In Hungary, the word ‘Millennium’ has different associations than in most of the world. Instead of referring to the year 2000, when you hear it in Hungary it usually refers to 1896, the thousand year anniversary of the founding of the country. Hence rather than something being brand new (or 13 years old), in Budapest the Millennium Underground Railway is 117 years old.
Through the country’s history the borders have been changeable. The country has been much bigger but thanks to backing the losing side in two World Wars, it’s today a tiny part of its once great size. Back in 1896, the capital city Budapest was a place of great stylish architecture and considerable wealth so the country’s millennium was a fine excuse for a massive celebration and the creation of a significant civil engineering project – The Millennium Underground Railway. More than a century later, having survived wars and Russian rule, the Millennium Underground Railway was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. From the day it opened, this indomitable little underground had kept moving with no significant periods of shut down through its long history
Today it seems like underground railways are ten a penny. Most capital cities have them, many non-capitals too. It’s hard to imagine from a distance of 117 years, quite how innovative the building of this railway was. Only only one such underground railway existed and that was in London. No continental city had such a railway so Budapest really was breaking the mould.
It took 2000 men two years – 1894 to 1896 – to build. These days we’d spend 20 years just talking about such a project, but Budapest just got on with it. To add to the challenge, they didn’t start with a green field site – instead they built it directly under the city’s most beautiful street, Andrassy Utca, Budapest’s equivalent of the Champs Elysee or the Diagonal. In one guidebook I read that the railway was built to keep the street above free from so much traffic and to help it stay beautiful.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that it runs directly under Andrassy Utca as the line is literally about 12 feet directly below the street, following the same path. They didn’t make a tunnel – instead they dug up the road, made a long straight trench, laid the tracks and then put the road back on top like the ‘roof’ of the railway. This is the Metro for people the claustrophobia sufferers who hate deep lines and need to know that in an emergency they wouldn’t be far from rescue.
When it first opened, the line was 3.7 km long and ran from Vörösmarty Square, a short stroll from the Danube river bank and ended at the Zoo. Over the years it has been extended and now measures 4.4 km, a rather walkable distance but why would you walk when there’s such a cute and cost effective alternative? Whilst most of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites are an invitation for the attraction to cash in and make lots of extra money, the Millennium Underground Railway is just part of the cheap public transport system and you can travel on it with the same tickets that work on the buses, trams and other Metro lines.
Our local stop was ‘Opera’ and we used it every day. Luckily I had been reading about the line in my guidebook so I knew to look out for the small yellow sign above the station marked with the word Foldalatti (I think there’s an umlaut on the o) and the name of the end station which identified which way the train line is running. In case you get confused, the trains go in the same direction as the cars.
We arrived at Opera station on a quiet Sunday morning and found nobody selling tickets. With a fine of 16000 HUF if you get caught travelling without a ticket, we weren’t ready to take the risk but we could see through the station to the opposite platform where there was a man in the ticket booth. We headed back up, crossed the road and passed back down into the station and bought a book of ten tickets. The book of 10 tickets costs 3000 HUF (about £8) which is a significant saving against 450 HUF per journey. We often found when we went to the stations that there were men in jackets loitering by the ticket stamping machines. Eventually we realised that if you didn’t have a ticket, they would reach into their slightly battered leather jackets and sell you a ticket.
The stations are beautiful and maintained in pristine condition. The walls are tiled with white and brown tiles and each has a panel with the name of the station on the wall. The ticket booths and parts of the walls are wood-panelled and even the metal pillars are painted and cast with decorative designs.
The trains are short which is not surprising because the stations are small. I was reminded of an over-grown model railway. Each carriage has 14 seats and strap hanging for twice that number. Stops are close together and when the train stops, recorded music plays as the doors open and then a raspberry-like horn noise blares out to tell you the doors are closing. The doors are open for only a short time so don’t hang about. The frequency of the trains is high so if you miss one, the next will arrive in about 2 minutes.
If you love vintage transport, then the Millennium Underground is almost worth a visit to Budapest in its own right. For less obsessed people who enjoy using beautiful things, it’s also a big attraction. It's cheap, frequent, safe and great fun.