I took a trip out to the small town of Mohacs in Southern Hungary to attend the Busójárás, a six day festival where participants - known as Busós - dress up in frightening-looking costumes and wander the town swigging spiced wine, singing, dancing and causing general mayhem.
Originally a celebration for the Šokci, an ethnic Croatian minority living in Mohács, Busójárás is now celebrated by the whole town in commemoration of the events in its history. Throughout the week the place comes alive with music performances, costumed folk dancing, Busó parades, feasts, and markets. You can also expect to see around 500 Busós coming across the Danube river in rowboats for a march through the streets, before the event concludes with the burning of a coffin on a massive bonfire in the central square where the Busós and visitors come together to party into the night.
With roots that date back to the Battle of Mohács in 1526, UNESCO has recognised the festival as an important cultural event. One popular legend states that the villagers, having been chased from their homes by the invading Ottoman troops, were forced to camp in the woods and swamps nearby. They spent time carving various weapons and scary masks while preparing for a battle to reclaim their homes. On a wild and stormy night, the villagers gathered their weapons, put on their masks and headed back to Mohács, roaring and generally making as much noise as humanly possible. Frightened by the noise, the masks, and the storm, the Turks thought demons were attacking them and they ran away from the area, leaving the villagers to return to their homes. In another theory, it is believed that the Busós are scaring away not the invading Turks but the Winter season, with the burning of the farsang coffin on the final night signifying the end of Winter itself. Regardless of the true origins, the event promised to be an interesting experience.
I arrived in Mohacs on the last day of the festival. It was a crisp, sunny morning and, as I stepped off the bus, I instantly heard the clatter of cowbells and caught my first glimpse of some Busós dressed in their shaggy sheepskin cloaks, wool stockings and carved wooden masks accompanied by women with veiled faces and wearing traditional folk costumes. Excitedly, I followed the small parade down to Széchenyi Square where the giant bonfire had been constructed waiting for the night's festivities.
Anyone hoping to attend the Busójárás festival should be warned that it's almost impossible to witness the event without somehow being dragged into it. I found this out almost instantly when I got pulled into a dance with two large Busós swinging me around before joyfully dancing away to grab their next unsuspecting "victim". Gathering myself together and laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of the situation, I took a stroll down through the market that was heaving with people buying from stalls offering a variety of wares including traditional food, masks and souvenirs. I then found myself down at the Danube river where boats were ferrying people to and fro across from the other bank. After taking some photos for a trio of friendly Hungarian ladies, I zigzagged my way through the small backstreets of the town, passing the Dorottya Kanizsai Museum - which preserves the history and ethnography of the area, including the cultures of Croatians, Serbs and Slovenes in Hungary - before making my way to the Busóudvar, a museum that is specifically dedicated to all things related to The Busójárás. This was a main gathering place for many of the Busós, who sat around outside the museum while taking a break from their hot, sweaty costumes.
I sat and had some lunch outside and watched the commotion then followed the sound of music back to the square where a band on stage played folk songs to accompany the groups of young people engaging in traditional dancing. As the main Busó parade arrived in the square, the place became packed and pandemonium soon unfolded around me. There were horses dragging people on wooden spinning boards, roaring tractors pulling cartloads of Busós, exploding cannons firing into the air, the deafening sound of rattling bells - It was pure chaos! I also found myself at the wrong end of some good-natured tricks. As well as being pulled into various dances, I also had handfuls of flour thrown over me, and was prodded in the backside by a particularly large and mischievous Busó weilding a pronged stick who then offered me a drink from his flask (which I politely declined).
As I learned afterwards, the spinning wooden board is known as the 'devil's wheel'. Three Busós stand or sit on it and cling to the handle mounted in the middle and when the wheel reaches the ground it wobbles which can lead to a Busó falling off, much to the great delight of the audience. Apparently the cannons are not just any old cannons either. The story goes that, after the battle of Mohács, two original cannons got stuck in the swamp and were then found in the Danube riverbed. After being restored, they became part of the celebrations.
With darkness beginning to fall, I squeezed in amongst the crowd who were gathered around the bonfire waiting for it to be lit and, from somewhere behind, the farsang coffin came floating over my head carried high by a group of Busós who climbed to the top of the bonfire and placed it on a waiting platform. After posing for photos, they clambered back down and the kindling was ignited. With the noise of the crackling flames accompanying the background music, the horned figures began dancing around the fire as it took hold and I stood and watched, mesmerized, until the coffin was engulfed by the blaze. Winter had well and truly been scared off!
Realising the time, I rushed off to catch the last bus with the sound of canons, cowbells and the crackling fire still ringing in my ears. Busójárás was definitely one of the strangest, most surreal experiences I've had on my travels, but one of the best - and certainly one I won't forget in a hurry.
Check out the Busoudvar Museum here.