September 3, 2008

Hortobágy National Park
Balmazújváros, Hungary

Róbert, more than eager for us to take something memorable away from our experience in Balmazújváros outside of their home, arranged for us to be taken to the nearby village of Hortobágy. We really didn't know what to expect from the outing, and simply assumed that we'd be getting a tour of a farm or taking a closer look at some of the plentiful agriculture in the surrounding area.

Tamáz, Róbert's young coworker at the pharmacy, drove us out of town in the early afternoon. Although our hosts have no children, Róbert somehow managed to yet again surprise by securing a child seat for little Aidric.

A little foggy on the game plan, Tamáz enlightened us as to exactly what Róbert had arranged for us. Apparently he'd called in a favor or two from an old friend, and we were going to be getting a horse-drawn tour of a piece of Hortobágy National Park. (Google's got a good shot of the stables and hotel resort complex)

Hortobágy is the largest continuous natural grassland in Europe. The Hortobágy National Park, established in 1973, is the country's largest protected area (316 square miles). It joined the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1999, under the category of cultural landscapes.

A major part of the area of the National Park is formed by natural habitats: alkaline grasslands, meadows, and 23 square miles of fishponds. The appearance of 340 species of birds has been registered in Hortobágy, of which 160 nest inside the National Park.

The Hortobágy grasslands have been used by humans for grazing their domesticated animals for more than two millennia. A large number of tough, undemanding local breeds can be found here: the Hungarian Grey Cattle, Water Buffalo, and Raczka Sheep. Less ancient species are the curly bristled Mangalica Pig, which gives good bacon, and the Nonius horse.

The herdsmen living on the grasslands do not have permanent buildings for themselves or their animals. Most of the ancient herdsmen's buildings are very simple but also practical, made chiefly out of reed.

After killing a bit of time with our young driver, Tamáz bid us farewell and luck. Shortly thereafter a huge tour bus filled to brim with elderly German retirees arrived unloaded. I can't only imagine that the interior of the vehicle smelled like—a mixture of Bengay and death, for sure.

A lineup of horse-drawn carts was assembled, and the Germans, adorned in the most laughably entertaining/retro travel clothing you could think of climbed aboard. From out of nowhere a large group of children seemed to appear, also speaking German. The kids had a proper guide with them, who would be doing the tour in German for everyone. From time to time I'd translate what I could for Tatiana.

I suppose I should take a moment to mention that Tatiana loves horses. I mean, she effin' loves 'em. Even getting to be around them was a great thing for her, though always brings with it the disappointment of not getting a chance to ride one herself.

I've got a tamer stance on the horse scene, and couldn't help but notice the gastronomic difficulties that one of the animals had pulling our cart. The farting—so many horse farts. And along with it the tail up and giant horse vag looking me in the face—like some kinda car accident that begs to be stared at as you drive past.

German tourists and female horse genitals aside, we had a blast. We got ourselves a proper introduction to the terrestrial animals of the park, saw some traditionally garbed horsemen doing some wild tricks with their steeds, and took away a bunch of memories that we would've never had if it weren't for CouchSurfing and the generosity of our hosts. I didn't even know there was a UNESCO site around here until today, and certainly would've never paid for something like this myself even if I did.

( Hungarian Horse Riders with Whips )

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