Hortobágyi National Park

July 16.  I awoke early and packed, then spent half an hour talking with Katalin and storing 4 bags that I didn’t want to shlep with me on my travels.  I’d pick them up in October when I was back.  She is heading to Italy to be with her husband in Tuscany.  She says that she sleeps better in Italy, and that the change in place will do her good.  She’s struggling with her relationship with her mother, and feels the need to escape.  She gave me a small figurine of Harlequino, an Italian comedia del arte clown character, as a talisman for fun and safe travels, and we bid one another farewell.  I appreciated her kindness in letting me stay two nights and store my things.  Luis’s ex-wife had come for the weekend, and he couldn’t let me stay Friday or Saturday.  I headed to Csibis pub and wrote until 1pm, then headed to the Szentendre skanzen, arriving at 1:45pm.

The open air museum is divided into eight different regions of Hungary: Upper Tisza, the Great Plains, Kisalföld, Western Transdanubia, Bakony-Balaton Uplands, Southern Transdanubia, an Upland Market Town (near Eger), and a North Hungarian Village. I had 3 hours, but only had time to see three.  The aim of museum is to present folk architecture, interior decoration, farming and way of life in the Hungarian language area from the 2nd half of the 18th century to the 1st half of the 20th century, through original and authentic objects and 400 relocated houses arranged in village-like regional units on the basis of ethnographic considerations. These include peasant households supplemented by sacred, communal and outbuildings, which used to be integral parts of traditional villages.  I particularly liked the museum exhibit on the effects on Hungarian life of Soviet occupation in the 1950s and 1960s.  The collection included a timber-frame Gothic church built in the 1500s.  Its interior consisted of ornately painted wooden decor.  I’d never seen such an old village church in Hungary.  It is apparently the oldest remaining.

I left the skanzen, my head full of facts and went to nearby Szentendre, the lovely medieval village now posh and full of artists.  I’d visited last year, and remembered how to get to the best ice cream in town.  I sat for a few minutes, but it was hot, and I had a long drive ahead.  The drive to Lake Tisza was an easy freeway drive most of the way.  Once there, I got a map from a hotel, then headed to the village of Tiszafüred, which had been recommended to me.  There I drove to the edge of the lake, and headed out on the bike trail to a small restaurant, Stēg, and had a fish taco and cod fish soup a la Tisza.  It had been recommended by a friend.  I made the mistake of eating too late and too much, and suffered heart burn all night.  They had a cool phone charging station (they even had an iphone cable). I stayed well after closing, sitting outside the gate and using wifi. At 10:30 pm, I hunted for a camping spot.  The mosquitoes had been fierce, taking large bites since sunset.  I found a secluded glen and set up my tent.  I wasn’t sure I would find a place, as this is tourist central and every square inch of land seemed filled.  I was happy to find a such a nice place, and settled in for the night.  My tent is remarkably comfortable.  I’d forgotten how roomy it was. I’d left my groundcloth folded up for a month and a half, since last use, and had forgotten that I’d put it away wet.  It was moldy now, and I resolved to air it out.

July 17.  I awoke to a light breeze and the sound of hammering.  I was afraid someone was setting up a tent in the path, blocking my car, so I investigated.  It was a man with a rucksack who was bent over the soil and seemed to be striking a rock with a hammer.  Maybe there was untold gold in this area.  I packed and headed back to Stēg where I used their WIFI to call my friend and co-counselor David.  We had a good session, and he kindly gave me extra time.  I talked about my difficulty in making boundaries with people, and the difficulty of the kind of traveling I was doing.  I wanted to rest, but was compulsive about going to every museum and hike every mountain.  Most people travel to rest.  I travel to learn.  I spent the next 3 hours writing to catch up on my blog.  l had told David I’d try writing less as it was feeling like work.  I would need to do take less photos too, both due to storage and time.  I was feeling more like an investigative reporter than an traveler.

I wanted to explore the rest of the town of Tiszafüred.  I walked around the town center and found some interesting buildings, including a museum in an old wooden home. Tiszafüred is on the boundary of Hortobágyi National Park, which I’d hoped to explore. I was mesmerized by a guy in a horse-drawn hay cart hauling a truck tire.  The hay cart became a common sight later on the trip as I made my way through Romania.  I drove on the backroads till I reached Hortobágyi National Park, and found a natural history museum.  There was a special exhibit on the significance of crane migration through Europe, Asia, and Africa.  Another exhibit presented a bit about the ancient peoples of the region, as well as the flora and fauna.  Hortobágy is a steppe, a grassy plain that supports Hungarian Grey cattle, water buffalo, horses, and Racka (an ancient and protected breed of sheep with V-shaped, corkscrew-spiral horns), all of which are tended by herdsmen. 342 bird species, including the red-footed falcon, stone curlew, great bustard and aquatic warbler, breed here. The area is an important stopover site for migrating common cranes, dotterels, and lesser white-fronted geese.  It is also a center for the breeding of Taurus cattle, one of several ongoing attempts to breed back the aurochs.

The park was established in 1973, the first in Hungary, and elected among the World Heritage sites in 1999. It is Hungary’s largest protected area, and the largest semi-natural grassland in Europe. Until recently it was believed that its alkaline steppe was formed by the clear cutting of huge forests and controling the course of the Tisza River in the Middle Ages. However, Hortobágy is much older, with alkalinization estimated to have started ten thousand years ago, when the Tisza first found its way through the Great Hungarian Plain, cutting off many streams from their sources in the Northern Mountains. The formation was finished by grazing animals and wild horses during the Ice Age, followed by domesticated animals.

