Hungary, June 2008

There's something to Hungary that lures me below the surface.

When I was in Hungary the first time, I went to a long tour of the Aggtelek cave system and also visited the Rákóczi cave. So when I went back to Hungary in June 2008, it was time for some more cave visits.

While I went to the North of Hungary the first time, this time I was drawn more to the eastern part of the country. Specifically I was heading for the Csodabogyós and the Szentgáli-Kőlik caves, with the Lake Cave at Tapolca thrown in as a bonus.

Since I was staying in Tapolca, the first cave I visited was the cave there.

It's a bit of an oddity. On one hand, it's fun to be there, but on the other hand, it just feels fake (even though it isn't).

The basic setting is great. The cave has an underground lake with clear water and the passages form a round course, which take you back to the entrance. When you get into the cave, you get on a small boat and you can paddle through the cave until you get back to the entrance. The boats are small, carry only three people and if you get the front seat, you can do the paddling yourself (at least for some bits - most of the time it's easier to pull or push yourself along using the ceiling of the cave.

So what's there not to like?

Only that the cave has been a public attraction for about a hundred years now and it has been over-developed as a tourist attraction. You got lights on the walls, cracks in the rock have been cemented in, parts of the cave have been gated off - so the general feeling is that of artifice. It feels more like being on a Disneyland attraction than a real cave. You almost expect animatronic features and piped in music.

Lake cave, Tapolca, Hungary Lake cave, Tapolca, Hungary Lake cave, Tapolca, Hungary Lake cave, Tapolca, Hungary

It's a bit of a pity, since an underground lake/canal/river could provide some food for pseudo-mythical and -mystical associations, from Charon to Beowulf or Gollum, but the only things I could think of were Pirates of the Caribbean and, oddly, It's A Small World.

The cave also has a small side passage to walk in, which is less obviously lit and somewhat is more fun to walk around in (for about a minute, since it's a fairly short passage...)

Lake cave, Tapolca, Hungary Lake cave, Tapolca, Hungary Lake cave, Tapolca, Hungary Lake cave, Tapolca, Hungary

On the next day, I hadn't anything cave related planned, but just to keep with the theme of underground places, I visited the monks dwellings on the Tihany peninsula.

Tihany monk dwelling Tihany abbey

Almost a thousand years ago, monks have carved tiny small living places into the rock below the place that is now occupied by the Tihany Abbey. Some of them are 'pure' cells carved into the stone, but some are a mixture of carved out space and some wall built from rocks on the outside.

Not underground at all, but still hidden from view is Lake Kornyi. There are lots of reeds growing along the shore, so when you are standing at the shore of the lake, you can't see much of the water, it looks more like a meadow. (And, for no particular reason, there are a couple of sculptures nearby, watching over the lake.)

Lake Kornyi Lake Kornyi sculpture Lake Kornyi sculpture

Next day it was timw for some serious caving. There is a cave near Balatonederics called Csodabogyós where two kinds of tours are offered, the "basic" and the "extreme" tour. Driving all the way from Budapest with the main intention to visit this cave, it would have been a pity to just go for the basic tour. The "extreme" tour offers more than three hours in the cave and most of the time is actually spent moving around, climbing up and down rocks and ladders, crawling through small passages and being wedged in between rocks.

When I was on the 'extended' tour in Aggtelek, I was surprised that they let 'normal' tourists participate on such a tour, since it required a fair amount of climbing and crawling.

But, compared to the Csodabogyós tour, Aggtelek was a relaxed walk.

While the Csodabogyós tour is not really difficult to do (otherwise I wouldn't have been able to do it), it involves a lot of crawling in tight spaces, climbing on well maintained, but somewhat flexible ladders, pulling yourself forward on ropes and the capability to walk on large nails in the wall.

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The trickiest bit involved standing on a metal rod peeking out from the side of the cave, leaning forward, wedging your upper body between two cave walls with your arms and then swinging your feet forward, trying to reach a second metal rod about two meters further onwards.

Really not hard to do, but if you think about what happens if you slip and impale yourself on the metal rod or just slide down the cave walls and get trapped between the rocks below, it feels challenging.

Technically the hardest bit was probably at the top of one of the ladder, where the exit a small squeeze upwards to the side of the ladder, so you need to stop off the ladder and then pull yourself upwards towards the passage without much to step on and the big drop down the ladder right next to you, if you should slide off. The guides help, of course, so there's not that much risk, but the fact that there's a memorial sign for a dead caver right next to the ladder hints that the environment has some risks.

