Must-see places underground in Budapest
Visiting tourist attractions on the Buda (western) side of the Danube, such as Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church, you may not be aware that there is more to explore beneath Budapest.
What Lies Beneath Budapest?
When I think of large cities, particularly old European cities, I don’t think of natural wonders, which I picture more typically in remote areas. Instead, I envision the architecture of old buildings, centers of art and culture, historic sites, urban scenes and culinary highlights. And when I think of what’s beneath the surface streets and structures, I think of subway systems and pedestrian tunnels.
But you might be surprised to learn about Budapest’s underground natural wonder — the large system of caves located in the hills of Buda. (Budapest is comprised of two parts: Buda is located on the west side of the Danube; Pest is on the east side.)
Of the over 200 caves there, nine are protected and three of these are open to the public. The caves, discovered in the early 1900’s, were formed by thermal springs, a second natural wonder of Budapest and the reason it is known for its many thermal baths.
Next time, for sure…
There are two main natural caves that provide tours — Pálvölgyi cave (over 100m high and 7,200m long) and Szemlőhegyi cave (2,200m long) though the tours don’t cover the entire lengths. There is also the Labyrinth of Buda Castle which is a system of caves, tunnels and cellars under the castle where tours are available. It’s important to note that the caves are quite cool. Temperatures are constant, but I found contradictory reports from different sources (8°C to 11°C).
Though we didn’t relax and rejuvenate in the thermal baths or take the natural cave tours, we did explore two areas of the cave system that I’d highly recommend visiting.
A Cave for Wine
A friend told me that the Faust Wine Cellar in Budapest was a must-see and she was right!
Faust owners, Gábor and his wife Barbara, personally provide service for wine cellar patrons. As each wine is poured at your table in the small, candle-lit cellar, Gábor explains in which of Hungary’s 22 wine regions the grapes were grown and the wine was produced, and offers expert commentary on the subtleties and flavors of each vintage.
There’s a warm, cozy and romantic ambiance about Faust. It’s an intimate place with several tables set a good distance apart even in such a small area, adding to the charm and the personalized service.
Previously, I didn’t realize that Hungary had wine regions that produced such a variety of fine vintages. I assumed that any wines produced in that area would be of the sweet variety (and they do have some fine dessert wines, such as a Muscat we sampled at Faust.)
The tasting began with a semi-dry sparkling wine from Fazekas Winery that seemed to have dramatically more complexity than I’ve tasted in other sparkling wines and champagnes. It was tempting to ask for a another tasting of it, but we moved along with the other recommendations of our host. We enjoyed the delightful white that followed — a dry, white Tokaji Furmint from Bene Winery, but the reds were our favorites. A dry, red “Blaufrankisch” from Raspi Winery was followed by a Syrah from the János Németh Winery (Mr. TWS’s favorite). We finished with an elegant semi-sweet, white Mori Muscat Ottonel from Bozóky Winery.
The location in the caves of the Buda Hills, the fine wine selection, romantic ambiance, and personal attention makes Faust Wine Cellar a unique experience — one that we’ll repeat next time in Budapest.
A Cave for Religion (or just a peaceful moment)
Cave Church is located inside Gellért Hill at the western end of the Liberty Bridge across the street (Kelenhegyi út) from the Gellért Baths, among the most beautiful in Budapest and likely formed by the same thermal waters as the caves. (Don’t make our mistake. Being so close to the baths, try to work a thermal bath in your schedule when you visit Cave Church.) Gellért Hill is named for St. Gerard (in Hungarian, Szent Gellért), who was martyred there in 1046.
The cave is also called “Saint Ivan’s Cave” (Szent Iván-barlang), for a hermit who lived there and is believed to have healed people using the nearby thermal waters. Cave Church was founded in 1926 by a group of Pauline monks who expanded the hermit’s cave and added a structural entrance. It was enlarged in the 1930s by the Archbishop of Kalocsa and also used as a hospital for the German army during World War II.
In 1951, the Communist secret police raided the church as part of escalating actions against the Catholic Church in Hungary and arrested all of the monks. They sentenced the superior, Ferenc Vezer, to death and the others to long prison term and also sealed the entrance with a 2.25m thick concrete wall.
From Liberty Bridge, you walk up the hill to the entrance of the Cave Church where you first enter a ticket office and gift shop. Beyond that you step further inside the earth to the chambers of the church.
I thought that I’d find the church to be rather dreary and unwelcoming, but although dark in some areas, there was actually a pleasant, peaceful feeling about the church. In the main chapel area, I took a moment to rest and give thanks for travel opportunities that take me to places like this.
A nun was preparing the altar for services while we walked as we toured the church.
Shortly after the fall of Communism in Hungary in 1989, the church was restored and reopened by the Pauline monks and it continues today as a church and tourist attraction. What makes it unique is the setting in the cave and the construction which integrates much of the natural cave interior. It is also a striking contrast to the opulence of the cathedrals and basilicas that we had been visiting, yet the feeling of reverence was not diminished.