Budapest in a Day

Budapest, what a city! Where else could you see a skinhead wearing white socks with his Euros and find that the Depeche Mode Fan Club is a respected institution? After four months in Hungary the few weekends I have spent in Budapest (as far as I can remember) have been mainly taken up with clubbing, drinking beer on the patio and staggering between coffee houses nursing a mean hangover. With only one weekend left I felt the onus was upon me to sink even lower and discover what lay beneath Budapest. Armed with the Rough Guide I planned a day underground.

I started with the metro. Not very adventurous you might think - well you would be wrong. With none of the ticket machines working, the ticket office closed and a Hungarian vocabulary that is fine for ordering beer and production planning in a paper mill, this part of the day proved to be quite a challenge. Eventually a man sitting behind a curtain took pity on me and sold me some tickets in a highly furtive manner. No one else seemed to be worrying about tickets so I presume they all had season cards. The metro turned out to be clean, fast and easy to work out. Flushed with my success I went on to experience the surface level HEV trains (less clean but impressively frequent) and the buses (considerably better than in Guildford).

The Rough Guide was spot on with the journey (if not with prices, which have tripled,) and eventually I found myself outside the Pálvölgyi Stalactite cave. Estate cars and Land Rovers festooned with bat shaped stickers and full of muddy gear led me to believe that there were real cavers about and sure enough I found them lurking in the ticket office. They spoke perfect English and sold me a ticket for the next tour (April to October, Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 6pm and about 80p to get in). During the 20 minutes I had to wait, about 750 Hungarians turned up, so I was expecting a roomy sort of cave. On the hour, the doors opened and we all crammed in including one mystery person who smelt revolting but remained unidentified in the gloom. Amid my growing excitement I understood that there were about 13km of system in the area. Unfortunately the tour turned out to be extremely short with large amounts of dialogue and very little in the way of formations. I was the only foreigner on the trip and so I got a shorter and more concise version of the explanation during which I learnt that the caves were originally formed by thermal waters rising up through cracks in the limestone (which explains the hemispherical holes in the roof) but in fairly recent times the thermal water has been replaced by cold water dripping down from above. I was assured that the other cave in the region was much more interesting so off I went.

A short walk, marked all the way with cave symbols, led me to Szemlö-Hegy cave, which was much posher and had leaflets and proper visitors' centre. Someone digging in his garden discovered the cave in 1930. At this point apparently "Informed spelaeologists … let themselves down by ropes," (don't we all?) "and by undoing the narrowed passages they got into the most beautiful parts of the cave." After the Second World War the cave was extended to 2 kilometres and "in the sixties the organs of nature protection took the cave in hand". According to the blurb "Visitors walk all over the most beautiful and typical parts of the cave under comfortable circumstances on concrete pavements and stairs. The features of the passages and mineral depositions are properly brought into relief by decorative lighting. In the reception building there is an exposition of the significant caverns of the Buda Hills, in the projection room diaporama performances and picture shows on caverns and nature protection help to pass the waiting time usefully and pleasantly for the visitors." Unfortunately I was never to discover exactly what a diaporama performance is as the reception was locked until shortly before the next tour, and I was forced to go and seek a coffee in a rather upmarket hotel.

When I got back I was stopped by a girl who spoke a little bit of English and warned me that although a tour was starting in 5 minutes a maximum of 5 people was allowed. Having waited for some time I was worried that I may have missed out so I asked her how many other people were waiting. "Just you" she said. Clearly she felt that I was too much of a responsibility for her because, after a brief internal struggle, she handed me a map and told me to guide myself. I was quite pleased and prepared to give myself a tour. Standing in the first chamber I informed myself that "these limestone layers, in which these caves had evolved, were formed by the settling of calcareous remains of animals and algae living in the Eocene sea that undulated here about 50 millions of years ago. This is the so called nummulitic limestone after the disc-like and lenticular unicellular animals which can often be found in it." (but not by me).

"The caves themselves are however much younger than the bedrocks. At the end of the Tertiary period of Earth history this region had gradually risen, the latest sediments eroded, and the fissures of the limestone massif, split up through crustal movements, enabled the rushing up of the thermal waters from the depth. These thermal waters dissolving limestone well had extended the narrow fissures into cave passages through thousands of years. Because of the further rising of the region the warm springs were gradually forced to their present level, so the caves became dry…the substance of the cave minerals is mainly calcium carbonate, which had here got precipitated not in form of calcite, that is characteristic of the dropstone in cold-water caves, but in form of aragonite, that differs from calcite both in appearance and crystalline structure. Typical deposits of the cave are the botryoidal popcorns, and crusts reminding of cauliflowers cover the walls of the cave. Now on some thermal precipitations also the development of stalactites has already begun from the infiltrating cold waters."