The cave itself is not as big or impressive as the Aggtelek cave system, but for "hands on" experience (more like "full body contact" caving), it is great. It's really a lot like the cave you dreamt about discovering when you were a kid. (But without the hidden pirate treasure...)

A great tour!

For the next day, I had another "extreme" tour booked, this time in the Szentgáli-Kőlik cave, close to Veszprém.

It turned out to be a bit tricky to get the tour started, but it was well worth it. I had an early tour on Sunday morning (8 am) and I was at the site given on the map (in the village of Szentgál) at 7:30 (as specified in the e-mail). But at that location was just an empty building.

Since the map on the web site also had a second marker at the cave, I wasn't quite sure whether the first marker was supposed to be the meeting point or whether that just says "park your car here and then follow the line on the map to the cave".

The map had some additional text in Hungarian, so I showed it to some people on the street and they pointed towards the cave, so I figured I should walk there. Unfortunately, the path was slightly misleading and a after three or four kilometers along a muddy path in the woods it was obvious that I was nowhere near a cave.

So I returned, rather frustrated (it was about 8:30 by then - so I was way past the starting time of the tour) and about a kilometer from Szentgál someone came up the path in the opposite direction. The guide had waited at the meeting point and then decided to look for me at the cave. Luckily for me, I was back on the 'correct' path by now - had I returned five minutes later, I would have missed the guide, since the path to the cave was over a field to the left of the path that I had taken.

So we went back to Szentgál to pick up the helmets and the lamp before the tour started properly. Turned out that they started doing these tours only in May that year. And the 'empty house' was indeed the meeting point for the tour, but they hadn't put up any signs yet (they were still leaning to a wall, somewhere indoors) and since they were just starting out, the people in the village didn't know much about the cave tours yet. (They knew however where the cave was located, which was probably why they pointed at that direction and not at the house.)

But in the end, I managed to meet the guide, so all went well.

Equipped with helmet and lamps, we set out to walk to the cave. (Unlike in Csodabogyós, there weren't any cave overalls for the visitors. Yet. They were ordered but hadn't yet arrived. But they had notified me of that by e-mail when I booked the trip, so I had some old jeans and a thick sweatshirt prepared.)

The tour of this cave was also great!

I had the luck that I was the only visitor for that early tour, so it was just me and the guide in the cave. So I got lots of information about the cave and I got to see some parts that are not usually part of the tour.

The reason for this is that the cave has many small passages, but few large rooms. So if you have four people on a tour, you can't get them all into the smaller places and if you take them one by one, the next place where you can 'park' the other people is quite a bit of a crawl away.

Oddly enough, the cave is a bit of a "dig your own cave" place for the guides. There was some water going through the rocks, which created the original cave, but that water later brought lots of loam into the cave and filled it up.

So a couple of years ago, the cave was just a small hole in the ground.

Then the cavers came and stared getting the loam out of the cave. They are having a tent camp every year at the foot of the hill (for a week or so) and then go into the cave and carry the loam out. Bucket by bucket.

So the cave that you can visit now wasn't there ten years ago.

(Well, that really depends on how you define a cave. The cave was there. Sort of. It just was not accessible. Whether a cave is still a cave if it is filled with earth is probably a linguistic debating point...)

The passages in the Szentgál cave were much smaller than the one on the preceding day and there were very few places that had standing room, so most of the tour was spend in lying, crouching and crawling positions.

It's also even less developed, so it was a bit harder to get through. If you are not into climbing, it is somewhat surprising to be told: "You have to do a traverse now. Just press your back against the wall, your knees against the opposite wall, keep the knees in 90° angle and then move sideward." and then just be expected to be able to do that.

Well, it is easier than it sounds (and mostly fun), but it's clearly not a 'showcave' kind of tour.

(The 'mostly' fun comes from the fact that I didn't have an overall, but just jeans and a sweatshirt. Mostly that was fine (and after a couple of minutes they had acquired a coat of earth, mud and loam that provided additional protection), but it was a bit tricky on those parts where you had to lie on your back and move in the direction of your feet, because than the shirt would slip out of the trousers and you would slide over the rock on your bare back. Not that bad, but somewhat uncomfortable - my back later looked a bit like it had been whipped... Though this will no longer be a problem, once they got the cave overalls.)

I didn't get around to take pictures within the cave (partly because I didn't have enough room to move to get at my camera, but partly because there were all fairly small places and there wasn't enough room the step back to get any picture that shows more than some bit of rock). But to give an impression on how loam filled the cave is, here's how I looked after exiting the cave:

After the cave - front After the cave - back

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