I’m thrilled to share that VirtualWayfarer just passed 1,000,000 views on YouTube (I’m so incredibly humbled and flattered – you are all amazing!). To celebrate, I decided to dive into my video archives, sort through the footage I’ve accrued over the past six years, pull out some favorite shots and to create a travel tribute video exploring and embracing snippets from some of the incredible adventures I’ve had over the past few years. The result is just under 15 minutes of some of my favorite HD footage and spans 19 countries.
To go with the footage I pulled up a chair, sat down, and attempted to explore the lessons I’ve learned from travel. The result is a heartfelt exploration of life, travel, and the magic of the road. In it, I attempt to share some of the more significant lessons I’ve learned from travel, offer some advice, and aspire to convey the sense of ever-increasing wonder I have at the richness of the world at large.
It’s a smudge long, but the feedback has been that the combination of the footage and some of the ideas expressed in the monologue make it well worth the watch. I hope you’ll take the time to give it a watch and then to share some of your own revelations or grand adventures. At the end of the day, travel and the opportunity to embrace the spirit of the moment is a wondrous thing.
Thank you all so, so, much for continuing to read (and watch!) VirtualWayfarer, offer your feedback, share your special moments, questions, and passion with me. I’m profoundly humbled and flattered by the messages you share with me and that you find my stories, photography, and video interesting.
Some have asked about the quality differences given clips were filmed over 6+ years – footage was shot on a mixture of devices. The earliest footage was filmed on an old Flip HD 720p handheld cam. Other footage was taken on a Vixia HF200. More recent footage was taken on a Canon 600D and a Canon 6D. Video didn’t load properly? View it here.
Exciting history podcasts. That’s right. I used those three words in one sentence without a hint of sarcasm or satire. They’re few and far between, but they do exist and holy smokes will they surprise you and revolutionize how you understand world history and the destinations you’re visiting.
Unless you were a history major (and even then), chances are good that you haven’t done a deep dive into a specific region or civilization’s history since you were a kid. The history you got as a kid was useful, but also likely full of holes and deeply biased. Upon landing in a new city, it’s common to do a very shallow and cursory dive into the city/country/region’s history but that rarely goes beyond “This wall was built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 122 AD.” Who was Hadrian? Where does he fit in the greater Roman history? Why was he building a wall? Who the hell knows. For most of us those are the mysteries that are lost to time – both in the sense that even if we did know the answers we likely forgot them, and if we didn’t …. well, time is precious and even those of us with a desire to read historical texts like Meditations or in-depth period histories rarely find (or make) the time for them.…
Fear gripped me. My teeth ground against each other. This wasn’t an old friend, it was something new. My feet kicked at thin air desperately. I moved half an inch. Sweat beaded on my forehead, collecting dust and then running into my eyes. My arms burned as my fingers dug at the hard packed clay soil, trying to pull myself through the hole I was trapped in. The urge to vomit wracked my dehydrated core forcing me to pause while I battled for control. I fought for gulps of dirty cave air. My primal brain screamed at me and demanded action: Panic. I refused to cave to its call.
I had signed up for this, heck I paid to do it. It was ok. I was with people – experts. People did this all the time. They survived and seldom got stuck. It would be ok…it had to be. Then a reassuring touch. Hands pushed, supporting the bottom of my boots. I heaved. Kicked. Crawled my way forward up the tiny tunnel. It widened slightly. My left arm pulled free, previously stuck to my side as I “superman’d” through the narrowest part of the tunnel. Both hands were free. Fingers clawing at bulges along the cave wall as I dragged my 193 pound, 6’3″ frame up and into the pitch black open space before me.
I stood shaking. Rattled. Wondering if I could go on. Then, I realized I had just felt claustrophobia for the first time. I was terrified. I was thrilled. As I stood there quivering I stared at the tunnel that had just birthed me, let out a sigh and then kneeled down and began crawling into the next tunnel. My resolve set. I refused to let the sprawling caves of Pál-völgyi-Mátyás-hegyi beneath Budapest’s rolling hills do anything but strengthen me.
I’ll confess, I can be pretty lazy. On more than one occasion I’ve looked at a long, winding flight of steps…let out an “oof” and sat down with that, “I’ll see you when you get back” look on my face. I find this to be especially true in places that like to advertise the number of steps. Things like, “600 steps to the top!” may seem like great inspiration…but they’re really only good for bragging rights and illiciting the ire of pale-faced friends later down the road. That said, after a few minutes to huff and puff I inevitably find myself trudging up whatever large staircase I’ve found before me. Some spiral in graceful arcs, others are tight tunnel-like staircases that leave you dreading the inevitable traffic jam when you meet someone heading back down on the same stairs. Yet others, like in Nafplio zig zag up the exterior of a large cliff face. Of all these different types I often find the graceful spiral stair to be the most beautiful. Not because of the view out non-existent windows…never that…but rather, because a glimpse back down the stair’s spiral reminds me of of the swirling shape of a beautiful seashell.
