Recognised as a World Heritage Site in 1999, the Hortobagy National Park is a wonderful treasure just to the west of Debrecen in eastern Hungary – covering 800 square kilometres, it is the largest remaining area of natural grassland in Europe.
Because of the over-production of water-intensive crops such as rice in the early 20th century it is now no longer able to support farming – the concentrations of salt in the ground are just to great for crops to establish themselves. However, the grazing of cattle and sheep continues as it has for centuries, albeit on a smaller scale than in the last century. There are still several hundred nomadic herders tending animals in the area, who continue to wear the traditional garb of distinctive hats and cloaks denoting their particular role (the horsemen having the most elaborate) and who live for the season in dwellings made of dried bunches of reeds of an ancient design.
The Hortobagy is home to a dizzying number of wild and domesticated animals – birds such as herons, cranes, pelicans and eagles can be found here, as can wolves and foxes, and the Hungarian Grey cattle and Racka sheep tended by the herders are present in large numbers. At the centre of the settlement in the middle of Hortobagy there is a visitor centre and several museums – one dedicated to flora and fauna, two that look at the long-standing folk traditions of the region and one that studies the history of the distinctive coaching inns that dot the main trade route – the latter is actually housed in one of those inns, which also serves as the area’s main restaurant, next to the ‘nine-holed bridge’ over the river Tisza (Hungary’s oldest bridge).
The Hortobagy National Park also holds a dark secret – because of its long, cold winters and baking hot summers it was deemed suitable to act as the country’s ‘gulag’ during the communist era. ‘Undesirables’ were sent here from all over the country to suffer its harsh conditions. These days, of course, visitors to the area are made rather more welcome!
If you make the journey here from Debrecen, in addition to furnishing yourself with some knowledge from the museums I would recommend the hourly ‘safari’ tour, which whisks you away in an off-road vehicle right into the centre of the plain. It drops you off at another visitor centre which you can use as a base for a trek out into the wilderness, or you can stay close by and visit the large enclosures that house several breeds of cattle, horses and even wolves…
If you need to kill time before returning to the city there are more craft shops crammed together in the village than I’ve ever seen in one place, and if you need refreshment there’s a bar, ice cream shop and the aforementioned inn which serves up some very good authentic local dishes. You might even get some traditional music to help your food go down, as we did when visited – the expertise of a ‘cimbalom’ player has to be seen to be believed. A precursor of the piano if you will, the musician uses two padded beaters to directly strike the strings - it has a very distinctive sound, familiar to anyone who has listened to the Gypsy music found in the recent Sherlock Holmes movies, for example.
Further photos of our trip to Hortobagy National Park can be found here.