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autumn wind.

Basho, On Love and Barley

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30th November to 29th December - Hungary for a change

Route: Redics – Lenti – Varfolde – Zalakaros – Marcali – Somogygeszti – Varong – Szakaly – Felsonana – Fadd – Hajos – Kisszallas – Pustamerges – Bordany – Szatymaz – Algyo – Mako – Nagylak.

  The Hungarian border guard clearly missed the good old days of rules and restrictions. He spent an age going through the horses’ passports but finally waved us through. We’d ridden from the land of the Celts to the home of the Magyars with no border nightmares.

  Maybe it was just the drizzle but everyone in the first town, Lenti, looked depressed. Our smiles were not returned – what a contrast from Slovenia. We tried saying “Cheer up Brian !” in a Cockney accent and sang “Always look on the bright side of life”, but it didn’t seem to work. The people of Lenti (the Lentils perhaps?) were just not happy beans.

  Over the next few weeks we not only met a lot of warm, kind Hungarians, we also began to understand a little about rural life in this part of the world. The changes brought about by membership of the EU have had a catastrophic effect on farming and the rural communities. With one in five people unemployed in some areas it is not surprising that not everyone’s smiling. Many people we spoke to, said things had been better in communist days; “At least everybody had work, there was job security. “ “But you must have more freedom now ?” I suggested to Jutka. “Of course” she replied “but I can’t afford to do anything with it”.

  When we heard people blaming the big supermarkets, “like Tesco” for driving down prices paid to farmers, it was a case of “deja-vu” all over again – we’d been hearing the same story all the way from home. We’d been surprised to see Tesco’s carrier bags littering road verges in Hungary – The men in suits must have decided there were profits up for grabs in this new EU State.

  Fortunately for us, rural decline was not yet complete, villages were still served by shops, buses and telephone boxes. We noticed other small differences in Hungary. Many of the roads were wide with huge verges and separate paths for cyclists and pedestrians, and the houses seemed to be built sideways on to the street – they don’t have front doors. After a long cold day in the saddle, it was great to be invited indoors where we could warm up by the beautiful ceramic tiled fireplaces. We’d seen one or two of these in Slovenia but they were commonplace here. They save the heat that normally disappears up the chimney by using flue piping to heat up tiles.

  Talking of differentness, the Hungarian language is a good long way up the scale of differentness. It’s nearest relative is Finnish, but even a Fin wouldn’t have a clue what a Magyar was on about. Apparently, around 2000 BC, some adventurous types from East of the Urals set off on a big ride of their own. The group headed West, but somewhere along the line had an argument (probably about who’s fault it was when the horses ran away) and split up; some went North to Finland while the rest came South to Hungary. This might explain why, when we saw the sign “udvozoljuk kozsegunkben!” we didn’t know whether to be pleased or run screaming. Fortunately in one place, it had been translated underneath “Welcome to our Willage!”.

  Our Hungarian was basic to say the least, and there were far fewer English speakers about than in Slovenia. One night we stopped at a farm and, in a mixture of Hungarian and sign language, just about managed to establish that we could stay and use our electric fence to make a pen for the horses in a corner of the field. Later in the evening, a man who spoke some English came over to the tent. He seemed concerned about something. “The boss lives 10 to 15 metres away to the North “ he said. We were standing at least 50 metres from the nearest building. “Ah 10 to 15 kilometres away?” I suggested. “No” he replied firmly “10 to 15 metres!”. After convincing himself we were “turistak” – tourists, he left us alone to ponder on the mystery boss and his amazing invisible house.

  In Zalakaros we stopped for a rest day. It’s a thermal spa town just South of Lake Balaton, and seemed like a good place to clean up a bit since our last shower somewhere back in Slovenia. All I really wanted was some hot water, but the only place I could find seemed to be more like a hospital, complete with shot-putter type women in white coats and German geriatrics in bath robes. I read down the long list of treatments on offer. Half way down was “Magnetic Ring”. I may have been a bit saddle sore but no way was I ready for that one. Instead I settled for a dip in the healing waters and immediately felt younger – everyone else in the pool was a least 75. After about half an hour at 40 degrees C I was as nearly as crinkly as the rest of them, so I had to get out and return to the tent and the chill of a Hungarian December.

