Hortobagy is a vast plain, a flat grassland wilderness that to the untrained eye is empty. I found driving through the vast open landscape for the first time a little unsettling. For most of the journey, visibility to either side of the main road to Hortobagy extends for many kilometres. It is both beautiful and haunting, but it is far from lifeless as we found when we visited the settlement.
The settlement of Hortobagy caters to tourists needs, who come from far and wide for its culture and heritage, and they come for good reason. Hortobágy is an UNESCO World Heritage site and much more besides.
Coming from the south on the left side of the road, you will find a tourist market filled with traditional Shepherd lifestyle momentos as well as other Knick knacks and childrens toys. On the right side of the road, initially is the Hortobágy National Park Visitor Centre, and then after the roundabout that directly follows is Hortobágy Csárda, a restaurant famed for its many traditionally prepared Hungarian dishes.
Parking was a breeze, just take an immediate right before the restaurant at the roundabout, and then take first left towards the restaurant car park. All day parking is very reasonably priced and convenient.
After a quick stop at the tourist market, our first stop was the bird sanctuary, located directly next to the tourist market. Your first photo opportunity lies just outside the market at the thee Shepherd’s (below).
The Bird Sanctuary (Madarpark)
Hungary has an impressive range of bird species, of those being treated at the bird hospital, the majority seem to be Stalks, and various birds of prey including numerous species of hawk, eagle and owl. The greatest hazard for these majestic birds is electrocution on high voltage tension wires, and pylons which can provide a deadly shock (20,000 volts). Survival often entails a slow death due to injury, which highlights the need for this bird sanctuary.
Entry to the facility comes with a small fee, which supports their good work. Be prepared to counter the very strong smell of bird guano, with some Vicks vapour or something else to mask the smell. As you walk through the corridor of recovery rooms, you will come to the vets surgery room, here you can see the vet in action, – if a case is being dealt with.
Outside you will find various enclosures where birds recover or, if too badly injured to return to the wild then they live out their lives here.
Hortobágy Csárda for Lunch
Tasting the food of Shepherd’s is a cultural experience not to be missed when visiting Hortobágy. The region is the home of Goulash, a meal traditionally prepared here with Grey Cattle. It just tastes so much better here.
Tip, if you wish to eat lunch outside on the terrace, be sure to arrive around 11:30 am at the latest to beat the tourist rush and to avoid waiting.
Horse Stud Farm (Mátai Ménes)
Hortobágy is famous for its horse Stud Farm, which is also where the Steppe Animal Park Safari/tour departs from. Before departing on a tour, make sure to visit the horses, perhaps watch the horse training and visit the traditional pottery house located on site. If you are lucky you might catch one of the competition showjumping events that take place here each year.
Steppe Animal Park Safari/Tour (Pusztai Állatpark)
Before departing from Mátai on a tour, be sure to a) visit the rest room facilities b) purchase a bottle of water c) make sure your phone/camera is charged because there are plenty of photography opportunites on the tour.
A word of warning, DO NOT join a tour if you have a bad back or are prone to motion sickness. The tour is a caravan of horse and open-air covered wagons of variable number, which cross the grass planes across what is sometimes rough terrain, so you should expect it to be bumpy at times.
The caravan stops at specific points during the tour, to showcase various animals (Buffalo, Grey Cattle, horses) as well as to demonstrate the traditional horsemanship of the Shepherds.
A Great Day Out for All the Family.
To summarize, if you come prepared for what will come, Hortobágy is a great destination for all the family. We recommend eating out for lunch at Hortobágy Csárda and then return after your activities for an evening meal. One of the highlights of the trip was the fantastic food, cooked in the traditional Hungarian way,
If visiting from Debrecen (flying in to Debrecen International Airport for example) the journey is approximately 50 minutes by car. If visiting for a longer period and staying in Debrecen, it is also worth a return visit to Lake Tisza, a large part of which is in Hortobágy National Park. The lake is worth visiting for its birdlife and for boating. In addition, there is also a cycle path around the entire (75km) circumference of the lake, so its great for groups of keen cyclists who like a challenge.
Image Source: Richard Johnson.