After a week of vacation in Budapest, Hungary, my feet became itchy for some dirt trail and forest. What’s a hiker to do? Go hiking, of course! Here’s a great walk in hilly Buda, on the west side of the Danube opposite “flatter-than-a-pancake” Pest.
Begin at the Szell Kalman ter metro stop and stroll 10 minutes along Szilagyl Erzsebet to board the Cog-wheel Railway. Your metro pass is good on this venerable train, which whisks you 2.3 miles and 1,100 feet up into the hills.
Most tourists continue on the Children’s Railway, a narrow gauge staffed mostly by 10-14 year olds, but we’re going to walk the white sand trail alongside it. When the tracks bend left, continue straight to Namfala and its huge park called Anna Meadow. Enjoy fabulous views to the lowlands and city. Ahead in the distance is the round stone tower Erzsebet, crowning the first of our three hills.
Hill 1: Janos
Janos-hegy, (“John’s Hill”), at 1,732 feet, is the highest point in the Buda Hills. Its Neo-Romanesque limestone tower was built in 1911 and named after Empress Elisabeth, wife of Franz Joseph I. When she died in 1898 she was the longest-serving empress of Austria. A bit of an oddball, she loved Hungary for its relaxed environment. She visited this hill in 1882.
Take an early ice cream break in the café, or head straight up the 122 stairs. From the top you can gaze across the Carpathian Basin, scope out the next two hills, and view the nearby chairlift delivering people to and from this promontory. No chairlift for us! From the tower’s north edge, look for red-stripe trail markers and descend thick oak and fir forest to the township of Szepjuhaszne, in the pass between the hills.
Hill 2: Nagy-Hars
Cross the Children’s Railroad tracks and ascend the yellow-stripe trail to Nagy-Hars-hegy, or “Great Lime Hill.” At only 1,490 feet in elevation, it’s a bit shorter than Janos. Set in the trees at top is the rustic Kaan Karoly tower, named for a forest engineer who became Secretary of State for Agriculture. The circa-1989 wooden tower is in great shape, having been restored in 2016. A bit of an anti-Erzsebet (the tower now a dot on the hill to the south), it has 59 steps that groan and creak in the breeze. From the top you can see the final hill which will require some effort: farther away, with an intermediate rise to surmount.
Just below the tower, embedded in the northeast side of the hill, is an iron door. This is the entrance to the Bathory Cave, a limestone complex nearly 1,000 feet long and 200 feet deep. It was sealed in 1911 and today must be visited using escorts. According to tradition, this is where a monk spent 20 years in the mid-1400s translating the Bible into Hungarian.
Descend through forest on the yellow stripe trail, emerging in the pass and back into civilization at a place called Huvosvolgy. No doubt lunch is in order! Fortunately, couched in the pass is a shopping center with a SPAR supermarket, complete with bakery and deli. Here you can create a picnic and carry it into the forest as you prepare for the final climb.
Hill 3: Harmashatar
Go beneath railroad tracks, cross the road, and head up through deep woods on our friend the yellow stripe. Over a hump and in the next saddle, many trails branch off. Stay on the yellow stripe and look for a sign pointing to Harmashatar-hegy, 2.1 kilometers distant. And get ready to climb! This hillside puts the most seasoned mountain legs to test before mellowing in stubby trees on an intimate route where, even on Sunday, nary another soul may be found. It feels like the Hungarian backwoods. Just when you’ve forgotten about proximity to civilization, the path tops out with views north to telecommunication towers on the hilltop, and south down to the city center and its Danube bridges.
Harmashatar-hegy means “Three Border Hill.” Over centuries it was called many things, but this name was given in the 1800s when it marked a border between the three townships of Buda, Obuda, and Pesthidegkut. At 1,624 feet, it’s a scant 100 feet shorter than Janos. Here there are good updrafts, where enthusiasts launch hang gliders and paragliders. Nearby are several subterranean World War II anti-aircraft gun turrets. There’s also a new-age lookout tower built out of triangles that opened just last year.
Don’t go down the way the cars came up. Look for a blue stripe trail making a nose dive into the forest, which becomes a green stripe and then a green cross as it plummets through woods to meet neighborhood pavement. Stroll one block, turn right, and catch Bus 137. This is your chariot down to soda pop, gelato, beer, and rest at a sidewalk café.
It’s worth celebrating. Congrats! At 9 miles and 1,900 feet elevation gain, this was on par with what will be in the upcoming book, Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes Along Colorado’s Front Range, (Imbrifex Books, June, 2019).