Lizst, legends and landscape, Hungary's ancient heart from the back of a horse

She was beautiful: tall and athletic, yet soft as velvet, with proud eyes beneath elegantly arched brows. There was something else in those eyes, too, something indefinably wild and exotic, and it scared me a little. We hadn't known each other long, yet here we were, moving as one, she responding to my every touch. My clumsiness and inexperience were no problem for Viktoria. She knew exactly what she was doing and she did it wonderfully well.

It must have been 25 years since I'd last been on a horse. That time it ended badly: after careering blindly at full gallop down a Worcestershire lane, I'd ended up in a hedge. I thought I should explain my chequered equestrian past to Miklos, who was leading me out to ride on Hungary's Great Plain – the puszta – and found his response less than reassuring: "Don't worry – no hedges on the puszta." I hadn't come to Hungary for the horses so much as the music. What really interested me was Hungarian folk music, which has been woven into the work not only of the famous Hungarian composers, Liszt and Bartok, but also Beethoven, Haydn and especially Brahms, with his Hungarian Dances. Somewhere in the depths of the countryside, I hoped I might be able to trace some of this music back to its source.

So I was very fortunate, while in Budapest, to meet Dr Iren Lovasz, who combines an academic career as an ethnomusicologist with one as a highly successful folk singer. As Bartok did 100 years before her, Dr Lovasz has travelled throughout the Magyar-speaking world, from the marches of Slovakia to the heart of Transylvania, collecting traditional songs from towns and villages, many of which she has recorded.

In Hungary, as everywhere, traditional musical forms are under threat from globalising pop. Dr Lovasz told me about her latest project, a collaboration with a local jazz fusion ensemble called Makam, which involves pairing traditional lyrics and melodies with new settings, incorporating influences from Czech bluegrass to Estonian and Tibetan sacred music.

I wondered whether she wasn't in danger of diluting the very tradition she had worked so hard to preserve. Absolutely not, Dr Lovasz replied. It's more a case of keeping the tradition alive and bringing it to new audiences. "In a postmodern world anything goes, so why not use your own culture, your mother tongue, to create something new?" she said.

"I don't want to put music in a museum. World Music makes our work accessible to anyone, so my ancient, thousand-year-old songs can reach anyone from New York to Tokyo. In this way I hope I serve my grandmothers as well as leaving something for my granddaughters."

As we talked, a folk duo were going through their paces: a man squeezing bagpipes that looked uncannily like a rubber chicken, and a woman singer who had, across her knees, what looked like a crude, home-made cello, which she hit repeatedly across the strings with a stick. (It was called a gardon, and is used only in one small corner of Transylvania.) But the sound they made was vigorous and lovely, so I asked Dr Lovasz where I should go if I wanted to hear this sort of music in traditional settings. It wouldn't be easy, she told me. I was looking for something that hardly existed any more but she said that some of her favourite songs came from the southern part of the Great Plain, the area between Hungary's two major rivers, the Danube and the Tisza. So that's where I decided to go.

I had another reason to go that way. On a recent trip to Transylvania, that lost domain of the old Austro-Hungarian empire, I'd been fascinated by Patrick Leigh Fermor's description of the puszta, which he walked and rode across in the 1930s. In his memoir, Between the Woods and the Water, he describes an untamed land of savagery and heroic deeds, peopled by half-wild gypsies, cowboys and bandits, the wide flatness of the landscape punctuated only by the occasional lonely farmstead or csarda (wayside inn), or tall wooden sweepwells sticking up out of the earth like skeletal, wagging fingers. Even by the time Fermor was there it had become a land sunk deep in myth, familiar to every Hungarian schoolchild from the paintings of Mihaly Munkacsy and the work of Hungary's great Romantic poet Sandor Petofi, who, puszta-born and bred, celebrated the landscape ceaselessly in his work.

From Budapest I caught the train east to Eger, an impossibly pretty little town of pastel-painted Baroque streets and fine churches. There, in a leafy square facing the vast neoclassical cathedral, I sat down and read Janos Vitez (John the Valiant), Petofi's long children's epic. An old man nearby was playing a harmonica, and people came and went around me. But I was too involved in the book to notice, captivated by the rites-of-passage story of a shepherd boy who is forced to leave his home on the puszta, and undergoes all sorts of adventures – slaying Turks, rescuing princesses, slaughtering witches and giants – to be reunited with his true love. It was dusk and the streetlights were coming on by the time I'd finished.

