gunfire. The horse didn’t flinch but rose and sat on its haunches, allowing him to kneel between its erect front legs, once the only shelter from fierce summer storms that still sweep the Puszta.
But the csikos specialty is the Puszta Five, a physical near-impossibility that has been elevated to an art form and practiced right across the Great Plains. A team of five horses is linked only by five sets of reins to a rider who stands, one foot on each rump of the last two horses, maintaining close formation and driving them at full gallop.
At Varga Tanya, Grasshopper has gone five better; he has perfected the Puszta Ten using ten horses that thunder around the arena at full pelt in a brilliant exhibition of human-animal coordination.
With a change of pace and a lungful of dust I joined farmhand, Miklos, on his horse-drawn dray as he aimed it at a blazing red sunset to call at a home-stay farm a few kilometres away. Miklos was more laid-back than the average csikos and getting more relaxed every minute as he hooked into a flask of palinka.
It was a quiet journey because Miklos spoke no English; the only sounds were the rumble of the wooden dray, the autumn breeze blowing across the Puszta and two dray-horses up front and upwind lazily breaking wind.
At the entrance to the bio-organic farm we were greeted by a gaggle of security geese which escorted us to the 130-year-old whitewashed farmhouse and friendly owners, Laszlo and Olga Rendek.
Bright red peppers hung from low eaves to dry under the thatched roof and free-range pigs and chooks scampered around the farmyard. Olga offered freshly baked bread wrapped in Hungary’s national colours and terrific homemade apricot lemonade as she showed me inside their house.
There was an ancient fireplace, hand-built beds, a whitewashed mud-brick kemence stove, a pantry brimming with home-made preserves ready for winter and a corn-drying room where she occasionally held classes in making dolls and toys from dried corn cobs.
Olga’s roast goose dinner with lava-hot red peppers was to die for and then came the gulyas. Named after the Puszta longhorn cattle known as gulya, gulyas, better known to us as goulash, is unsurprisingly, a Puszta tradition.
This thick soup loaded with chunks of beef, potatoes, noodles, vegetables and hot paprika was invented centuries ago by the csikos who let it simmer all day in cauldrons as they thundered around the Great Plains doing all the things csikos did. The result was so delicious and heartwarming it remains one of Hungary’s most treasured inventions.
A few more palinkas and I felt an overwhelming desire to spend a night in this little hub of Hungarian history but across the table Enika was muttering “Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh” and Leadfoot Laszlo was impatiently tapping his feet.
Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2013 (Copyright Agency Limited)