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New Europe

Day Seventy-five: Budapest

The Puszta 
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On my bike across the Puszta, Hungary's vast central prairie.
Michael Palin - New EuropeA hundred miles or so east of Budapest the cultivated fields give way to an immense emptiness, a flat, unbroken, oddly hypnotic expanse of land known as the Puszta. Once a swampy flood plain, it was drained in the mid-nineteenth century and is now home to herds of magnificently horned Hungarian Grey cattle and the herds of tourists who come to see them.

It's quite late, and sun is setting spectacularly in a cloudless sky as we reach the village of Hortobágy, (pronounced Horto-bodge). By the time we find the gulyas, the cowboys, and the horsemen they call csikos, they're preparing food at the end of the day, gathered around a collection of neatly thatched buildings with whitewashed walls, only accessible after a bumping ride across the hard-baked grassland.

A herd of Hungarian Grey cattle, big as stags and solid as armoured cars, kicks up the dust as they're moved towards the tall uprights and crossbeams of a well that reminds me of the shadoof-like irrigation systems in the Saharan oases.

I try to help out but am rather clumsy with it. A hefty tug on the rope sends the bucket down into the well and another pulls it back up. The knack is to catch the leather bucket at the right moment to use its own energy to tip it effortlessly into the gutters that flow through into the water troughs. I can't get the tipping point right and I lose the whole momentum and have to start again. Aware of increasingly disgruntled bovine faces looking up from the trough, I hand over to my instructor, a small, podgy, ruddy-faced man in a black semicircular hat, like a French parish priest, who executes the same movement with exquisite grace, over and over again.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Seventy-five: Budapest
  • Country/sea: Hungary
  • Place: Hortobágy
  • Book page no: 180

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