Trip Start Jun 08, 2010
Trip End Aug 26, 2010

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Flag of Hungary  ,
Friday, July 30, 2010

My original plan for Debrecen was to see a couple of the local museums. There was a museum the brochure described as "One of the richest cultural historical collections in Hungary" and an ecclesiological museum at the Reformed College, which both looked top-notch. However, when I was talking to the tourist information woman, she asked me if I wanted a brochure for Hortobágy. At the time, I said no without even stopping to think because she had already loaded me down with information, but it put the thought in my head.

Hortobágy was a Hungarian National Park a half hour outside of Debrecen. I didn't know anything substantial about it, just that it was some sort of grassland recognized by UNESCO. I realized I hadn't done anything nature-related in Hungary, unless you counted the two-hour round trip search for the monks' caves in Tihany, which I didn't, so I decided to check it out in lieu of another museum or two. I guess I'll just have to see the famous chalice made from a coconut the next time I'm in eastern Hungary.

Since I woke-up an hour early, I did decide to check out a couple of landmarks I'd missed yesterday before leaving town. The first was a synagogue, which turned out to be much less remarkable than the description in the Debrecen tourist brochure. While looking for it, I did pass a second synagogue that actually looked a little more interesting. The other site I wanted to visit was called the "Boxthorn Tree". I found several trees and bushes vaguely in the area indicated on map, but none of them had any markings identifying them as the boxthorn tree, and none of them looked especially unusual.

After that, it was an easy drive over to Hortobágy. I stopped at the park visitors' center, which wasn't labeled in English, but the town visitors' center pointed me in the right direction. At the park visitors' center I got some area maps with hiking trails. I chose a couple basically at random and started out.

Hortobágy was indeed a large plain. The scenery was unremarkable, but it turned out to be a great place for bird watching due to the numerous marshes interspersed throughout the area. The first trail I took ran a short distance along the border between an open field and a small cluster of trees. It was pretty much identical to my ranch back in Texas, including the herd of grazing cattle. I saw a few Hungarian Grey Cattle in the herd and some birds or prey that were too far away to identify definitively during my short stroll around the area.

The second trail, where I spent the majority of my time, went through an old fishery, which had been abandoned and gradually became prime marsh-bird habitat. The marshy parts of Hortobágy were an important stop for migrating birds. Of course, in the summer there wasn't anything in the way of migrating going on, so I had to content myself with the local bird population.

The trail was a long, around 10km one way, mostly-straight (it was shaped like a P) and flat. It ran alongside a canal and between the ponds. There was a narrow-gauge railway that took visitors to the junction of the P. You could then get off the train for a brief stop and either ride or walk back. If you chose to ride back, there was only a ten minute window before the train departed. Of course, you also had the option to go the whole way either on foot or on bicycle.

Since I didn't have a bicycle, I decided to do the train then walk back. That was a good choice as the first few kilometers of the trail ran alongside an open field, without any marsh birds or other animals to see and were therefore very boring. The train stopped part of the way into the serious marsh, and this was where all the birds were hanging out. The birds were very shy. Even after the train left and the other visitors departed, it was hard to get anywhere near them. Luckily, I brought a pair of binoculars with me to Europe and actually remembered to take them out of the car this time.

Walking back was long and boring. If I had it to do again, I would take the train up to the marsh, spend two hours wandering the area around the curvy part of the P, then take the next train back as trains came two hours apart in the summer.

Even after the two hikes, I had one more goal for the day. On one of the park posters, I had seen a picture of pigs that were not merely hairy, but woolly like sheep. I wanted to see one of these sheep-pigs for myself. There was an area labeled on the map as Puszta Rare Breeds Park, so I decided to start my search there.

I drove over to the area and came to a closed gate. While I was trying to figure out what to do, a man came out, opened it, and waved me through. I went in and as I was looking down the street perpendicular to the gate, at small, white animals that may have been sheep-pigs, the man motioned for me to keep going straight down the road. I followed it to the end and found out I was at the stud-farm. I'm sure they were impressive, but I'd already seen plenty of horses in my life, but I hadn't ever seen any sheep-pigs so I turned around and went back out of the gated area.

At this point, I felt my only option for sheep-pig sightings was the Petting Zoo. I wasn't a big fan of petting zoos, but I really wanted sheep-pigs, so I bought a ticket and spent a few minutes there. It turned out--and if I'd stopped to think I could have predicted it--that sheep-pigs (they're actually called Mangalica pigs) don't have much of a coat in the summer. They still smelled as much as winter-time pigs, though. There was enough hair that I could envision the rest, and there were sheep with long twisty horns so it wasn't a total waste of time, but I now have a new rule: Only search for mutant sheep-animals in winter.

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