Spanning half of Hungary, the Great Plain is home to Hungary’s national parks and its key horseriding region – horseriding being a core part of Magyar folklore: this warrior people’s stunning success in conquering this part of Europe is often attributed to their skill and agility as archers on horseback. The prime destinations here are Debrecen, and the nearby Hortobagy National Park. Further south, between the Danube and the Tisza rivers are Kecskemét and Szeged, both towns with some interesting turn-of-the-twentieth-century architecture and well worth a stop.
Top image: Scenic view of Debrecen, the second largest city in Hungary © Haidamac/Shutterstock
Debrecen and it's surrounding countryside is where you should go to experience the real Hungary of the betyar (cowboys) and the czardas (inns). Far from Budapest and its Germanic influences, this is a city where the nineteenth-century patriotism that awoke the Hungarian nation is still running strong, aided and abetted both by a Calvinist stubbornness and by the youthful idealism of its large student population. Although it's Hungary's second city, it is both easy to manage and – with a forest within city limits – as close to nature as a city can be. It is also the gateway to the stunning Hortobagy National Park, a piece of Asian steppe in Central Europe.
Debrecen's identity as the centre of Calvinism in Hungary is confirmed by the dominating presence of the Great Reformed Church on Kossuth tér (March–May Mon–Fri 9am–4pm, Sat 9am–1pm, Sun noon–4pm; June–Aug Mon–Fri 9am–6pm, Sat 9am–1pm, Sun noon–4pm; Sept & Oct Mon–Fri 9am–4pm, Sat 9am–1pm, Sun noon–4pm; Nov–Feb Mon–Fri 10am–3pm, Sat 9am–1pm, Sun noon–4pm; 600Ft; T52 412 695), with its sparse and austere interior. Inside, you can browse the Hungarian Declaration of Independence (in English) which Lajos Kossuth proclaimed here on April 13 1849, and see his chair and memorabilia, or simply take the lift up the Eastern tower to the panorama bridge for a bird's-eye view of the city.
Behind the church is the Déri museum (Tues–Sun 10am–6pm; 2000Ft; T52 322 207), whose permanent art collection includes Munkácsy’s awe-inspiring paintings
The other focus of the town is located at the end of the #1 tram line running north from the station via Kossuth tér: the area around the University and The Great Forest (Nagyerdő), which is really a fancy name for the admittedly large city park. There, you can find restaurants, bars, a botanical garden, a zoo and a large amusement park, as well as the august Aquaticum spa.
Possible as a day-trip from Budapest, Kecskemét is a small town chiefly remarkable for a few striking pieces of architecture from Hungary’s “Romantic Nationalist” period at the turn of the twentieth-century. Its name comes from the Hungarian for goat, kecske, as its thirteenth-century bishop apparently used to give the cloven-footed creatures to each new Christian convert. It is also the gateway to Kiskunság National Park.
Kecskemét’s main attraction is the ornate Cifra Palace – a large building on a street corner that you might overlook were it not for the daring Art Nouveau design. Designed by Géza Markus in 1902, it now houses the Kecskemét Art Gallery(Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; 700Ft; T76 480 776). Szabadság tér runs into the other main square, Kossuth tér, where the Town Hall stands tall, a masterpiece of Romantic Nationalist architecture. You can visit its Ceremonial Hall (Mon–Fri 10–11.30am; 300Ft), but must reserve first at the Tourinform office. Finally, the Hungarian Photography Museum at Katona József tér 12 (Tues–Sun noon–5pm; 500Ft; T76 483 221) has excellent exhibitions of photography from the nineteenth century to the present day.
The most sophisticated city in the Great Plain, Szeged straddles the River Tisza as it flows south towards Serbia. The present layout of the city, and its beautiful Art Nouveau architecture, date from after the great flood of 1879, when Szeged was rebuilt with strapping new buildings and squares thanks to foreign funding. The student population gives the city a real energy, and it’s more than pleasant for a day or two’s stopover.
Szeged’s biggest monument is Dom tér, ringed by scholarly cloisters and busts of celebrated Hungarians. It was created in 1920 to accommodate the enormous double-spired Votive Church, which leading townspeople pledged to erect after the great flood. At 12.15pm and 5.45pm, the Musical Clock on the south side of the square comes alive, as figurines from inside pop out and trundle around to the chiming of bells.
The Great Synagogue at Jósika utca 10 (April–Sept Mon–Fri 9am–noon & 1–4pm; Oct–March Mon–Fri 9am–2pm, 500Ft; T62 423 849) was built between 1900 and 1903 by architect Lipót Baumhorn. It is one of Hungary’s most beautiful buildings, with a blue glass dome with stars picked out in gold, and a stunning interior that is full of life: the frescoes and stained glass replicate exactly the plants and flowers that the then chief rabbi, a keen botanist, thought might have grown in ancient Jerusalem.
The Móra Ferenc Museum at Roosevelt tér (daily 10am–6pm; 1490Ft; T62 549 040) contains folk art, fine art and archeological remains that offer an insight into the Avars, the people who ruled much of the Central-Eastern European Pannonian plain from the sixth to ninth centuries. From the museum, it’s a short walk to green, pretty Széchenyi tér, home to the neo-Baroque town hall with its decorative tiled roof. Look out for the “Bridge of Sighs”, modelled on the Venetian original, which links the hall to a neighbouring house.