The staircase featured in the photo for this post hails from Saint Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest, Hungary. The basilica is a beautiful building that offers a commanding view of the surrounding city. It provides a great opportunity to examine the multi-colored rooftops of nearby buildings, while simultaneously looking across at Buda Castle and the Palatial Hill. Oh, and for those of you who have an even more pronounced hatred of stairs than I do? I’ll confess that there is even an elevator, though I advise you skip it. The view back down the stairwell is well worth a little added huffing and puffing – besides, it’s good for you…right?
Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here.
Hundreds of years of history, empire, wealth and culture shape the now unified sister cities of Buda and Pest. In my previous post, A traveler’s journal: meandering Budapest’s Streets, I took you through some of the city’s more off-beat, religious and cultural attractions. In this post let’s dive into some of the city’s better known and more visible attractions.
Buda Castle & Palace
While not what you might typically consider when thinking of a traditional castle, Buda Castle and the Castle Hill/Castle District is actually a small city in its own right located on top of one of the plateaus overlooking the Danube. The Castle and Royal Palace cover the southern end of the hill and are composed of a sprawling mixture of fortified walls, large palatial buildings, beautiful fountains, and royal monuments. While the current incarnation is much more modern, regional royalty have been using the hill since the mid-1200s with the first royal residence built somewhere around 1260 AD.
It wasn’t until 150 years later that the oldest sections of the current castle (now little more than the foundations of an old Castle Keep) were constructed. In the early 1400s King Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor at the time, made significant additions to the Palace as befitted the city’s role as the heart of the Holy Roman Empire. In addition to enhancing the palatial sections Sigismund also made major enhancements to the castle’s defensive walls and apparatus. Later kings, including Mathias Corvinus and Vladislaus II continued to expand the palace over the next hundred or so years. The Ottoman army conquered the Kingdom of Hungary in 1526. Over the following century the Ottomans occupied Buda and fended off a number of Habsburg sieges until the Siege of 1686 which did extensive damage. This led to the Habsburgs taking control of the city. Unfortunately, the siege destroyed the majority of the medieval palace, the remainder of which was temporarily neglected, while repairs were made to the fortifications.
More recently a series of baroque palaces were constructed starting in the early 1700s. Many of these were damaged by wars and large fires – though each of these left its mark on the castle and palatial layout of the area. Eventually the palace was re-built in the mid-1800s before being heavily renovated around the turn of the century. Small tweaks were made until WWII when the castle was ravaged by the war and faced extensive damage. Fascinatingly the re-building which took place in the 50s and 60s gave us the hybrid structure that we now see. A mixture of the castle and places as they existed across history.
Without learning the history behind the castle and palace you would never suspect that it had such a turbulent and destructive past. The modern buildings look pristine, well-preserved, historical and beautiful. As I strolled along its cobblestone streets, through large heavily-worked gates, and from open courtyard to courtyard, I felt as though I was walking through a fairy-tale palace. All it took was a little imagination, closing my eyes, and a thought to strip away the cars and tourists… to trade them for romanticized visions of formal events attended by beautiful people in regal evening attire arriving in carriages, accompanied by the delightful rhythm of a Viennese waltz drifting to my ears from one of the building’s many ballrooms.
During my visit the kiss of fall was visible everywhere. Even the light had a soft amber hue to it, which only served to set off and accentuate the golden leaves and deep red hues of the numerous hedges, trees, and vines that stand, lean, and crawl across the castle walls.
I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for cats, so perhaps it is no surprise that one of my favorite decorations around the palatial grounds were the guardian lions. Beautifully carved in a style I love, these regal stone creatures stand guard throughout Budapest. However, of all of the lion statues in the city – those on the Chain Bridge, etc. – the lions around Buda Castle are my favorite.
Unfortunately, due to time limitations we didn’t make it into the interior of the Castle, which apparently boasts a number of impressive rooms and displays in the Budapest History Museum, situated in one of the Castle’s wings. It’s definitely something I’d love to return to the city to see, as the history of Budapest and to some degree Buda Castle has played such an influential role in the shaping of our modern world.
