The galloping Hungarian
KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 22 ― The temperature is rising in the Hungarian capital and what better way to celebrate this Bohemian summer than going to the races? Mind you, this is no ordinary race but the annual National Gallop or Nemzeti Vágta.
For three whole days there will be horse-riding competitions, mock battles, exhibitions as well as a food market featuring regional fare from all over Hungary. The National Gallop is one of the most highly-anticipated equestrian festivals in the world. No surprise this, given the Hungarians (especially the ethnic Magyars) were renowned horse-riders in the past before eventually settling down in the Carpathians.
Traditionally, Hungarian tribesmen are rumoured to be able to wage war while on horseback to the extent of shooting arrows backwards without leaving the saddle. Perhaps it’s this famous feat and more that attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year – the crowd certainly doesn’t seem to mind the heat as we emerge from the Heroes’ Square metro station.
With the statue of the Archangel Gabriel perched sky-high on the Millennium monument overlooking us, we dive right in and join the festivities that are already taking place all around the square. Before any of the competitions take place, there is a customary parade of riders from the different regions in their full splendour. Instead of the usual dour military shades, we are inundated by their lively reds, greens and blues.
These riders are dressed in the colourful uniforms of the Hussars, a light cavalry that has been part of Hungarian military and culture since the 15th century. Typically a hussar would don a brightly-coloured jacket called a dolman, decorated with gold braid, equally colourful trousers, and on his head a stately csákó (a high hat made of fur or adorned sometimes with garish-hued feathers). The look is only complete if the riders themselves maintain a manly but trim moustache; perhaps the Hussars were the first metrosexual men?
While waiting for the races to start, we wander to the nearby street market held in conjunction with the National Gallop. The entire length of Andrássy út (Andrássy Avenue), a beautiful boulevard lined with trees and Neo-Renaissance townhouses, is closed off to vehicles and taken over by rows of food tents. The market is called “The Kitchen of Hungary” and here you may sample foods from nearly every village or region in the country.
There are stalls selling kürtős kalács, a traditional Hungarian pastry that is baked on spits over open fire, as well as dödölle, a dumpling dish from the Örség region in Western Hungary made of mashed potatoes fried in hot lard. Sweet treats are everywhere: we can’t decide between the bejgli (a Viennese-style cake roll given a Hungarian twist with its slightly bittersweet poppy-seed filling) and the törökméz (a sticky and sweet nougat made with plenty of honey and walnuts), and decide to have both. To counter our burgeoning sugar high, we share a salty and crunchy perec (a large local pretzel).
Of course, it’s not all just food at this outdoor market. There are plenty of other activities for everyone – from children trying their hand at the time-honoured craft of pottery to would-be wild game enthusiasts inspecting the slightly-sinister prizes of last season’s hunt, courtesy of talented taxidermists.
Many of the market-goers are dressed in traditional peasant attire, showing off the fine embroidery. There are clowns twisting balloons into animal shapes and hats; there are young men nimbly demonstrating the exuberant folk dances of the Hungarians.
Soon it’s time for the races and we head back to the Heroes’ Square to join the rest of the eager onlookers. Every rider who is racing had to be in full hussar gear so one can easily make out where one’s personal favourite is on the racetrack by his colours alone. The thundering roar of the horses’ galloping by is almost matched by the cheers of the crowd. No one seems to mind the sun beating down on us; the only thing that matters is – which horse is leading now?
We don’t wait to catch the last race though as our bellies are rumbling again, perhaps from the exertion of shouting encouragement to the riders. Back at the food tents, we pass over the sweets this time and head straight for the savoury delights. What could be better than a bowl of gulyásleves, the world-famous Hungarian goulash soup? This hearty one-dish meal is made of heavily spiced beef and vegetables cooked in cauldrons over open fire.
Many stalls are grilling smoked Hungarian sausages on the spot for hungry patrons. From spicy sausages (lecsókolbász) to liver sausages (májas), there’s one for every imaginable palate. The more adventurous can try véres, the locals’ favourite which is made from a mixture of liver, rice, blood and spices. Every sausage grill-master claims to have his or her own secret recipe for these sausages; for us, they all taste delicious.
We finish our post-race eating binge with plates of csirkepaprikás, a chicken stew made with lots of ground paprika and served with thick, crusty slices of freshly baked Hungarian bread called cipó. It’s hearty, like just about every Hungarian dish we’ve tried so far, and naturally, very tasty. With a cold glass of beer in one hand and a chunk of bread to dip into more of the chicken paprikash in the other, we decide that there’s a reason why Budapest is the heart of the Bohemia – they really know how to have a good time.
Nemzeti Vágta (The Hungarian National Gallop)
Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square), District XIV, 1068 Budapest, Hungary. Admission free. Held every summer; for dates, visit the official website.
The Kitchen of Hungary (Hungarian food market)
Andrássy út (Andrássy Avenue), District XIV, 1068 Budapest, Hungary. Held during the National Gallop.
* Kenny is dreaming of more Bohemian summers to come. Read more of his travels and adventures at lifeforbeginners.com