Spanning the Danube, the twin cities of Buda and Pest—united in 1873 into one capital named Budapest—survived World War II and the Iron Curtain with a surprising amount of their charm intact. Hungary’s medieval greatness is still embodied in Buda Palace, rising above old Buda on Castle Hill, which today contains three museums—the Hungarian National Gallery, the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art, and Budpesti Történeti Museum (Budapest History Museum). But it’s what lies beneath the castle that I find most fascinating—a 10km (6 1 / 4 -mile) network of tunnels, snaking underneath the cobblestone streets of the Castle District.
These began as natural caves, hollowed out by hot springs in the porous tufa rock of Castle Hill; people lived here way back in prehistoric times. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages, however—perhaps as early as the 11th century—that underground passages were cut to connect the caves in a vast labyrinth. Many of the houses on Castle Hill apparently had their own private entrances into this interconnected maze, which provided them with wells, storage cellars, and possibly a secret escape route for the king. In World War II, it became a rambling bomb shelter; during the Cold War years, the Soviet-controlled Hungarian communist government turned it into a secret military installation.
Since the fall of the Soviet empire, various efforts have been made to transform this hideaway into a tourist attraction. This latest incarnation presents the labyrinth as a walk through Hungarian history. After a cave filled with copies of famous prehistoric cave paintings, a series of stage-lit sculptural displays in successive caves represent: ancient shamans; the Magic Deer that was the totem of the nomadic Magyar people; the invading Huns; St. Stephen (who established the first Christian kingdom here in 1000); the invading Tartars, in 1241; the Renaissance leader, King Mathias, who set up his court in 1485; and the invading Ottomans in 1526. These somewhat abstract sculptures, carved out of soft golden tufa stone, are a lot less hokey than the wax museum that was previously installed down here. It’s not long on historical detail, but it is an effectively poetic evocation of the dramatic sweep of Hungary’s past.