25 June 2011

The Great Plain

The Hungarian “puszta,” or steppe, got its name from the Magyar word for emptiness and desolation. At one time, it was the romantic land of shepherds and galloping horsemen – a place where gypsy bands played music in the night and the legends of a country played out on a large stage. Today, it’s mostly agricultural land, and not quite as empty. The earth is still dry and the June sun is vicious. After a few days navigating the great plain, we’ve come to enjoy the openness, huge sky and flatness.
The puszta is a bit of a backwater place, with few big towns and dusty, table-flat roads. Driving here can be almost meditative, with so few turns and no hills. The only change is in pace – slow in the villages, fast in between. There are people along the roadsides, selling all kinds of things – brooms, baskets, goulash pots and sheepskins are popular. Prostitutes stand along the more desolate stretches, waving at cars. Old men on bicycles pedal very slowly along the hot pavement. Everywhere, there are fruit stands. This is one of the bigger and more busy ones we stopped at, where they sold field-warm melons and tomatoes. Notice the threadbare carpets over the dirt.
This plane appeared out of nowhere, and seemed to have some unstated purpose in the empty fields. Propped up like that, as though in flight, it felt like a monument to something less two dimensional than the steppe.
Along the Tisza river, one of the major tributaries of the Danube, the soil is rich and the farms are legendary for their abundance. Ducks and geese are popular, and goose liver is a regional specialty. Goulash was invented here, and paprika is part of the local makeup.
Korona Cukrászda is a landmark in these parts, an ice-cream emporium renowned throughout Hungary and jam-packed on a recent Saturday afternoon. Their product is thicker and more custardy than anything I’d ever eaten in a cone, and it seemed to melt at a much slower pace than normal ice cream. The town of Soltvadkert is nothing much more than a setting for this shop, and nobody passes through without stopping. It was a perfect antidote to the heat and grit of the puszta; an oasis in the hardscrabble landscape.

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