Csavargo was cantering up the hill like a horse on the run from a cleaver-wielding chef. He hurtled round the path's tight little bends and skimmed under the trees' low branches so that I had to lie low on his neck to avoid an unseating. It was all very exciting, but I had a problem: I was finding it difficult to communicate to this horse that, really, I'd quite like him to slow down. His name translated from Hungarian as "Vagabond", but rather than a gentle itinerant, this equine wanderer was scorching up the slope like a Magyar who'd sniffed an Ottoman scalp.
The trouble was, I didn't speak Csavargo's language. The issue wasn't the Hungarian – Csavargo was almost as useless at that as I was – but that I'd never really ridden horses in Europe before. All my previous equestrian adventures had taken place in Argentina, where we'd ridden cowboy style. I'd subsequently been for a couple of lessons at Stag Lodge Stables, on the edge of Richmond Park, where a delightfully precise instructor named Rita had been most insistent about the position of my legs and the dreadfully erratic rhythm of my rising trot. I'd taken only a couple of classes, though. I'd never reached the chapter entitled "How to Stop Your Horse Charging into the Bottom of the One in Front". But then, just when a collision seemed inevitable, we arrived at the top of the hill and came out of the forest. Following the lead of the other horses Csavargo slowed to a walk.
From this high point, the rural panorama of the Balaton region stretched out before us. This was wine land, and we rode through fields of vines that stretched taut in rigid rows, their grapes recently harvested. Speckled across the vineyards were tiny two-storey houses that couldn't have squeezed in more than one small room to a floor, each the master of its own few rows of grapes. The houses were immaculate, with perfect paintwork and tended gardens. Every now and then, a square church steeple stretched higher than the rest, towering above a building painted marzipan yellow, or palest almond, or Christmas-cake white. On the horizon, the waters of the great Lake Balaton blazed in a streak of reflected light.
Horses grazed in fields and gardens. The Hungarians have a long tradition of equestrian pursuits and the thudding of hooves still beats loud through the country's veins. The early Hungarians arrived on horseback from central Asia more than 1,000 years ago; centuries later, mounted Magyars jousted with the invading Ottomans, while nomadic herdsmen roamed the Great Plain into recent centuries. "That castle was built by the Magyars as a defence against the Turks," Gyula pointed up to some craggy ruins on a nearby hilltop. Gyula owned the stables that Csavargo called home, and the adjoining guesthouse in which I was staying. Despite the construction of castles whose remains now litter the land, the Hungarians ultimately failed in their resistance. In the early 16th century, this part of Hungary ceded to Ottoman rule, an occupation that would last more than 150 years. Each August, Gyula and his horse-riding friends dress in robes and armour and, for three days, they gallop around brandishing flags and sabres in a show that re-creates these equestrian battles.
The only invasion this area sees today is of the tourist kind. Lake Balaton, with its warm, shallow waters and 125 miles of shoreline, has long been a top choice for Eastern European holidaymakers. Now the British are trickling here too, Ryanair having added Balaton to its list of destinations. Most people come in July and August, thronging to the resorts along the southern shore of the lake for swimming, watersports and nightlife. Outside the short summer season, on the more peaceful northern side of the lake, the countryside is quiet and perfect for hiking, cycling, or simply bathing in one of the area's thermal spas.
It was hard to imagine this harmonious idyll ever being truly overthrown by the tourist hordes. As we approached our lunch spot, even Csavargo seemed to have given up the fight. We tethered the horses to trees, then greeted Gyula's parents who had driven out to meet us with a picnic: homemade meatballs, homemade salami, homemade pickles and even homemade wine.
When we had no more space for so much as the tiniest gherkin, we packed up the remains of the picnic and continued our horseback tour. We climbed again, on to paths above the vineyards, where the trees were heavy with fruit. The hills that rose around us were sometimes pointed in perfect cones, others were squat and flat. The land here was volcanic; for years basalt mining had been a mainstay of the economy.
I reached up to pick an apple. Hoping to mollify Csavargo, I offered him the uneaten core. But as he craned round his head to take my half-chewed gift, I failed him one last time. I accidentally dropped it.
How to get there
Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) offers return flights to Balaton from £192. Polly Evans took a riding tour with Chief Gyula's Riding Empire (gyulavezer.hu). She stayed at the NaturMed Hotel Carbona in Heviz (00 36 83 501 500; carbona.hu), which offers doubles from E122 b&b. She travelled with Fox Autorent (00 36 1 382 900; fox-autorent.com); a week's car hire costs from E265.
Further information: Hungarian National Tourist Board (00800 36 000 000; gotohungary.co.uk).
Further reading Polly Evans is the author of 'On a Hoof and a Prayer: Around Argentina at a Gallop', published by Bantam, price £7.99