Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Guided by Duncan JD Smith, we dive below the streets of Budapest to unravel the history of the Hungarian capital. No other capital city in the world is so riddled with caves as Budapest. We find Roman ruins, a labyrinth from the Ottoman period and some remarkable wine cellars.

article summary —

Many visitors to Budapest arrive by train from Vienna. Although logic might suggest that these trains should terminate at one of the railway stations on the west of the city (so in Pest rather than Buda), they actually circle through the suburbs and end their run at Keleti Pályaudvar, one of the Hungarian capital’s eastern railway stations. And it is here at Keleti that all the grand trains terminate. The services from Berlin, Venice, Moscow, Sofia and Salonika all run to Keleti.

Many are the travellers who change trains at Keleti. Some of them will appreciate the feelings of Jonathan Harker, the young Transylvania-bound solicitor in Bram Stoker’s epistolary Gothic novel Dracula who paused at Keleti on his journey east. Located sublimely on a bend in the Danube, with the Buda Hills (Budai-hegység) on one bank and the Great Hungarian Plain (Nagy-Magyar-Alföld) stretching away on the other, Budapest is indeed, as Harker put it “a wonderful place”.

Unfortunately for Harker, as for so many folk who change trains at Keleti, there was little time to explore. But he tarried long enough to realise that Budapest was very different from Vienna. Despite being little more than two hundred kilometres south-east of the former Habsburg stronghold, Budapest looks much more to the East. This is hardly surprising when one considers that the nomadic Magyars, the ancestors of modern Hungarians, probably originated in northwest China. The city on the Danube has been conquered by wave after wave of invaders sweeping in across the Carpathian Basin — among them the Huns in 409, the Mongols or Tatars in 1241, and the Ottoman Turks in 1540.

Although Jonathan Harker did not stray far from Keleti it is interesting to note that he was able to tap so quickly into Budapest’s Oriental heart. Maybe he happened upon the Uránia National Film Theatre (Uránia Nemzeti Filmszínház) on nearby Rákóczi út, which at the time served as a music hall. The building’s Venetian Gothic façade conceals an interior enlivened with Asiatic elements. Although this hybrid architectural eclecticism might have been familiar to Harker, he would surely not have realised that such stylings (often used in conjunction with Hungarian folkloric motifs) were used by some fin de siècle architects in Budapest as a way of surreptitiously expressing national cultural identity, at a time when Hungarian affairs were subject to close Habsburg scrutiny.

caves and caverns

There is another dimension to the Hungarian capital that Harker could not possibly have seen. This is subterranean Budapest, tucked away not only beneath the city’s famous Castle Hill (Várhegy) but also under quiet suburbs, and alongside busy roads and railway tracks. Whether revealed or concealed these subsurface locations speak just as eloquently about the city’s history as their above-ground counterparts.

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Having worked for many years in the publishing industry selling other travel writers’ books, Duncan J. D. Smith decided in 2003 to start writing and illustrating his own. As a self-styled ‘Urban Explorer’, travel writer, historian and photographer he has embarked on a lifetime’s adventure, travelling off the beaten track in search of the world’s unique, hidden and unusual locations. He has so far traversed four continents in search of curious places and people, from the wartime bunkers of Berlin and the baroque gardens of Prague to the souks of Damascus and the rock-cut churches of Ethiopia. His European findings are being published in a ground breaking series of guidebooks – the Only In Guides – which have been designed specifically for the purpose. Volumes on Berlin, Boston, Budapest, Cologne, Edinburgh, Hamburg, London, Munich, Paris, Prague, Vienna and Zurich have been published, with Krakow in preparation.

Duncan divides his time between England and Central Europe, and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Find out more about Duncan and his work at www.duncanjdsmith.com and www.onlyinguides.com.

This article was published in hidden europe 30.