Fisherman’s Bastion & Mathhias Church
Located on Castle Hill, Fisherman’s Bastion is a fortification built and finished in 1902 that overlooks the Danube immediately beside Matthias Church. The series of seven towers were designed to represent the seven tribes that initially settled the Carpathian Basis around 900 AD.
The bastion boasts a unique architecture that feels distinctly Hungarian, but also borrows from more eastern inspirations and manages to pull off the appearance of a defensive structure while maintaining an almost ornamental feel. This comes largely from the large archways and pointed domes that decorate the bastion. It’s somewhat odd and arguably ill-fitting name makes significantly more sense in context. Historically, the Fisherman’s Guild had the replaced and manned section of the Bastion’s walls though I don’t believe they were involved with their defense by the time the walls were re-built and dedicated.
These days the Bastion’s main draw and purpose is as a partial cafe and scenic overlook. The walls of the Bastion offer a spectacular view out over the Danube and Pest side of the river. It’s also one of the best locations to view Hungary’s ornate Parliament Building, which features a Gothic Revival style.
Visitors to the Bastion will also note a large regal statue of Stephen the 1st of Hungary mounted on a horse which depicts him as a saint. It is placed on top of a large carved marble monument. For visitors interested in one of the best views in Budapest, I’d suggest exploring Castle Hill during the day and then planning on winding down the visit right around sunset along the Fisherman’s Bastion.
The third structure of note in the immediate area is Mathias Church. An impressive Gothic structure that dates back to the latter part of the 14th century. It replaced its Romanesque predecessor built more than 400 years earlier. During the Ottoman period, the church was used as a mosque before being re-claimed as a cathedral after Christian’s re-possession of the city in 1686. More recently, towards the end of the 19th century, the building was renovated with several more modern aspects added, such as the ornate tile work on the roof.
The Cathedral is one of the most easily recognizable and prominent buildings located within the Castle Hill District. It is an easily recognizable landmark visible from just about everywhere in Budapest. It features a mixture of art in the form of the Ecclesiastical Art Museum and serves as home to replicas of the Hungarian royal jewels and a variety of other sacred relics.
One thing that really stood out for me about the Cathedral was its tile work. While many Gothic cathedrals feature copper or slate roofing, the 19th century renovation of the Cathedral replaced its more traditional designs with colorful and ornately patterned roof tiles. These caught and reflected the sun while adding an unusual level of character and personality to the building.
While the Bastion and Cathedral are both technically part of the Castle Hill District, I want to make sure to take a few moments to talk about the area as a whole. Stretching along the top of the plateau, the district is a mixture of hotels, museums, tourist shops, restaurants, and housing. Despite its fairly touristy nature, the area still retains the feel of a smaller medieval town, likely due to the age of the buildings, cobblestone streets, and cramped quarters. I felt I was walking through a small town and had to remind myself that I was standing in the heart of Hungary’s capital city.
The whole area is rich with history and derives most of its charm from the small details. Historical interiors glanced through windows, blooming flowerpots, street artists, old wrought-iron lamp posts, fountains and wonderful stone carving after carving.
For those up for a little walk, it’s also possible to leave the castle walls and explore the beautiful ring road which wraps along the back side of the hill. Built along a steep incline, we enjoyed the traditional architecture and beautiful tree-lined lane covered in fallen yellow leaves. There were also a number of steep staircases that careened down the side of the hill towards a large park at the base. While not as picture perfect or historically significant, we thoroughly enjoyed the walk along Castle Hill’s back side. One item worth noting, we passed a war hospital museum during the stroll which looked fascinating. Unfortunately, by the time we stumbled onto it they had already closed for the day.
Heroes Square & Vajdahunyad Castle
Located on the Pest side of the city, Heroes Square is a cultural center and gateway to one of the city’s largest sprawling parks. The Heroes Square is a large open space with a semi-circular monument and pillar. On one side of the square you’ll find the Museum of Fine Arts. On the other you’ll encounter the Palace of Art. Both buildings are beautiful and well worth a visit. While the monument sits at the park side of the square, the world’s second oldest metro – the Millennium Underground – dead-ends at the park after traveling underneath Andrassy Avenue, an iconic tree-lined historic boulevard that serves as home to several other museums and embassies.
The park behind Heroes Square serves as home to Vajdahunyad Castle. Despite possessing an incredibly difficult name to remember and pronounce, the castle has a picturesque quality to quickly make you forget any challenges you may have faced trying to find it. It’s located in the heart of the City Park and is surrounded by a large moat.
