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Millenium Underground Railway (Budapest, Hungary)

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Address: Budapest / Hungary

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      30.10.2013 13:28
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      A tourist highlight that's also a practical way to get around.

      ~Big Dates~

      Anywhere else in the world something called 'the Millennium something or other' will almost certainly be about 13 or 14 years old and have been built for the year 2000 celebrations but Hungary is a bit different. When I heard that Metro Line 1 was known as 'the Millennium Line' my first instinct was that it must be the newest - but I was totally wrong. In Hungary when they say Millennium they mean Hungary's thousandth year as a country which was 1896.

      Hungary became Hungary (or rather Magyar) in 896 and since then it's got bigger, smaller, bigger and smaller again. It's one of those places that has rather too many neighbours for comfort. It made some bad decisions about who to back in some major wars and got sliced and diced into what's now quite a small land, but it's undeniably a very proud nation. In 1896 Budapest was a great city of fabulous architecture and considerable influence so the Hungarians really threw a big party to celebrate one thousand years of nationhood and one of the ways they celebrated was by building an underground train network. 106 years later - with two World Wars, and 51 years of Russian 'rule' behind it - the Millennium Underground Railway was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the line is that from the day it opened, nothing stopped the railway and it was in constant usage despite the turmoil seen by the city.

      ~Not the first - but nearly~

      In these days when all sorts of places have subway systems it's hard to realise quite how radical a project this was. At that time there was only one such underground railway in the world - and that was in London. No city on the Continent had such a thing and it was a matter of considerable pride for Budapest to build something so new and advanced. It became clear during our stay in the city that Budapest had a tendency in those days to look to London for inspiration as one after another things were described to us as 'the second oldest xxxxx after London'. This included the Museum of Applied Arts and quite a few of the claims to fame of their Parliament building which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Palace of Westminster.

      Building the line took 2000 men just two years - 1894 to 1896 - which is impressive when you consider how long it takes to build anything these days. Even more remarkable is that they built it directly under the city's most beautiful street, Andrassy Utca. Can you imagine the outcry today if we had to tell the public that any major street would be dug up for two years?

      When I say that it runs directly under Andrassy Utca, I'm not exaggerating. It really is a train line about 12 feet directly below the street and following the same path. No tunnelling was needed - they simply (I say simply, I'm sure it was far from simple) dug up the road, made a long straight trench, stuck in the lines and then built the road back on again as the 'roof' of the railway. I have a good friend who is terrified of the London Underground and suffers horribly with claustrophobia. This is the Metro for people who don't like to go too deep and who need to feel that if the roof collapsed they could dig their way back to the surface.

      The original length of the line was a mere 3.7 km and ran from Vörösmarty Square close to the Danube river bank along to the Zoo in the north easterly direction. It's a little longer now at 4.4 km but is still a distance that you can comfortably walk if you have to. But why would you walk when there's such a cute and cost effective alternative? Unlike the vast majority of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, nobody is cashing in on the status to generate extra money. The Millennium Underground Railway is covered by the same cheap public transport tickets that work on the buses, trams and other Metro lines.

      ~In Use~

      We loved the Millennium Underground line so much that we used it every day of our stay except the day we arrived and - and then only because we'd not realised it was just around the corner from the hotel. On the next four days we used it at least twice every day. Our local stop was 'Opera' and we went looking for the station without knowing quite what to expect. On the Millennium line you won't see the large, bold 'M' logos that are present above the stations on the Metro Lines two and three. Instead you need to look out for sets of steps with a yellow sign above saying (the unpronounceable and instantly forgettable words) Foldalatti and underneath 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 popped downstairs and into Opera station on a quiet Sunday morning and discovered that there wasn't anyone there selling tickets. Never mind, we could see through the station to the opposite platform where there was a man in the wooden booth. We just walked back up to the street level, crossed the road, popped back down again and bought a book of ten tickets. I highly recommend doing this as it's a lot cheaper and it means you won't have to hunt down a ticket seller each time you travel. The book of 10 tickets costs 3000 HUF (about £8) whereas a single journey is 450 HUF or 300 if it's three stops or less.

      On the other days, we often found that we entered the station to find a pair of men hanging around by the ticket stamping machines. We thought they were part of a job creation scheme to make sure people didn't cheat the system, but we eventually realised that if you didn't have a ticket, they would reach into their slightly battered leather jackets and sell you one. For trams and buses it's more difficult to find ticket sellers so that's the main reason I recommend bulk buying.

      So what will you find when you head down the stone steps and into the underground stations? My first impression was that they looked a bit like the old Victorian underground toilets that used to be in many cities (before the councils got wise to what went on in them). The walls are tiled with white and brown tiles, with a panel of tiles picking out the name of each station on the wall. The ticket booths and the end walls of the stations are wood-panelled like an old library or a gentleman's club. The metal supports that hold up the road above are painted in a deep bronze and were cast with decorative designs. You can see straight across the two lines and into the station on the other side of the road.

      When the trains arrive the carriages are small and cute like an over-grown model railway. Each carriage has something like 14 seats and strap hanging for another 30 or so people. The stops are not very far apart - they squeeze 11 into just 4.4 km - and when the train stops, a recording blares out music to tell you the doors are opening. Then a few seconds later, there's a raspberry-like horn noise to tell you the doors are closing. The trains rattle down the line at intervals of just a couple of minutes so if you miss one, there's no need to stress because another will be quickly on its tail.

      ~Tourist attractions along the line~

      The stations along the line are convenient for many of the city's big attractions. Whilst Vörösmarty Square at the south easterly end of the line isn't anything spectacular, it's handy for the waterfront and the chic boutiques of Vaci Utca. The next stop Deak Ferenc tér is the hub where all three Metro lines intersect and also home to the city's 'big wheel', the Town Hall and a Metro Museum. St Stephen's Basilica is close to Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út station (try saying it without sounding like you've got hay fever) and then the state opera is, not surprisingly at Opera Station.

      Next stop is Oktogon, a big junction on Andrassy and the nearest stop for a bunch of theatres, whilst the most convenient stop for the Terror House is Vörösmarty utca. The next two stops have nothing particularly to attract the tourist but HÅ'sök tere is the stop for two massive museums and the Heroes Square. The penultimate stop is Széchenyi fürdÅ' which is handy for one of the city's most popular spa baths and for the spectacular city zoo as well as a large park. Mexikói út is the end of the line and is one of the newer stations but few people will probably make it all the way to the end.

      ~Recommended? Absolutely~

      For fans of vintage transport, the Millennium Underground is an absolute must - but that's also true for 'normal' people who just enjoy using beautiful things. It's cheap, frequent, safe (especially for those who fear deep underground systems) and it's really rather fun. We loved having this on our doorstep and never got on the trains without a sense of joy at being able to use something so old and quirky.

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