  Hungary was designed for horses and we found some great riding. Long tracks between villages kept us off the roads but even the roads were quiet. Some tracks were muddy with deep tractor ruts. Sometimes we slid around on a thin surface with frozen ground beneath, but often we had good sandy going through miles and miles of forest. There were deer everywhere and birds again. In France and Italy, the big tough hunters had blasted all the birds from the sky; we hadn’t heard a decent dawn chorus since Devon.

  On a long “foldut” (field road) through a vineyard village near Marcali we came across the first working horses of the trip. I am afraid to say that I ruined Lisa’s experience of this moment by claiming that they were tourists. After seeing a second cart shortly afterwards, I was forced to pretend that I had seen a web site advertising “Authentic Hungarian Carting Holidays “. After the third, Lisa asked me whether the company on the website provided the loads of timber / corn / hay / manure / etc as part of the package or were they an add-on extra ? I was forced to back down and admit defeat.

  Driving one such cart was Peter the horseman. While his horses waited, nicely rugged up to keep them warm, he was collecting corn cobs that the combine harvester had missed. As soon as he saw us, he jumped on the cart and drove over to talk. He was delighted to hear where we’d come from and led us to a place where we could stop for the night – an old collective farm owned by a friend of his. We built a pen for the horses in the yard and hay, oats and water were soon in place. There were pigs, horses, chickens, goats and dogs roaming about the yard – a real Old MacDonald job. But it wasn’t a great night for sleeping – one of the farms horses broke his head collar, broke out of the barn and came over for a chat with the visiting horses from Wales. Five times between midnight and six am we had to get up and chase him away, much to the disgust of Hannah who was being all girlie and flirty thinking this hairy clodhopper was a bit of a stud – he wasn’t!

  Still, this was more than made up for by the kindness showed to us by Peter and his wife. We didn’t feel happy leaving the horses so we reluctantly turned down their offer of a meal. But an hour later they were back with a big pan of goulash and bottles of wine. We ate in the dark off the bonnet of their Trabant while they asked us about the trip. The next morning Peter showed us photos of his visits to Germany to demonstrate Hungarian horse skills eg. horse lying down, sitting like a dog while Peter used the forelegs as a backrest etc. He was a true horseman, the beneficiary of centuries worth of knowledge passed down through the generations. His enthusiasm was infectious, matched only by his generosity: he wouldn’t let us leave without a souvenir – a beautiful handmade leather driving whip which he coiled up and placed over Lisa’s head like a medal.

  Another encounter and another Peter. It was mid morning. A mud splattered pickup overtook us but this one skidded to a halt in front of us and out jumped Peter the Vet. He was an Arab enthusiast himself, and the sight of our gang had brought on his emergency stop. “Where are you going ? “ he asked. “To Syria and Jordan” we replied “We’re talking these three back to their roots.” He laughed, gave a bow, and insisted we go to his house for a drink. Two glasses of ‘Palinka’ (52% proof plum brandy fire water) later we attempted to carry on where we had left off, ie riding vaguely Eastwards across Hungary, but it wasn’t easy. The glasses had been big and the palinka lethal. Luckily three out of the five of us were sober and Audin pressed on regardless while Lisa sprawled over his neck telling him how much she loved him.

  We’d had an interesting chat with Peter- in a bizarre mixture of Hungarian, German and French usually all three in one sentence – and he’d offered to take us to visit the Hungarian National Stud at Basolna the next day. True to his word, the following morning, he turned up in his pickup. While one of us heroically stayed behind to see to the horses every need in the sub-zero temperatures, one very lucky girl was whisked away on a day trip.