Despite an historical appearance, the castle is relatively new and was built between 1896 and 1908. The design of the building is based heavily on Transylvania Castle in Romania, which you may recognize from vampire lore. Interestingly, the original building was built for the Millennial Exhibition and was little more than wood. However, due to significant interest and the complex’s popularity, it was eventually rebuilt out of stone in its current incarnation. In addition to strolling the complex and enjoying the beautiful buildings, water, and park’s lush vegetation, make sure that you pause at the statute of Anonymous. While the history of Anonymous as a 12th century historian who documented ancient Hungarian history is fascinating, the statue itself is beautifully done and has a very unique feel.
Despite touching on a few of the major buildings in Budapest, there are many others to see. You’ll note that I only briefly mentioned the Parliament Building in this post and my previous one on Budapest. Unfortunately, due to the weather and renovations I didn’t get many good shots of it. When I was there, they were celebrating Hungary’s Independence Day and large parts were off-limits.
One thing is for certain – Budapest is a fascinating city with an incredibly rich and storied past. When you visit, make sure to give yourself ample time to explore. The city has served as home to a number of vastly different cultures and empires over the years – from the ornate Ottoman empire to the stoic Soviet period. You’ll need at least a week to explore it properly and a comfortable pair of walking shoes.
Have a favorite place in Budapest? Make sure to share it with me. If I missed it this trip I’d love to make sure I see it when I find my way back to the city.
With its origins dating back to the 9th century, Budapest was officially formed in 1873 when the cities of Buda, Pest and Obuda were unified. Once hailed as the heart of Europe and the Pearl of the Danube, it can be easy to overlook Budapest’s rich and influential history.
I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that Budapest was a mecca for backpackers and that just about every person I’ve ever met who visited fell in love with the city. Many described it as similar, but uniquely different, from Prague in the Czech Republic, a city I visited in 2007 and found to be absolutely charming. On the other hand I had heard stories of Budapest as a somewhat run down city suffering from significant economic hardship and the post-Soviet woes that came with the USSR’s collapse.
The reality of the Budapest I found was a combination of both. As luck would have it, I was in Budapest during Hungary’s independence day which celebrates their attainment of independence from the Soviet Union in 1989. The city was decorated with special Hungarian flags. As you’ll notice in the photo above, taken in front of the Parliament Building, all of the Hungarian flags on display had a circle cut out of the middle to commemorate the removal of the Red Star when they gained independence.
While it is obvious that the city is suffering from significant economic woes, it is also nowhere near as dirty, poorly maintained, or shabby as I had been led to expect. In truth, I found the city’s beauty to stretch far beyond the usual tourist attractions bleeding over into the old historic districts. It has a number of picturesque tree-lined boulevards, wonderful old buildings, great parks, and an exciting mixture of architectural styles. It’s also a gorgeous city at night, with many of the buildings boasting well-lit facades that give it a charming, romantic feel.
Mixed in with newly renovated structures and modern buildings there are definite signs of economic woes, but these are being repaired or at the very least, casually maintained. One example I stumbled upon was a largely abandoned shopping mall dating back to the early 1900s – the Parisi Udvar or Parisian Aracade. Every inch of the interior was crafted for beauty with stained glass and marble decorating and lighting nearly every inch. While not something you’ll see in the tour books, a stroll through the building’s main hall is well worth a detour. It can be found at Petofi Sandor utca 2, Budapest 1052, Hungary just off the Ferenciek Tere station.
Budapest’s skyline was one of my favorite aspects of the city. It is often colorful, full of character, and has a vibrant flare to it that really differentiates it from many of the other European cities I’ve visited. It also reflects the feeling of the buildings and city itself – which left me feeling as though I’d partially stepped back in time to the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s hard to put into words but Budapest just has this wonderful romantic feel to it.
The city is also home to a number of fantastic hotels with rich histories and a captivating late 19th century ambiance and class. These include the Hotel Astoria (1914), and Boscolo Budapest (1894) which was formerly known as the New York Palace.
The nature of transportation in Budapest only serves to add to that historic feeling. It boasts the usual mixture of modern vehicles, mopeds and the rare bicycle. Where it really sets itself apart, however, is its public transportation. The metro lines are small, narrow, and have an aged feel to them which makes sense given that the oldest of the lines, Line 1, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and dates back to 1896. While a good bit newer, most of the cars – especially those on Line 1 – tend to have a very historical feel. They are small, cramped, extremely narrow, old, loud and completely charming. I would guess that many of the metro-cars date back to the 70s and 80s. The city also has a series of excellent surface trams which make for easy transport once you figure out the somewhat odd and out-dated paper ticket punch-card system. In short, to use it you buy a paper ticket with 6 boxes at the bottom. Then upon boarding there’s a hole-punch which you use to validate the ticket while trying to avoid tearing it.
