Hortobagy, Hungary -- A mysterious mirage on a hot summer day in Hungary's Great Plain is a strange phenomenon. At first there's nothing to see. My eyes aren't drawn to any buildings, hills or mountains. But at times I think I see such things.
The typically Hungarian landscape of the Great Plain, or "puszta," stretches over the eastern side of the Danube, covering about half the country.
Flat as a pancake and dry as a bone, this is a place where the graceful gémeskút, a traditional well with a lever on a tall post, is often the only thing standing for miles around.
Steeped in legend and folklore, the old Hortobágy Puszta still maintains much of the romantic character that inspired poets and painters for centuries.
We are bouncing across this dusty lowland in a horse-drawn wooden wagon on a dirt road. The driver grasps the reins and snaps the whip above his head. We've come to find the gulya, herds of long-horned cattle that give their name to Hungary's most famous culinary contribution, the gulyas, or goulash as it's known in North America.
The 630-square-kilometre Hortobágy National Park is Europe's largest continuous natural grassland. Once, this glorious steppe was astir with countless horses and cattle tramping from well to waterhole, urged on by mounted csik&oactue;s horsemen while twisted-horned sheep grazed under the watchful eye of shaggy Hungarian sheepdogs.
In olden days, only the herdsmen's simple reed huts dotted the landscape above the tall grass. Later, traditional farmsteads sprang up, with thick whitewashed mud walls and thatched roofs that look like punk rock hairdos.
Our wagon ride takes us and 20 others across miles of windswept puszta, past tiny salt lakes, marshes, sand dunes and wildflower meadows. We see puszta-style cowboys wearing wide-sleeved shirts, baggy trousers, colourfully embroidered vests and black felt brimmed hats.
When the wagon stops, we spill out into a spot on the vast flat emptiness. In the distance, a half-dozen horseback riders gallop toward us, whips whirling, capes flowing as if chased by Atilla the Hun.
We have arrived at the Mata stockbreeding centre to witness a demonstration of fancy bareback riding by the famous csikos of the Great Plains. The daredevil horsemen ride facing forwards, backwards, sideways and upside-down. They dismount and do a series of equine pas de deux, then wrap up with the crowd-pleasing "mail coach" five-in-hand driving spectacle.
For this manoeuvre, five horses in a triangle formation hurtle across the field while a single rider holds the reins from the back row, standing up.
The meandering Hortobágy River crosses the plain, spanned by an ancient stone bridge. The so-called Nine-Holed Bridge is one of the puszta's most romantic icons. As waterbirds flit through tall reeds, the bridge's nine arches shimmer pink in the setting sun.
At the foot of the bridge stands the equally romantic Nagycsarda Inn, built in 1781, once a famous hideout for highwaymen, now a charming shelter for wagonloads of tourists.
The inn is furnished with typical peasant furniture, carved wooden tables and chairs colourfully painted with tulips and other traditional motifs. The small towns of the plains are rich in folk art. During the long winter months, locals ornament everything in sight with carving, embroidery and paint.
In the corner, a whitewashed mud-brick kemence stove invitingly offers a ledge. I cozy up to its warmth to chase away the chill of a puszta evening.
At last, the long-awaited gulyas soup makes its appearance. Thick with chunks of beef, potatoes, noodles, vegetables and hot paprika, this best-known Hungarian dish originated among the herdsmen of the puszta who boiled the broth in a cauldron all day long.
We're treated to a second course of Hortobágyi palacsinta, savoury crepes stuffed with beef stew and smothered in paprika and sour cream. Finishing off a bottle of local Hárslevelú wine as the sentimental strains of the local Roma band play on, we ramble on about the nothingness of the puszta, then call it a night.