I especially liked reading the varied response of people to the crane.  In Hungary, wearing an ornamental crane feather in one’s hat denoted status.  It became the headgear of nobility as well as adorning Turkish and Hungarian soldiers’ helmets.  It was worth a tremendous amount.  Even as recent as the 1930s, a nice trembling crane feather was worth a calf at the Hortobágyi Bridge Fair next to the nine arched bridge where an annual air was held.  I also enjoyed the ethnographic exhibition about life of the herders in the region.  The area has been used by humans for grazing domestic animals for more than two millennia. The regular flooding of the Tisza provided local farmers with fertile pastures for their herds and allowed for Hungarian Grey Cattle to be exported to Western-Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Important trade roads were established for this activity. These roads later became known as the “salt-roads” on which salt was transported from the salt mines of Transylvania. Wayside inns called “csárda” along main roads were built at the end of the 17th century in the puszta and at least forty of them were still in existence within the last century. However, only about five of these inns still exist. In the years of large-scale flooding, bridges offered the only means of crossing the land.

The Nine-Arch bridge was built for that purpose. Damming of the Tisza river started in 1846 at Tiszadob. The channelized, regulated river, robbed of its meandering tributaries, was not able to flood the nearby land with its fertile sediment, resulting in the disappearance of marshes and loss of irrigation to the Hortobágy. The regulation of the watercourse, along with changes in precipitation and temperature, lead to the extension of alkaline soil. Efforts to restore fertility to the area started in the fifties. Artificial channels were created all over and industrialised, agriculture was forced upon the Hortobágy. The “puszta”, with its domestic animals, pastures, waters, flora, fauna, shepherding, fishing and peasant life-style became an obsolete remnant of the past and its extinction was just a matter of time.

I stayed till closing time in the ethnographic museum, then headed to exhibit of traditional crafts, including pottery, hat making, smithing, gingerbread making using wooden forms, weaving, and saddlery and boot making. I was woken from my revery by the loud crac of a bull whip.  A local was demonstrating its use in herding cattle.  German tourists were attempting to imitate his movements. A young girl was especially successful.  It was sunset, and I enjoyed the last rays of the sun over the puszta, as the plains were called. Reluctantly, I got in the car and headed to Debrecen.  I was determined to see the old town center, dominated by the 2-towered, 19th-century Reformed Church which sits on the expansive main square of Kossuth Tér. Nearby, the Museum of the Reformed College presents exhibits on the history of the city and the college. Debrecen is the regional centre of the Northern Great Plain region and the seat of Hajdú-Bihar county. It was the largest Hungarian city in the 18th century and is one of the most important cultural centers of the Hungarians.  It was the capital of Hungary during the revolution in 1848–1849. During the revolution, the dethronement of the Habsburg dynasty was declared in the Reformed Great Church.

I didn’t realize how important it was to Hungarians until now.  I simply had a desire to see it, and wished I’d arrived earlier in the day to see the collection housed at the Museum of the Reformed College on the history of the city and the college.  I walked around for half an hour, ordered some goulash which was to sustain me later that eve, and bid goodbye to the historic city.  Unfortunately, much of the city is filled with soviet-style block apartments, lending it a gruesome appearance.  I almost missed the center, hidden by ugly tall edifices.  I drove on to the Romanian border, about half an hour away.  I didn’t know what to expect, but thought that since both countries are EU members, I’d breeze through.  Not so.  I later realized it was on the Hungarian side that I was stopped and asked to show my paperwork.  Weary, I stood outside the car, and good thing.  It ended up taking 20 minutes of thorough examination before I was allowed to pass.  Including checking the trunk.  Good thing I wasn’t smuggling anything (or one)!  I worried about my supplements, but luckily they took a cursory look and let me go.  So I finally had endured a proper border check.

I drove on, and decided to call my mom using the WiFi of a town pub.  She had called me accidentally, and told me about her visit in San Diego for Bob’s uniform law commission annual conference.  She had just visited Balboa Park that day and was excited about the exhibit she’d seen at the Timken Museum of Art.  It turns out that there are 17 museums at the historic park!  We had a good chance to catch up, then I drove into the night, a bit scared about what I’d find.  I’d hoped to find a quiet place to park the car, but it was not to be.  I decided to veer off the main road, which was 2-lane and full of truck traffic at 11pm.  I drove about 2 miles, appalled at the state of the road.  It was full of potholes.  I was sure I’d need new tires after I was done.  I was stopped by a “border police”.  After my experience at the last border, I didn’t relish this.  He asked me for the same documents I’d produced an hour or so earlier.  After he waved me on, I decided it wasn’t worth continuing.  Perhaps I was approaching the Ukraine border?  I shuddered to think.  Not that I have anything against Ukraine, but with Russian heading up the eastern part of the country, who knows what I’d have in store.  I turned around and parked in a corn field.  Literally.  I initially parked on the farm road. At 1am a car barreling down the road honked and blared its lights.  Asleep, I fumbled for the car key and they decided not to wait.  They went around.  I drove into the corn field and finally slept in earnest.


3 responses to “Hortobágyi National Park

  1. If I was traveling like this I would be obsessed with photos and cataloging them – I can’t just take pictures, the librarian in me makes me feel compelled to group them and make sure all the meta-information is available. I appreciate now that my phone and camera have built in GPS so that is one less chore I have to do when processing. I don’t know if that is a healthy way to travel when I feel like must do this with all my pictures. Thanks for making me think about the amount of effort I put into that.


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