Fantastical the tale might have been but it was another link in the story of the puszta. The Turks, after all, were real enough, part of the endless tidal flow of peoples from the east to the Carpathian basin. Eger is famous for two things: in 1552 the town managed to withstand a siege by vastly superior Turkish troops, which had already conquered most of the country, from the Carpathians to the Danube. The town's garrison, so the story goes, were fortified by large quantities of the local wine and, when they appeared on the castle ramparts, their beards stained red from drinking it, the Turks were terrified and ascribed this superhuman resistance to having drunk the blood of bulls – and Bull's Blood wine was born. Whatever the truth of the story, it didn't much matter. The Turks returned soon after and took the city.

By now I was keen to see the puszta for myself, so I decided to head due south, to Szeged, crossing the plain by bus before plunging in any deeper. It was still dark when the bus clattered out of Eger at five in the morning but slowly a grey light started to suffuse the air before a brilliant dawn lit the landscape – and it was pure disappointment.

It was certainly pretty enough – little fields of stubble showing bright against the black earth, small forests of beech and acacia, pine and oak. But instead of elegant sweepwells there were hulking electricity pylons.

There were no wandering gypsy bands or cowboys rounding up pale, longhorned cattle; instead there were nondescript, well-to-do villages of uncertain age, with tidy fenced-in gardens. My first glimpse of Petofi's much-loved river, the Tisza, was similarly anti-climactic – crossing the bridge into Szolnok it was no more than a muddy brown channel (though it gets rather larger downstream, as it flows through Szeged, then into Serbia, before joining up with the Danube north of Belgrade). When I finally reached Szeged it was closed for All Saints' Day. The next day I started looking for a horse.

It wasn't hard to find one. About 50 miles northwest of Szeged, on the way back to Budapest, is the town of Kecskemet, famous for the music school founded by Bartok's friend and collaborator, Zoltan Kodaly. The puszta around Kecskemet is full of ranches that specialise in equestrian holidays, mainly for German and Austrian tourists. I picked a leaflet at random from a bundle in Szeged's tourist office, and headed out. On the way, I stopped at Opusztaszer, the national memorial park which celebrates the arrival of the Magyars in the Carpathian basin AD896. It's a vast site, devoted mostly to the culture and natural history of the puszta, but at its centre is a mammoth 19th-century panorama painting of Arpad, the first Hungarian prince, bearing a double-headed axe and mounted on a magnificent white charger which paws the earth as Arpad scans the horizon of his realm.

Hungary has long been a meeting place – and battleground – for east and west. During and after the Roman era, a number of Germanic tribes settled here, only to be displaced by a long chain of migrating peoples from Asia, followed later by the Mongols and the Turks. In the middle came the Magyars from their ancestral home on the plains of western Siberia, who brought with them the superior equestrian technology of saddle and stirrups, which made them not only expert horsemen but also invincible warriors.

I had no illusions about being in their class, nor that of their descendants, who at the ranch I stayed on perform astonishing feats of showmanship for tourists; riding bareback, wheeling round in ever-decreasing circles, driving teams of 10 horses while standing with one foot planted on the hindquarters of the rear pair. I was happy just to stay on Viktoria's back and plod over the dusty soil.

Miklos wasn't joking about the lack of hedges. There was nothing to break the flatness of the landscape apart from a few juniper bushes, still covered in berries and, far off, below the few clouds drifting on the horizon, a stand of silver birch. The trees had dropped their foliage all the way up to their crowns, where the last few golden leaves shone out, making the trees appear from a distance like a mist-shrouded hill with sunlight breaking on the crest. This was as close as I could hope to get to the puszta of legend and it was close enough.

My musical quest was not entirely forgotten. When I got back to Budapest, I just had time to go and hear Iren Lovasz and Makam in concert.

They were performing in the outskirts of Buda, at an old factory now used as a folk club. I couldn't understand a word of the lyrics, though Iren had told me they were mostly love songs.

As the band played, and her clear, high voice floated through that bleak hall as pure as the scent of lilac on a summer evening, wreathing through the intricate rhythms, the oriental influence on the music was obvious; and in those melodies, so sad and beautiful, I thought I detected a homesickness and the ages-old yearning of a wandering people.

My mind drifted back to the puszta, to the evening sun slanting over hoofprints in the dusty earth, back to the cold starlit sky I'd stayed up watching the night before, and out further east, to the wide and endless plains of Tartary.

Getting there

Adam Newey flew to Budapest with Malev Airlines (020-7439 0577; which offers return flights from £135.30 including tax. He stayed at the Hotel Astoria (0036 1 317 3411; fax: 0036 1 318 6798; email: courtesy of the Hungarian National Tourist Board. Double rooms cost from €107 (£64) per night.

Further information

Iren Lovasz's music is distributed in the UK by Discord Distribution (01892 863888; email: The Hungarian National Tourist Board (020 7823 1032).