BUDAPEST — Most people go away either to relax, or as I did, hoping for an unforgettable, adrenaline-fueled experience. Yet, shortly after first contorting my body like a limbo dancer in order to squeeze through a little crack in the rocks, I started to wonder why I was here.
I was tens of meters underground in the semidarkness in Budapest’s remarkable Pálvölgyi-Mátyáshegyi cave system. It wasn’t my first encounter with such a grotto; I had been to England’s Wookey Hole. However, that was largely a passive affair: standing around and clicking off a few photos. Here, a 2½- to 3½-hour adventure tour navigating sections of an 18-mile system of caverns was more of a challenge.
Indeed, when my group linked up with Laszlo, our caving guide, in Kolosy Square, he said, “You will be crawling, climbing, and sliding about in temperatures that don’t get much above 11 degrees Celsius [51 degrees Fahrenheit]. But don’t worry; it’s going to be a lot of fun.” Later, after the first two or three geological obstacles, I’m not so sure I agreed with him.
Budapest is rightly revered for its quaint, pastel-shaded mansions, grand museums, and sumptuous spas. Less well known is that the thermal waters that gave rise to the latter also created a vast network of more than 200 limestone grottos below the metropolis.
The Pálvölgyi-Mátyáshegyi cave system is in Duna-Ipoly National Park, a 50-minute bus ride from where we assembled. Once there, Laszlo took us to a basic chalet in the craggy mountainside. Here, since safety is paramount, we changed into appropriate gear: a helmet with a tiny lamp and a red boiler suit. And sensible shoes.
Just a two-minute stroll away, a 4-foot-high iron door covered with graffiti was our portal to the netherworld. Right away there was a demanding 30-step metal staircase to deal with. It was quickly apparent that this outing would favor those who were physically fit. Barlangaszat, the organizers of this trip, use their discretion when deciding whether individuals are in good enough shape to take part. They have an age limit of 55; anyone older must have a doctor’s certificate (children must be at least 6). There’s an easier option for those not up to such exertion: a 45-minute walk along an artificial footway in the cave.
The first spot on the route Laszlo mapped out for us was the Chapel, a nondescript, smallish roomlike area. During World War II, part of Pálvölgyi-Mátyáshegyi was used as an air-raid shelter. One can imagine why the people who stayed there in such troubling times felt they needed somewhere to pray.
After a while in low light, in this uber-slender slew of tunnels, I sensed my mind was playing a trick on me, as all of the Lilliputian spaces seem to close in even more. One thing was for certain, this was no place for claustrophobics.
Despite our party of about 30 visitors — mainly from Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and the United States — we seemed to be moving at a reasonable pace. In all, we covered 1,100 yards reaching a depth of almost 150 feet.
The hair on my neck popped up when Laszlo suddenly exclaimed, “Now you’re all going to have to make out like Clark Kent’s alter ego.” To navigate the next section I had to extend my right arm like Superman flying and pull myself through with my left hand. It was thrilling. In one area we had to slide over a minute layer of water, then clamber atop enormous boulders.
Local lore suggests these caves were discovered in 1904 when the ground gave way underneath a sheep grazing above an area being mined. Laszlo countered, saying, “They were detected during a stone extraction.” What isn’t in doubt is that this stretch of the Pálvölgyi-Mátyáshegyi dates back half a million to a million years and contains fossils 40 times older than that. A few of them were so vivid, they seemed to leap out from the rocks.
As we advanced along the dank passageways my lungs felt heavy, but the moist atmosphere failed to prevent the only animals that live here — bats — from flourishing. They swooped around like dive bombers from cavern to cavern.
Many of the chambers in this complex have a moniker. The “big corridor” is so-called because it’s said that a huge giant could fit through it; the “birth canal” got its name because those ascending it are thought to make the same noise as a woman in labor; and the “theater” has acoustics that would benefit any stage play.
The unique geology (karst limestone) of this underground landscape means that nearly every acre contains something wonderful, whether it’s stalagmite and stalactite formations that in the dimness one could envisage as the skeletal defenses of a gargantuan alien, or a chamber with a weathered rock structure that looks like a human face.
Upon leaving what seemed like the bowels of the earth, I felt lucky. The impediments we confronted were difficult, but completing the trek to experience such a subterranean panorama was extraordinary.