I highly suggest a trip to the city’s Central Train Station located on the Pest side of the city. This old building is still in active use and has a lovely feeling to it. While due for restoration, it showcases a mixture of historical design elements and repairs which combine the modern, not-so modern, and old into a delightful mismatch. If you’re like me and love old train stations, I think you’ll get an absolute kick out of this one. Just don’t confuse it with the city’s other train stations which are more modern and far less charming.
The Danube plays a significant role in Budapest’s history, serving as the boundary between Buda and Pest.. The two sides are very similar in many ways, but each has its own unique flavor. As a major actor in the region’s history, the Danube also serves as home to a mixed assortment of great places to explore. A walk along the waterfront is an absolute must. What you’ll find is a number of barges and old riverboats which are semi-permanently moored along the river’s banks. Many have been converted into pubs, restaurants, night clubs and dance halls.
As you wander down along the riverfront, you’ll eventually come to the Chain Bridge. The bridge was the first permanent bridge across the Danube and was opened in 1849. Several changes have been made to it over the years, including massive repairs after the Siege of Budapest in World War II. It offers a wonderful view of both Buda and Pest as well as a chance to pose with its famous guardian lion statues.
Located just to the north of Chain Bridge is the Hungarian Jewish WWII monument. This monument was incredibly touching, especially given the day’s bleak, rainy weather when I stumbled upon it. A series of bronze shoes are left at the side of the river to commemorate the genocide of Budapest’s jews during WWII. As the story goes, the jews were escorted to the edge of the Danube where they were required to take off their shoes and then shot at the edge of the water so they fell backwards into the Danube which in turn washed the bodies away. The monument was simple, small and sent shivers down my spine.
CATHEDRALS AND MUSEUMS
What would a post on a great European city be without mention of the city’s grand cathedrals? While Budapest boasts a number of beautiful religious structures one of my favorites is Saint Stephen’s Basilica. Named in honor of Hungary’s first king (975-1038), the Cathedral is one of the tallest buildings in Budapest and was completed in 1905. Perhaps the most fascinating, and in my opinion disturbing, fact about the Cathedral is what it holds. The Hungarians have held onto St. Stephen’s right hand, the mummified remains of which, are housed within the Cathedral and available for viewing.
If you’re up for a few steps (364 to be precise), don’t miss the bell towers and dome. One of the interesting aspects of St. Stephens is its exposed double dome. Viewers interested in a spectacular view of the city should head up into the dome and make sure to opt for the stairs for the final leg. The metal staircase winds up through the infrastructure and allows you to look at a cavernous room which features the Cathedral’s inner dome on the bottom, and then it’s free standing upper dome several stories above. Of the many cathedrals I’ve seen, very few actually allow the opportunity to see the exact nature and structure of the building’s dome(s).
Once you’ve had a chance to view Budapest from above, head back down into the Basilica and enjoy the beautiful interior. I’ve always found that some cathedrals feel larger from the outside, and others from within. Saint Stephen’s Basilica falls into the second category and is bound to leave you feeling awed by it’s impressive size and scale.
Another must visit is the Hungarian Museum of Fine Arts. A palatial building with a beautiful interior it not only boasts a impressive collection of fine paintings, it also serves as home to the second largest Egyptian collection in Europe and a wonderful mixture of Roman and Greek pieces.
A beautiful sprawling building built with high ceilings, grand halls, and an abundance of open space, the walls of the Museum of Fine Art are filled with works from some of history’s greatest names including El Greco, Bellini, Velazquez, Goya, Raphael, da Vinci, and Rembrandt among many, many others.
Budapest is a fantastic city to wander. During my week there I sampled many of its delightful charms, but lacked the time or good weather to properly explore many others. I can tell you one thing for certain – I fell in love with Budapest and cannot wait to return. The food was good, the city beautiful, and its winding, historical streets an absolute delight. The people were friendly and helpful.
In the past I’ve talked about two primary types of hostels which I’ve classified as “Old Model” and “New Model” hostels. To re-hash these two types, Old Model hostels tend to only provide the bare basics. If you traveled 10+ years ago, they’re the type of hostel you are no doubt familiar with. They charge a premium for everything from sheets to wifi (when offered). They’re usually lacking key amenities like kitchens and break rooms, usually only offer same-sex dorm rooms, lack 24 hour receptions and perhaps most egregious in my book tend to still view lockouts as acceptable. For those of you familiar with my past posts, you’ll recall that I tend to avoid HI Europe and YHA Europe hostels like the plague because the majority of the European member hostels in these two chains (They’re great elsewhere), embody the Old Model hostel structure and are, for a lack of a better word, absolutely dreadful.