Well I couldn't have put it better myself.

The cave was quite pretty as the entire place was covered in bobbly stuff and was lit quite well. Wandering around on my own was quite peaceful and atmospheric, but eventually the guide caught up with me and forced me to admire a formation that looked a bit like a witch. I decided to hurry off to my final location, the tunnels beneath Buda Castle.

Continuing my survey of public transport I took the funicular up to Castle Hill and was pleased to note that my ticket would get me a discount for the Labyrinth, reducing the cost from about 60p to about 30p. Hoopla! Pushing my way through some sort of political rally about lost Hungarian territories, I found the entrance which led to what looked like a very trendy café. If your tastes are somewhat Gothic then this is a fine place for a coffee. Here a leaflet informed me that tufa caves had formed at "the dawn of the history of the Earth" (I do like this sort of accuracy) and had served as a refuge for prehistoric man who appeared half a million years ago. Later the caves were connected to each other and to the cellars of the houses for "economic and military purposes" which I take to mean gambling and fighting. In the 1930's, as part of the war-time defence program, the complex of cellars was converted into a shelter large enough to accommodate as many as 10,000 people at a time. Reinforced with concrete, it served as a secret military installation during the cold war. Even more scary than having a bogeyman in your cellar I should think!

Reconstruction work took place in 1996/97 to restore the Labyrinth to its pre-war look as far as possible. This restoration was obviously undertaken by a lot of tree-hugging hippy types (just to confirm my suspicions I actually saw a man hugging trees the next day) with the word "labyrinth" determining its cultural and spiritual profile. There may have been a translation problem here between the words "labyrinth" and "twisted". Apparently "in the present context labyrinth is a web of paths leading to our world, our history or ourselves, which, given sufficient resolve, can be charted here. Looking back from the middle or from the end, the area you have covered will appear as an ordered, meaningful fabric of individual lives and historical destinies rather than a bewildering maze."

"Gosh" I thought. I paid and entered the Labyrinth…

…it was very dark and I was on my own. It was a little bit scary and all the lights were at floor level so I had to grovel on the ground in order to read the map which made me feel rather foolish. At this point the instructions in the leaflet began to get weird. The prehistoric section had a few cave paintings and prehistoric-type music, but the leaflet talked about eternal harmonies and the shaman of Les Trois. The Hungarians pride themselves upon being poetic. Unkind people could describe it as unintelligible at times. The historical section had a few statues and carvings which represented more shamanism, the Magic Deer of Hungarian legend and the sword of Attila the Hun who wanted to "conquer and reconcile all the peoples of the world". The Huns were into weapons in a really big way. I'm not sure how the shaman must have felt about it.

Eventually the passage led to a large vaulted area with a sort of baptismal font in the middle. This bit was very pleasant and peaceful and smelt of eucalyptus. Continuing with the history lesson I went down a corridor which represented the invasion of the Tartars and Genghis Khan. Apparently there were some wine fountains around here somewhere which had something to do with the Pope but I had become somewhat confused and disorientated. As I was roughly in the middle I looked back and found that the area I had covered appeared as a bewildering maze.

The next landmark was a carving of a drooping crowned head sinking into the ground which was a symbol of the downfall of the independent Hungarian kingdom. This was dead good actually and so I revived a little only to find myself in a room full of ivy which smelt horrid and was full of spiders' webs. Gotham city eat your heart out.

The penultimate section was the Labyrinth of Another World. As I crouched on the ground I read that the finding of the fossil imprint of a human foot had halted works on a new exhibition. A number of imprints were then found around the Buda hills which led researchers to believe that the excavations did not originate from Homo Sapiens but from another world. This race was known as Homo Consumus and were much larger than Homo Sapiens but with a smaller proportional brain. This civilisation was supposed to have appeared at least 42 million years ago and disappeared no later than 38 million years ago. Research has so far failed to discover any traces of intellectual activity, culture, art, religion etc. The footprint turned out to look suspiciously like a Nike trainer and upon further investigation the other imprints turned out to be a cashpoint machine, a laptop PC and a mobile phone.

The last section was the labyrinth gallery. It was a lot of pictures of labyrinths. I bumped into two other English girls here and we decided it was time to leave, unfortunately we appeared to be horribly lost. Back we went through Homo Consumus. Back to the spiders' webs - No! Back through Homo Consumus again. Eventually we realised that we weren't really lost, we were just being terribly British. There was a door right in front of us, which was the exit, but we hadn't opened it because no-one had said we could. The finishing touch it seems is to find oneself blinking in the sunlight in a back street somewhere at the bottom of the hill. Oh very funny!

Vicky Stratton