Tripping Through The Golden Age – Budapest’s Millennium Underground Railway (Part Two)

The Millennium Underground Railway was an outstanding success, as 2.3 million passengers traveled along the M1 during the 1896 Millennium of Hungary celebration. And this was just the start. The M1 has now served Budapest’s citizens and visitors for one hundred and nineteen years. As an integral part of both Hungarian and European heritage the line was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2002. Best of all, the M1 is living history as it still carries over 100,000 passengers a day with trains running every few minutes. A trip on the M1 today can seem like a genteel form of time travel.

Opera Station on the Millennium Underground Railway

Opera Station on the Millennium Underground Railway (Credit: Ymblanter)

Where Past Meets Present
Passengers on the M1 today often get the impression that they are being transported backward in time. This would be the opposite effect of that felt by Budapestians who traveled the line a century before. The latter must have felt that the metro was propelling them forward into an age of transformative industrial and technological change. In the first two decades of the M1, Budapest was bustling with an energy and vibrancy born of innovation. The city was exploding with growth and Line One helped further along this economic boom. World War One put an end to this era, but the M1 kept on going, bringing part of the past into the present. This past is on display most prominently at the M1’s small, quaint stations, only one flight of stairs away from the city’s surface.

Entering these stations the visitor will suddenly be surrounded by an elegance and refinement scarcely found in mass transit. Colored tiles and historical photos cover the walls. The aesthetics and style of the city’s golden age are all around. The stations still have the look and feel of the turn of the 20th century.  There is a nostalgic air about the line. The yellow metro cars that ply the tracks are compact and intimate, looking as though they have been here all along. Each station is much like a museum unto itself. On the tiled walls, station names are elegantly rendered. Many of these recall famous 19th century Hungarians whose political, economic and literary visions created modern Hungary. Prominent among these names are Deak, Vorosmarty, Szechenyi, and Aranyi. Others name evoke a sense of refined exoticism such as Oktogon (an oxymoron of urban design with its eight sided square) and Opera, places that have become synonymous with the grandeur of Budapest.

Train coming out at Állatkert (Zoo Station)

Train coming out at Állatkert (Zoo Station) station – the only surface station that ever existed on the Millennium Underground Railway

Discovering Heroes & A Missing Station
Then there is Hősök tere, Hősök being the Hungarian word for hero. This station discharges passengers a short walk from Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square). The name truly matches its meaning as this is where a grand pantheon of Hungarian heroes sculpted in heroic poses tower above visitors in two imposing colonnades. Between these colonnades are statues of the seven chieftains said to have led the Magyar people into the Carpathian basin. Rising behind the chieftains are a column topped by the Archangel Gabriel. Hősök tere’s grandeur and symbolism have few equals.

The M1 as it exists today is different in one respect from its first rendering.  From 1896 through 1973 there one station acted as an outlier.  Állatkert (Zoo Station), just behind one of Hősök tere’s colonnades, stood aboveground. As the name implied, it was located opposite the Budapest Zoo’s main entrance. It was not until 1973 that the station was taken out, but the M1 still ended up with ten stations. That is because in that same year the line was extended between Széchenyi fürdő to a new station, Mexikói út (Mexican street).  In 1995, the entire line was renovated in anticipation of the Millennium Celebration’s 100th anniversary. The restoration brought the stations back to their original look and feel.

Hősök tere (Heroes Square) at dusk

Hősök tere (Heroes Square) at dusk

The Journey & The Destination
“It’s about the journey, not the destination” is an oft quoted phrase used by many modern travelers to define their trip experiences. When it comes to the M1 it is about both the journey and the destination. Today travelers zip from station to station along the M1. Though they have chosen the subsurface route, their ultimate destinations are above ground, all along Andrassy Boulevard. Yet the M1 has contributed just as much to the aesthetics of the city’s greatest urban space. There is an excitement that permeates the line as the metro comes to a halt. A soothing female voice suddenly comes over the speaker system, elegantly intoning Opera or Oktagon, Hősök tere and Széchenyi fürdő. The doors open, passengers alight at a shiny and smart looking platform. This is followed by a short ascent to the surface. Then into the sunlight, gazing up in wonder at the magnificent boulevard’s many inviting attractions. In a moment the M1 is forgotten, drowned out by the sights and sounds of the most spectacular part of the city. Meanwhile the Millennium Underground Railway continues as it has done for over a century, transporting passengers, between past and present.

Click here to read: Time Travel – Budapest’s Millennium Underground Railway (Part One)



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