In stark contrast New Model hostels (like the photo from Generator Copenhagen above) typically offer better facilities, sheets are almost always included, outside sleeping bags/sheets are prohibited, they often have on-site kitchens/common rooms/bars, 24 hour receptions, no lockouts, free wifi, computers available for users and mixed dorm rooms among other key differences. While the sticker price may be a few dollars more for the room, they’re usually the same price/cheaper by the time you add in all of the nonsense fees the Old Model hostels tack on.
The Party Hostel
The concept of a party hostel is nothing new. Party hostels have been around for years. In truth, party-ing is also a common and (dare I say) almost essential part of a good hostel. That said, as with the evolution of any industry things change, especially as the need to differentiate oneself increases due to competition. As a result there are now groups of hostels which have begun to brand and tailor their offering specifically as “Party Hostels”. Perhaps some of the best examples of this are based in Budapest, Hungary. With more than 125 hostels in the city, competition for filling hostel beds is absolutely brutal. These new Party Hostels have embraced a spring break like mentality issuing guests tivek wristbands, offering nightly theme events and innovative versions of traditional hostel pub crawls, investing in costume boxes for guests, throwing theme party nights, and perhaps most importantly a no apologies approach to their party focused experience. They’re New Hostels, but supercharged by jagger, absinthe and a liters of beer.
While bonding over beers, late nights out, noise, adventure and a fairly active experience has been an integral part of the hostel experience for a long time, most hostels have always aspired to balance their varied customer’s experience. Partying within reason was tolerated, noise limits were enforced, and some communal events were typically organized to help solo (and social) backpackers and hostel goers bond. This is a similar, but fundamentally different approach than the new Party Hostel.
The Next Hostel You Book
While Party Hostels are still fairly rare, they are a growing presence in the hostel space and one which I expect to continue to become more and more common. So, when you go to book your next hostel consider what you’re in the mood for, what you hope to accomplish, what you’re comfortable with and which hostel is right for you. Old Model, New Model, or Party Hostel?
If any of you have stayed in a self declared Party Hostel I’d love to hear what your experience was, your take, what drew you to it, and of course if you sought it out or accidentally stumbled into it?
Claustrophobia is a scary thing. Well, it ought to be it ends in phobia, right? Luckily it hasn’t ever really been something I had to worry about. Granted, I come from Arizona where we’re famous for our wide open spaces. After all “Don’t Fence Me In” could just as easily be about Arizona as Montana. Perhaps it’s no great surprise that cramped into a a tiny hole, deep under ground, in a yellow jumpsuit with a hardhat on,in a foreign country,I finally met my match. But wait! Before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s start at the beginning.
I’d arrived in Budapest two days earlier, fresh off a flight from Copenhagen, Denmark. After years of near-misses, I’d finally managed a trip to Hungary’s famed capital. A city known for its beautiful architecture, the Danube, fantastic music, good food, decent beer, an unreal hostel and party scene (There are over 125 hostels in Buda and Pest).
My brother David who authors DavidBerger.net had suggested several ‘must-see’ stops during my stay. One of which was a cryptic suggestion to, “see the caves, they’re incredible!”.
Once settled I asked the hosts at Aboriginal Hostel what caves David might have been talking about. They immediately dug up a great flier for what looked like a fun caving expedition. It sounded great. They jokingly mentioned “I hope you’re not claustrophobic” before suggesting I wear closed-toed shoes and then booking me for the following day. The tour was cheap – less than $30 – and lasted several hours. It also had that authentic “backpacker” type of feel where you know you’re signing up for an adventure but have no clue just what it is you’ve actually signed up for. Not thinking much more about it we dove into several local spirits, some of which were marginally potable, and then headed out on the town for a fun night at a random bar’s theme party.
As you might imagine, the next morning was a bit rough. Not concerned I downed some water and struck off to meet the tour guide for our odd multi-leg public bus trip out to the caves (remember: only the most luxurious tours for me). It turned out the caves were located just outside of (and partially beneath) Budapest in the 20+ km long Pál-völgyi-Mátyás-hegyi cave system. For those interested the cave system is the longest in Hungary and located in the Duna-Ipoly National Park.
