The Children's Railway, Budapest
Without a doubt the best panoramic views of Budapest are available from the wooded slopes and summits of the Buda Hills (Budai-hegyseg) on the west bank of the Danube. A unique way of traversing these hills is on the Children’s Railway (Gyermekvasut), a colourful hangover from the country’s Communist era.
By Duncan J. D. Smith
To reach the Children’s railway, one must first ride a separate rail system. Budapest’s Cogwheel Railway (Fogaskerekű vasút), which opened in 1874, is the third oldest of its type in Europe. Its lower station is at Szilágyi Erzsébet fasor 47 in the Városmajor area. From here it makes the 25-minute ascent of Széchenyi-hegy (1400 feet above sea level), one of the hills that makes up the Svábhegy range.
At the top station the Children’s Railway can be found. This 7.5-mile long narrow-gauge line, which winds its way to Hűvösvölgy, was the brainchild of Hungary’s Communist Minister for Transport, Ernő Gerő (1898–1980), and was declared a gift from the Soviet people. In order to help prepare children for adult life he planned a railway that would be staffed entirely (except for the driver) by members of a Communist youth organisation called the Pioneers.
Originally called the Pioneer Railway, the first section of track was laid in 1948, with the rest constructed as part of Hungary’s first 5-Year Plan. Children aged 10–14 years, who produced good academic results (as well as a letter of approval from their parents), were selected to staff the stations and the cheery red rolling stock. Although today renamed the Children’s Railway, and hauled by diesel rather than steam engines (although a vintage 1950 steam engine is sometimes pressed into service), the line is still supervised by youngsters, whose predecessors are depicted in a 1950s-era mosaic above the ticket office.
The railway has eight stations in total offering passengers the opportunity to alight and explore the hills at their leisure. The second station at Normafa, where the forest proper begins, has a popular café serving beer in summer and mulled wine in winter; it was named after a visit by soprano Rozália Klein (1811–1854) in the mid-19th century, who was so moved by the vista that she sang the grand aria from Bellini’s Norma under a nearby beech tree (subsequently felled during a gale in 1927). The Budakeszi-erdő Park Trail also begins hereabouts, with trails leading back down into Buda, as well as north-westwards towards the Budakeszi game reserve (Budakeszi Vadaspark), where wild boar roam free.
From the fourth startion, Virágvölgy, the charming Zugliget hills can be reached, as well as the Disznófő Forrás (Pig’s Head Spring) that flows through the former hunting grounds of King Matthias (Mátyás) ‘Corvinus’ Hunyadi (1458–90). From the fifth station, János-hegy, a path leads to the city’s highest point (1730 feet), where there is an impressive lookout tower. On a clear day, the Elisabeth Tower (Erzsebet-kilato) affords views extending some 50 miles taking in the Mátra Hills to the north-east, the Bakony range to the south-west and the start of the Great Hungarian Plain (Nagyalföld) to the east. Erected in 1911, the tower is named for the ill-starred wife of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I (1848-1916).
At the sixth station, Szépjuhászné there is a restaurant and the scant remains of a once-renowned medieval monastery. The Budaszentlőrinc Monastery was built c.1300 by the Paulites, the only monastic order of pure Hungarian origin. Largely destroyed by the Ottomans in 1541, its ruins lay abandoned until their excavation in the 19th century. A further two lookout towers can be reached by alighting the train at the seventh station, Hárs-hegy.
Finally, at the end station of Hűvösvölgy (meaning ‘refreshing valley’), there is the Nagy-rét picnic area and the justifiably popular Náncsi Néni restaurant, a veritable oasis of traditional Hungarian cooking. The valley itself lies at the southern end of a series of hills called Hármashatár-hegy (‘Three Frontiers Hill’), popular with walkers for the last two centuries and across which well-to-do Budapesters built villas during the mid-19th century.
Also in this series by Duncan J.D. Smith:
Berlin's Bridge of Spies from Only in Berlin
About the Author
Explorer and travel writer Duncan JD Smith first got the history bug when his grandfather unearthed the grave of a Roman soldier. He opened his own museum aged eleven and went on to study archaeology at Birmingham. After many years in travel publishing, in 2003 he relocated to Vienna, where he writes and publishes his Only In Guides, a series of city guides for independent cultural travellers. Duncan is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. www.duncanjdsmith.com and www.onlyinguides.com. Find out more about the Budapest guide or purchase online.
Budapest is featured in the Autumn 2019 issue of Timeless Travels magazine, as its Curious City (also by Duncan J.D. Smith). Find out more about the content of the issue, or purchase a digital copy for just £3.95. Don't forget the whole Timeless Travels Collection (24 magazines) is available for just £49.99 - that's just £2.08 each!