Towns / Cities Visited: 135
Countries Visited: 22
Steps Taken Today: 21,117
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,473,872
We awoke to a beautiful, cloudless autumn morning in Budapest, and not wanting to sardine ourselves into a public bus, we decided to take an, albeit long, walk to our first attraction for the day; Pál-völgyi cave. The start of the trek consisted of a rather picturesque walk through the city, across the river, and into the outskirts of Buda, until a rather steep finish to our seventy minute walk saw us searching for our seemingly signless destination whilst drenched in sweat. Taking a wrong turn, we ended up reaching a different cave which is only open for professional spelunking, so we doubled back and finally stumbled upon the entrance to the national park which was home to the first of the two caves we’d hoped to see. Popping into the visitor centre, we were disappointed to learn that the second cave, Szemlo-Hegyi, was currently closed for renovations. Luckily, we hadn’t walked the extra fifteen minutes to start there. Not to be deterred, we booked in for the next tour in 45 minutes, and although we were told it would not be delivered in English, we were given a couple of fact sheets to read. Taking a short wander around, admiring the changing colours of the leaves in the valley, we spent the rest of the wait reading up on the cave and eating a few snacks.
Gathering near the quaint, wooden door that seals the entrance of the cave, we were soon joined by a few other visitors and our guide. Upon discovering that not a single person on the tour was Hungarian, the guide kindly decided to perform her services in somewhat broken English. Diving right on in, we ducked through the door and were delivered into another world beyond. At a constant 11 degrees Celsius, this ancient limestone cave offered a cool respite from the harsh sun outside. Pál-völgyi, much like most of the caves in the area, was formed millions of years ago by the flow of thermal waters. In fact, Hungary is home to the largest thermal water cave system in the world. Although this cave is around 7km long, the tour only runs a circuit around a 500 metre stretch, but it does include a few climbs up and down the multiple levels.
As we started our journey, we stared in awe at the stunning artwork mother nature has bestowed here. Unlike the huge cavernous rooms of the Cave of Liberty in Slovakia, Pál-völgyi seems more like a scar underneath a stony exterior, with narrow passages and gaping fractures in the rock. For what it lacks in width, it more than makes up for in height, and as you look up into the inky darkness of the gaps overhead, it is unsurprising to learn that this place is favoured by bats.
The variety of rock features here is stunning, from stalactites, stalacmites, and flowstones; to glassy slick crystals and tunnels which once would have funneled water through the passages. Like so many caves, some of the formations are given whimsical names, like a collection of seven short stalactites and one tall one being dubbed ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. Every now and again the guide would stop us and shine a light on fossilised shells or sea urchins from millions of years ago; a stark reminder that this was once an aquatic playground and not simply a damp hidey-hole for wayward landlubbers.
One of the most surprising features of the cave however, is not the rocks, but rather the space void of rocks. The unique shape of the cave actually makes for incredible acoustics; so good, in fact, that on occasion, musical performances are held here for small groups. Our guide not only told us this, but demonstrated it, by turning on an operatic soundtrack. It was almost haunting in its beauty, the way the music resounded off the stones, reaching into every crevice with its soothing sounds. By the time we had completed the circuit and tumbled back out of the door, we found ourselves blinking into the sun, almost feeling like it had all been some fantastical dream.
The downhill walk back into the city was much more leisurely, and finding ourselves with a hankering for another chimney cake, we joined the long line of others who seemed to share our sentiment. The main benefit of having to wait for our sugary treat was that due to the rate they were selling them, they were freshly cooked and piping hot by the time we were handed ours. If we’ve learnt anything from our extensive chimney cake consumption on this trip, its that fresh ones are infinitely better than ones which have been sitting there for a while.
Energy restored, we headed on over to our other destination for the day, and a sobering one at that; The House of Terror. This rather intimidating building, now skirted by a cutout visor which paints the word ‘Terror’ onto the footpath below, was once used as a meeting place for the Arrow Cross during WWII and, after Hungary fell into Soviet hands and was pulled behind the Iron Curtain, the building was used as a headquarters for the secret police. Within its walls, Hungarian citizens, most of whom were likely innocent and falsely accused, were detained, tortured, and murdered by their ruthless governments during these decades of turmoil. The House of Terror now stands as a memorial for those killed, and also as a place of education about the checkered past of 20th century Hungary, in an attempt to ensure the events are not forgotten or repeated.
As you enter, you are required to cloak any backpacks, and after purchasing tickets you are informed that all photography is forbidden. Although that is a tad annoying for the purposes of remembering the particulars of the exhibits, as you move through the museum, it is refreshing to not be encumbered by snapping tourists.
The central courtyard is the first place you pass through, and it is by far the most striking part of the museum. In its centre sits a foreboding military tank, sitting on a still, glassy lake of black water which reflects everything around it. Rising up the three storey high inner wall there sits a sea of black and white photos of the victims who lost their lives within these cold stone walls. It was almost eerie how much this wall of faces mirrored the photo displays in Sarajevo, and even Auschwitz. It seems as though all that is left of almost an entire generation of Eastern Europeans is a few stark photos. It is a heart wrenching start, and really hammers home the enormity of the content to follow.