At the meeting point I connected with a fun mixture of other travelers. A number of Americans, a few Aussies, a person or two from elsewhere in Europe and no doubt at least one Kiwi. Here it’s worth noting that I was the tallest of the group by a decent margin. I’m 6’4″ (192 cm) and about 200 pounds (91 kilos). Normally not an important fact, right? Well, in retrospect it should have dawned on me that not all cavers are created equal.
Eventually our guide showed up, we caught the next local bus heading across to Buda, and the adventure began. It wasn’t until the hot bus started struggling up that hill that my hangover really set in. It wasn’t terrible, but let’s just say I turned a shade of green and was definitely keeping an eye on the absolute fastest way off the bus, just in case. Luckily, the ride was short and the fresh air left me feeling chipper and human again in short order.
Looking the Part
In quick order we were all given multi-colored full body jumpsuits and hardhats with mounted headlights. Then we were advised to leave valuables (including phones, large or expensive camera equipment) in the lockers. With heavy reservations I decided to only take my Canon G11 with me, figuring I could fit it safely inside my jumpsuit.
In these situations you never know if the nifty outfit is the tour company’s gimmick to make you feel more hardcore or if it’s genuine safety gear, necessary for what you’re about to dive into. I’ll admit, at this point I assumed it was a 50/50 split between the two. Getting into the darn thing was its own side adventure, but before long we all found ourselves suited up and ready to go.
In a last minute change of heart I decided to risk it and ran back in to grab my video camera. I’m a travel blogger after all, what kind of travel blogger would I be if I left my expensive camera equipment in a locker just because it “might” get hurt, right?
Then it was off to the cave’s mouth. A small metal door set into the side of the mountain. We paused for a brief safety brief, figured out how to turn on our headlamps, and then made our way inside. What was waiting for us was a decent sized tunnel about 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide that we were able to shuffle along before pausing in an open room for one last helmet and safety check.
Then it was time to truly start step over the threshold and get the tour kicked into full throttle. In no time we were descending a long stairwell which plunged into the darkness below us. The air was cool, but not unbearably so, and only slightly dusty.
The path from the bottom of the ladder opened up into a small room called the Chapel where German Soldiers had hidden during World War II. We paused briefly to collect ourselves and to take in the mud/sandstone cave walls before diving into what, at the time, seemed like a small tunnel into the next room.
As we slowly wound deeper into the cave system, and each narrow piece of the cave got tighter and tighter, I definitely caught myself smiling appreciatively. The heavy duty jumpsuits we were wearing were 100% utility and not just a gimmick. The same quickly became clear for the helmets, as you could regularly hear the sharp crack and corresponding “ooph” as members of the group misjudged ceiling height, or forgot to keep their head ducked.
Learning the Superman
Eventually we hit our first real challenge. One of the long, and tighter crawlspaces. The guides (both relatively small guys) pulled us into a group and explained that to get through the next space and those like it ahead we would need to go into superman position. Superman position? Yep – one arm forward to pull, one against the body to reduce space, and with our legs pushing, kicking and worming us forward through the tunnel.
Fair enough, right? We were here to do proper caving after all. So, eager to push on but feeling slight trepidation as I dripped sweat from the exertion of getting through the areas we had already covered, I could feel my hungover muscles cry out in protest. I shrugged it off and dove head first into the next hole. It was tight. Really tight. As in, I was temporarily stuck tight. Feet pumping, arm scrambling for hold on the slick clay and smooth sandstone, I inched and wriggled my way forward as the small hole slowly arced forward and then up into the new open space. Luckily the person behind me was able to brace my feet slightly allowing me the traction to push myself the rest of the way through and out. It was fantastic. It was difficult. I was starting to shake a bit.
As we paused on the other side recovering, I looked down to see the yellow of my sleeves along my arms had turned a darker color. The dust in the air quickly turned to a soft layer of mud as it met my face and I panted, recovering from the physical exertion of pulling myself through the hole. But, I wasn’t truly concerned. After all, my brother had done this already, right? He’s my height, has 40 pounds on me, and a more muscular build. If he hadn’t had issues, then it was time to double down and push forward. There’s nothing like a little sibling rivalry to get you to push on in a moment like that.
We continued on through wider chambers, other narrow rooms, and odd spaces that while fairly tight were more challenging because of the way you’d enter them. One required sliding down feet forward, standing up, then turning sideways, squeezing through a narrow area and then semi-falling/semi-lowering oneself into a face-forward push-up position before crawling forward, down and then back up through a hole.