Lisa writes:

  The previous day, before my mind became clouded by alcohol, Peter had shared with us some of his knowledge of Arab breeding in Hungary. He owns several “Shagya Arabs”. This is a specifically Hungarian breed of Arab blood, but having being selected over many years for strength and robust conformation, these are lovely animals strong and useful but with the unmistakable quality typical of Arab blood. I will always be grateful to Peter for driving me the next day the long way to Babolna which is the National Stud for pure bred, as opposed to Shagya Arabs – although confusingly there is a pure bred line called Shagya named for the foundation stallion. Peter had been stud vet at Babolna for many years and thus was able to show me around the central courtyard surrounded by stallion barns, the mares at pasture and a short drive away the young stock holding.

  There was quite a variety of type, some older stallions particularly were very beautiful, deep bodied with good bone and short cannons. (I am not an admirer of the over extreme weedy Arab that some people breed to meet the limited demands of the show ring.)  The highlight of the day was a coach ride arranged for me by Peter around the beautiful arboretum, the coach drawn by five lovely grey Arab mares in the Hungarian “koch 5” arrangement of three in the front row with two behind them. Thus viewed from the coach each horse can be seen as they are ranged in a fan shape. The sheer beauty and floating action of these fine mares made this excursion a magical experience for me. Before returning to the stud we visited the graveyard where treasured horses were buried, each with an intricate carved headstone.

  On the way home I was brought down to earth by Peter’s description of the precipitous decline of agriculture in Hungary – we passed at least seven huge dairy farms, each now empty and abandoned. Peter felt that for rural Hungary, joining the EU had been a “catastrophe” – from what I saw I would say he was right.

  The short December days caught us out on a few occasions. We’d passed through one village and it would feel like early afternoon, too early to start asking around. But by the time we’d reached the next it would be starting to get dark. We couldn’t just flick the headlight switch and carry on, we had to find hay, oats and water as soon as possible.

  On our last night West of the Danube, we’d carried on too long and found ourselves in the town of Fadd just as it was getting dark. Our enquiries drew blanks. We had no choice but to carry on out of town. On the edge of town we saw the, by now familiar, long low white buildings of a former state collective farm, but there was something strange about this one,. It had been turned into a factory of some sort and there were lorries coming and going. In desperation we marched in, up to the first lorry driver and said “szeno ? (hay) “. Miraculously he led us round the corner and pointed to a barn full of hay. It wasn’t his but it was pitch dark, we’d found food, the decision was made for us, we were stopping. The lorry driver drove off and left us on our own. There was nobody around to ask about the hay, so we unloaded the horses, made a pen in some trees behind the barn and pitched the tent.

  Just then a security guard arrived with a snarling Alsatian tearing at his lead. We couldn’t stay. He’d asked his boss and it wasn’t allowed,. He had to let the guard dog loose. We had no option but to beg. Whatever he said next was very likely to be Hungarian for “Oh, go on then, just this once”. There was just one condition; We had to be gone by 5am. That meant a 3.30 am alarm. Grim, but that would be tomorrow’s problem. Today we were all right. The guard suddenly became our best mate – water, hay and a bucket of corn all appeared out of the darkness.

  For two hours the next morning we walked along the road in the dark, desperately willing the first streaks of dawn light to appear on the horizon. They arrived just as we reached the Danube at Dombori and just in time for us to see that there was no ferry. So why was there a little ferry symbol on the map, and why had people told us we could cross there ? “It only runs in Summer” was the answer. There was a ferry running but it was 5 miles up river towards Budapest. Fortunately for us it was 5 miles of grassy flood bank and a perfect canter all the way. Our companions were well behaved as they followed the cars onto the small raft and enjoyed the view as a tug boat pushed us across the famous river.

