Time Travel – Budapest’s Millennium Underground Railway

In 1873 the cities of Buda, Obuda and Pest were combined to create Budapest. At the time of unification the total population of these three cities was 296,000, by 1900 it had grown two and a half fold to 733,000. Budapest was the fastest growing city in Europe during the final third of the 19th century. The seeds of this explosive growth were laid in 1867 with the “Ausgleich” (Compromise) between the Austrian led Habsburg Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary. Together they united to form the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was also known as the Dual Monarchy because Franz Josef, the Habsburg Emperor of Austria, now would also be the King of Hungary.

Artwork showing Andrassy Avenue and the Millenium Underground Railway in 1896

Artwork showing Andrassy Avenue and the Millenium Underground Railway in 1896

Metro Line One – A Glorious Heritage
As part of the Ausgleich, Hungary was given virtual freedom in its domestic affairs. This led to an incredible blossoming of economic, cultural and intellectual life. Budapest attracted immigrants from all over the Hungarian ruled part of the empire in addition to investment from central and western Europe. The creation of wealth due to rapid industrialization, led to grandiose building and transport projects. One of these projects still thrives today. Unbeknownst to many, Budapest has the third oldest underground metro line in the world. Line One of the Budapest Metro (M1), also known as the Millennium Underground Railway, was constructed between the years 1894 and 1896, as part of public works projects built to celebrate the thousand year anniversary of the Magyars arrival in the Carpathian Basin in the year 896.

Line One was built by the German engineering firm Siemens (which is today the world’s largest engineering firm). It was constructed by excavating a tunnel in the shape of a box running beneath Andrassy Avenue, Budapest’s grandest boulevard and what many have termed the city’s Champs Elysees. Originally known as the Franz Josef Underground Line, it was dedicated by the Emperor/King of Austria-Hungary as part of the millennial celebration. This glorious dedication is matched only by its legacy. As an integral part of Hungarian and Budapest history it is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tourists as well as citizens of the city still flock to the line today. It is considered an experience that should not be missed.

One of the original cars from the Millenium Underground Railway can be seen at the Budapest Metro Museum at Deak ter (Credit: Petr Sporer)

One of the original cars from the Millenium Underground Railway can be seen at the Budapest Metro Museum at Deak ter (Credit: Petr Sporer)

An Elegant Past – Riding the Millennium
The small stations are only a flight of stairs away from the surface.  Entering one of the original ten stations on the line (an 11th station, Mexikoi was added as the M1’s terminus in 1973) transports the rider back in time to an elegant past. This was an age when mass transportation was just beginning to take shape. The city was bustling with an energy and vibrancy born of innovation. Though the city was exploding with growth and the M1 was part of that growth, the stations still have a style that recalls the turn of the 20th Century. There is a quaint, nostalgic feel to the line as well. The yellow metro cars that ply the tracks are compact and intimate, looking as though they could have been part of a carnival ride. Passengers might come under the impression that they are being transported backward in time. This would be the opposite effect of those who rode the line a hundred years prior. Citizens of that booming age must have felt as though the metro was carrying them into the future.

Each station is much like a museum unto itself. On the tiled walls station names are elegantly rendered. Many of these names are a clarion call of famous 19th century Hungarians including Deak, Vorosmarty and Szechenyi. Others evoke a sense of refined exoticism such as Oktogon and Opera, places that have become synonymous with the grandeur of Budapest.  Then there is Hosok tere, Hosok being the Hungarian word for hero. This station discharges passengers a short walk away from famed Hosok tere (Hero’s Square). The name truly matches its meaning.

Metro Line One - 118 years later still in service today (Credit: Sprok)

Metro Line One – 118 years later still in service today (Credit: Sprok)

Time Travel – The Re-Imagination of Reality
Up and out from the underground the traveler steps from the shadows into the bright, beaming light of day. Before them unfolds a grand expanse. Hosok tere, a spectacular urban space, with its massive open square, delimited on one side by a semicircle of statuary celebrating Hungary’s historic heroes. Those gazing up in awe at the magnificently sculptured figures towering above them will have already forgotten that beneath the surface, drowned out by the sounds of the city, the Millenium Underground Railway glides further onward. As it has done now for parts of three different centuries, it transports passengers, between the past and present, to a time of innovation, invention and the re-imagination of reality.

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