We walked, we slid, we butt-scooted, we crawled and we squirmed our way along until we paused a second time before another tight space. The guides told us we’d have to superman through this one, as with the other ones, but that it was the tightest we’d be doing on the trip. They also mentioned that we’d have to turn our helmets sideways in one part to fit through properly. I could feel my heart beat surge. My muscles were throbbing in protest, threatening to cramp. I was drenched in sweat. David did it. I can do it. It was time to put my game face on.
A Lump in my Throat
We slowly crawled forward, waiting for the person in front of us to squirm forward. All the while being mindful to avoid their flailing feet and offering a head for them to push against as needed. Then it was my turn. The first part was tight, but manageable. I had to be extra careful as I had both my digital camera and video camera strapped to my chest inside my jumpsuit. They made me wider and also meant I couldn’t rest all my weight on my stomach. Just what the largest guy in the group needed, right? In surges of energy I slowly wriggled my way forward, kicking and pulling before resting briefly to catch my breath. Head turned sideways, lamp light offering only a partially illuminated view of the space I crawled forward, and upward. I felt stuck even while moving. The space was too tight. I was too tired. The muscles in my core screamed in protest. Was I stuck? What would I do if I was? Was I going to throw up? Then, finally, I was partially through and could bring my other arm to play. Slowly I dragged myself out of the 10 or so foot long tunnel and out into a larger crawlway.
I was shaking visibly. My mind raced running through how I might get out, my palms were sweaty and muddy as I wiped them on my yellow jumpsuit leaving long streaks. Adrenaline surged through my body. I wanted OUT. Slowly I collected myself, I slowed my breathing, relaxed my muscles, and took control of my thoughts. It had happened, I’d finally experienced and now truly understood claustrophobia.
As we paused and several of the guys tried squeezing through a tiny hole only our guide could manage I waged an internal war. My dignity, my pride, my mind fought the primal urge to get out, to quit and a deep fear that I would get stuck in the next tunnel. It’s that feeling you feel right before riding a massive roller-coaster the first time. It left me shaken. I wasn’t a quiter. People did this all the time. Some had to be bigger than I was and they must have made it without issue. I could do it. I had to do it. What was my other option? Going BACK the way I’d come? Not likely. All the while I tried to figure out just how my brother had made his way through it before me. He was my size after all and far more muscular. Tentatively, hands still shaking slightly I asked the guide if there were any more like the last tight hole ahead of us. “Only the Sandwich” he responded, but that’s optional. Relieved I made the decision to suck it up and to push ahead.
I’m not sure there was really an alternative option, but either way I’m glad I did. Instead of giving in to the fear I mastered and conquered it. I pushed through, fought through a few more tight spaces (though none were as tight as the last) and enjoyed the experience as we paused to look at deep-sea fossils, random rock formations that looked (and had been shaped into faces), and explored larger galleries that felt like lavatubes.
When the time came to split off and to do the “Sandwich” I did opt out. I figured I’d had my fun and there was no sense pushing my luck. As we sat waiting in a small space where the two routes re-connected I remember hearing one of the smallest girls on the trip call out from in the midst of the sandwich. “I’m stuck”. Luckily before long she’d squeezed through and rejoined the rest of us.
The trip was an amazing experience. Despite (or perhaps because of) the hangover, the brush with claustrophobia, and the bucket full of dust I inhaled it was a thrilling adventure. It teased us, challenged us, threatened us, and eventually applauded us for our effort. It was amazing and hands down one of the best adventure tours I’ve been on. It shared some commonalities with the amazing flooded ATM cave tour I had done in Belize, but had its own unique and very different feel.
A few weeks later I had the opportunity to chat with my brother. Apparently there are two caves in Budapest you can do as a tourist. He’d never heard of the cave tour I did. The one he had suggested was heavily stabilized, wide open and naturally beautiful. Oops. When I told him about the spaces I’d squeezed through he physically shivered, chuckled and muttered “I’ll pass, thanks!”.
On returning to the hostel and chatting about the cave, one of the hostel employees mentioned that on his trip a guy with shoulder issues had signed up and gotten stuck/thrown out his shoulder halfway in. They had to bring in a huge cave rescue team to get him out and the tour took several hours beyond the norm.
If you find yourself in Budapest, are in decent shape, think you can brave tight spaces and don’t have any shoulder or knee issues I strongly suggest taking the caving tour. It really was spectacular!
Like the photos and video in this post? The photos were taken on a Canon G11, see the newer Canon G12 on amazon. The video was shot on a Canon Vixia HF200, view the newer HF R200.