  Once landed on the other side it was another 5 mile canter back in the Belgrade direction to reach the village we’d seen across the river at first light. We were now on the Hungarian plane and it was Great but we still had a long way to go to reach our target that night, the town of Hajos where we had the address of a horse place. We arrived at dusk, after nearly 60 kilometres, to find the place deserted except for three horses. Our own three had been heroic but we weren’t in the mood for messing them about any longer; there were horses so there must be horse food, so we were staying. To our relief, a man turned up at feeding time and let us in. It turned out that the place had closed down two years previously. Tourists never came and the Dutch owner had pulled the plug. We were to find quite a few others in the same state before we left Hungary.

  After miles of ploughed fields, we had finally reached the proper grasslands of the steppe or the “Puszta” – real horse country. We stopped at one of the old cantilever wells. A forked upright supports a long wooden pole arm with a rope and bucket at the well end and just the right amount of counterweight at the other. These must be a welcome sight to passing horses in the heat of summer.

  On our last night before reaching Szatymaz our Christmas break destination, we had another remarkable encounter – The kind that’s hard to imagine happening with any other form of travel. We were in the village of Bordany, it was getting late and we needed help. A small crowd gathered round the five of us where we had stopped at the village shop to ask if they knew of a place where we could stay. We weren’t getting very far, things didn’t look promising. But then Eva turned up and said “Follow me”.

  It was a couple of miles to her house and Sealeah, who has yet to decide whether to use her powers for good or evil, actually did a good deed – she carried Eva’s shopping bag for her all the way home. Eva didn’t have any hay, but there was a small patch of lucerne behind the house. We put up the electric pen and Eva brought cobs of corn. No sooner had we pitched the tent than she came over with a bottle of freshly drawn-off wine and a big jar of peaches.

  Inside the tiny house, there were two rooms; a kitchen with just enough space to squeeze round the small table and a bedroom that was all bed and no room. Eva was worried that the horses' water would freeze over and that she wouldn’t be there to bring water in the morning. “You must knock on the door” she said “and ask for more”. She told me she left at 3:30 every morning to walk two miles to Bordany and catch the bus to the city to do her ironing job. For this she earned about one Euro per hour. Her daughter had grown up and left home, but she still supported her 11 year old son, who told me he was going to be a rally driver. In the morning, we left a Christmas card and some money. All across Hungary people had put us up and fed us and all had refused any payment. Eva would have refused as well, but we didn’t give her the chance. It was the least we could do; in our hour of need she had said “follow me”.

  The abiding memory of our Christmas stop at Szatymaz is that of fish soup. Each time we visited our neighbour, Hodi Karoly and Bea, there were several fish swimming around in one half of the large double sink in their kitchen. In the corner, a huge cauldron hung on a chain over a gas burner and out of this cauldron came the local Szeged speciality: fish soup. We were presented with huge bowls of the stuff from the never ending supply. We tried to work out the best time to visit, but there was no escape, the fish soup was always there. But this was a small price to pay; the Hodis very generously gave us all the hay and oats our horses could eat during the 11 day stop and Bea ferried us into Szeged to stock up with essential Christmas supplies.

  Our last few days on the great Hungarian plain were again marked by people’s generosity. At Algyo we camped on a river bank behind a long row of houses. In the space of a few hours, four different neighbours had come over for a chat and all brought us food and drink of some kind. Our mountain of donations included; three bowls of soup (they’d seen three horses and assumed there’d be three humans) , bread, cheese, sausages, roast potatoes, apples, one flask of coffee, two flasks of tea, a bottle of red wine and of course, the inevitable plastic bottle filled with palinka. Hungry in Hungary ? No chance!

Köszönöm Sepan to:

• Culup Csasa in Zalakaros
• Marianna and Katalin in Marcali Baronka
• Dr Balazs Peter in Raksi
• Govnik Peter in Szakaly
• Astalos Istvan and Jutka in Felsonana
• Stafan Laszto and Gabriella in Hajos
• Bundala Melinda inKisszallas
• Gea Vilmos and Judit in Pustamerges
• Eva and son in Bordany
• Hodi Karoli and Nea in Szatymaz
• Everyone in Algyo
• Kavocs Peter and Andrea in Mako