Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The National Gallop

Heroes' Square transformed into a racing circuit

In a thunder of hooves and flying sand, horsemen in ornate Hussar uniforms gallop past, swords aloft, so close you can hear the jangle of their spurs. This is the National Gallop. It's one quarter Hunger Games opening ceremony (chariots! Pageantry! Stirring music and victory wreaths!) and three quarters Budapest’s version of Il Palio. The already magnificent Heroes’ Square is transformed into a sand racing track, and over two days you can go and watch national and international championship races along with host of other equestrian events.

Andrassy utca, the wide avenue leading from the centre of town up to Heroes’ Square, is closed to traffic and filled with food vans and stalls. Each represents a Hungarian town or villages who are showcasing their various folk arts. Vendors selling beers and langos (deep-fried pizza bread), are wedged between stalls with an amazing variety of unusual crafts. Equestrian armour and a blacksmith making horseshoes are stand-outs.

A blacksmith peddles his wares on Andrassy utca

The Gallop itself is pretty breathtaking. There’s paid-for VIP stalls surrounding the track, but we decide to spectate from the centre. Gates open for a short time between each event and we cross the track into the central square (which is actually a circle). For such a popular event, it is remarkably easy to find a place near the front, where you can really feel the thud of hooves as the horses tear around the circuit.

Horses have played a major role in Hungarian culture since the first settlers in the 10th century. The National Gallop is a celebration of this tradition, and particularly of the Hussars, the Hungarian light cavalry that was one of the most efficient fighting forces in pre-20th century Europe. The pageantry is impressive. Riders decked out in armour and ornate uniforms from the 10th to 19th-century gallop past, swords drawn, flags billowing, soundtracked by majestic orchestral anthems.

But the races themselves are the highlight. Each rider and horse represents a town or village in Hungary (similar to the competing Sienna districts in Il Palio).


The chariot race is, for me, the most exhilarating. The final is a hard-fought battle, the drivers clinging to their flimsy-seeming chariots as they hurtle around the circuit. The crack of whips and thunder of hooves makes me flinch as they bolt past. The green team lead until the final few metres when suddenly the gold team pull out and surge forward to victory. There’s a huge fanfare as the winners canter to the podium and a victory wreaths are placed around their necks. Forget the recent Ben Hur remake… this is the real thing.

No comments:

Post a Comment