Budapest, renowned for its world class wine, relaxing thermal baths, and delicious goulash, is perhaps less well known for its elaborate, underground cave systems. It’s surprising to think that these cave systems—some tens of millions of years old—were only recently discovered by accident at the turn of the early twentieth century. As a 1995 UNESCO World Heritage site, many of these caves are protected and prohibited from public entry. Luckily, there are a few that are still accessible including the Palvolgyi Cave (Pál-völgyi-barlang), which I had the opportunity to explore a couple years back.
Geography of the Pál-völgyi cave:
The next time you sit back and relax in one of many thermal baths found within the “city of spas”, remember that these same medicinal waters once coursed deep underground for millions of years, carving and shaping the intricate cave systems found today. The Palvolgyi cave system (the longest cave system in Hungary) is located within the Duna Ipoly National Park of the Buda Hills, an hour away by bus from the capital center. Since its discovery, is has been a popular destination for adventure seekers and an ideal site for school field trips. Where else can you find stalactite and stalagmite formations—some close to a million years old—deep within a 7,200 meter long stretch of caverns or immaculately preserved fossil remains of ancient marine life once prominent during the Late Cretaceous and Early Tertiary period?
Before you go in:
A professional tour guide will take you crawling, climbing, and creeping through some incredibly tight and narrow spaces. Absolutely no experience is needed to enter the caves but if you’re claustrophobic, or think you may be, then unfortunately, you’ll want to avoid this particular tour. An easier, and safer option is the 45 minute walking tour, where you can explore a portion of the cave on artificially built walkways.
Also, given the small and compact nature of these cave structures, guides may have to turn away anyone they suspect of being too overweight to complete the course (you don’t want to get stuck in some narrow crevice when you’re hundreds of feet below ground). All safety equipment is provided for you including coveralls, helmet and headlamp. Make sure to wear comfortable shoes and clothing you don’t mind getting dirty. Temperatures typically range from 8-12 degrees Celsius (47-54 degrees Fahrenheit) so dress warm.
For the extensive tour of the cave, adults should expect to pay around 5000 HUF (22 USD) and 4000 HUF (18 USD) for children under 14. There is an age limit of 55 (written permission by a doctor is needed for anyone older) and children under six are not allowed inside. You don’t need to be in great physical shape but it is quite taxing on the body, so make sure to eat well before you enter. No food or drink is available before the tour so make sure to bring your own. Lockers are available at the changing rooms so you can leave any valuables there. You’ll probably want to bring a camera though, which is something I regret not bringing.
Exploring the caves:
For those ready to go, this 2.5-3 hour long tour will be sure to get your adrenaline pumping! Now you won’t be able to traverse the entire 20 km (12 mile) stretch of karst limestone caverns in such a short time, but you will get an incredible introduction to the more than 200 grottoes that make up this particular cave system. You’ll find that each new chamber you come across seems to be accompanied with an aptly titled moniker as well. One of your stops will be at the Chapel, a small room-like section of the Palvolgyi cave, once used as an air-raid shelter during World War II. Further along, an unusual rock formation will require that you extend your right arm above your head and push your way through with your left hand as if you were superman.
Other notable sections of the cave include the Theater, a chamber of such tremendous acoustic quality, audiophiles will delight to hear their voices echo with aural satisfaction. The Big Corridor is a segment of the cave so large that some locals fancy giants can pass through them., and the feet first, tight squeeze of the Birth Canal left many of us wondering whether it should be called the “reverse birth canal” instead. And finally, the Wedgie left all of us with, well, just that.
Crawling and sidling through dank and dark passageways, the atmosphere feels moist and heavy on your lungs. Frequent breaks should be expected as your guide will make sure to stop and see everyone passes through each segment of the cave safely. Although I didn’t see any wildlife inside the cave, bats are known to live and flourish down here.
Perhaps the best part of the tour came when our guide asked us all to turn off our headlamps and stay perfectly still. It’s difficult to describe but to be enveloped in perfect darkness—with not even the slightest semblance of your hand visible in front of your face—and immersed in a vacuum of absolute silence, is a humbling experience you will never forget. For added thrill, we crawled on our hands and knees for 20 minutes in complete darkness; it’s impressive how well your other senses perform and take over when you can no longer rely on your eyes to move about.
For those wanting more, a visit to the Szeml-hegyi Cave (Szemlő-hegyi Barlang) is a must. There are no stalactites here but instead it is full of unique crystal formations. It’s also a smooth and easy tour, which is great for kids to explore through. Also, check out the caves of Aggtelek Karst and Slovak Karst. The vast majority of these 712 caves (more than 99% of them) are protected and preserved in their natural condition, meaning no public entry is permitted. The remaining caverns (1%) have been turned into “show caves”, which draw more than 300,000 people annually to these underground labyrinths.
For more information about tours with Caving under Budapest please visit http://caving.hu/
SEE IT FOR YOURSELF!
Palvolgyi Cave (Pálvölgyi barlang felszíne Természetvédelmi terület)