Once you travel up to the top floor, you follow a well set out trail through the rooms, which are set out in an easy to navigate and chronologically sorted order. Each room offers extensive information sheets in a number of languages, which you can read then and there, or take home with you. They are also thoughtfully decorated as to reflect the topic at hand without detracting from it, whether that be the movements of the Nazi regime carried out by the Arrow Cross, the Soviet concentration camps which served as places of death of hundreds of thousands of Hungarians, or the attempts by Communist rule to replace religious gods with worship of Soviet leaders and quash patriotism for Hungary. The addition of audio visual displays and artifact exhibits round out the experience and reiterate the information provided. The result is an engaging museum which is confronting without being overwhelming.
The first floor looks at how the ruling parties forcibly moved Hungarian people around including mass deportation and resettlement during WWII, especially of Jews and ethnic groups, many of whom ended up in German concentration camps. There is also a look into the actions of the Hungarian Political Police and the intimidation tactics and false accusations they used to mete out ‘justice’ on the citizens of Hungary. This display includes a photo wall of some of the police chiefs; a wall of evil faces hidden behind the mask of normality. They are accompanied by a number of propaganda film clips which were used to manipulate the population. A further room is set up to represent one of the mandatory people’s courts from post WWII where war criminals were charged. The furniture here is covered in copies of over 800 dossiers from the Bureau of History, some of which include political trials, sentences, and appeals; and on the far wall a screen plays a propaganda video about the Imre Nagy trial. The final rooms hold exhibits about the persecution of the clergy, in particular Cardinal Mindszenty, as well as housing the only room which was kept in its original state and holds a number of torture devices used on the victims here.
As much as these rooms tear at your heartstrings, it is what lies in the basement which really hammers home the reason this place is called the ‘House of Terror’. This dark space is home to a collection of replica cells, including holding cells, punishment cells, and an execution room complete with a gibbet (although it must be noted that no one was formally executed here, all deaths within these walls were the result of beatings or suicide). I personally found the punishment cells the most confronting, from the Karcer cell, which measured only 60x50x180cm and had a lightbulb installed at eye level and on at all times; to the water cell, where prisoners were forced to sit in water constantly; to the foxhole, which left prisoners unable to stand up or sit, and thus forced them to stay hunched in complete darkness for extended periods. The inhumanity of the conditions here make even the least claustrophobic people uncomfortable at the mere idea of being locked up here.
The basement also houses a display about the 1956 revolution against the Soviet Union, as a reminder of the strength of the Hungarian people, even when under an oppressive regime. Beyond this there is a solemn room known as ‘The Hall of Tears’ in which the walls are plastered with the names of those executed for political reasons between 1945 and 1967. Here sits a jungle of light topped crosses, some of which proudly display the Star of David.
On the wall beside the stairs back up to ground level, run a series of photos of those who perpetrated or supported the perpetration of crimes against humanity and war crimes during both the Arrow Cross and the Communist rule: these cruel and heartless people who justified their evil by reminding themselves it was the law of the land at the time. Its hard to imagine how morally lacking you need to be to not see the heinousness of your actions, whether they are technically ‘legal’ or not. I viewed these images with the same look of disgust I carried when viewing photos of Nazi officers in Auschwitz and Sachenhausen. There are many faces on display in the House of Terror, but unlike the thousands pictured in the inner courtyard, I hope not a single one of these morally bereft souls rest in peace. By the time we finally stepped back out onto the street, the sun was sinking low, and it became obvious that it was actually fortunate that the Szemlo-Hegyi cave had been closed, as it had given us the extra time to give our full attention to the horrors on display in this historically important museum.
With heavy hearts, we made our way back home to whip up a meal and indulge in a night of quiet reflection. As I tried to pack away my emotions about the horrendous crimes I had spent my afternoon immersed in, I took a moment to marvel at Hungary as it stands today. The fall of Communism in Hungary only occurred a single year before my birth, and although the scars are still healing and the majority of the citizens here remember the events like they were just yesterday, its heartening to see that the Hungarian people are moving forward not with resentment, but in a positive light. The people we have met are proud of their homeland and, despite being mistreated by foreign powers so often, they have been some of the most welcoming hosts we’ve encountered. They have spent so many decades of the last century having their culture and beliefs suppressed, and yet these factors are alive and well in Budapest and nationwide. The Soviets ultimately failed in their objective; they may have stolen the lives of many of the citizens, but they have stolen nothing from the heart of this great land. What resides here is truly a testament to the resilience and fortitude of the Hungarian people; a people who craved more from the life they were forced into, and fought long and hard to wrestle it back from the foreign hands who sought to steal it from them. I am honoured to have had a chance to bask in the glory of this historic and proud corner of the world.