Budapest was never on my travel radar. Although I have come to love this gorgeous city, I had no idea what to expect when I travelled to Hungary's capital. After finishing a semester abroad in England, I had embarked on a whirlwind tour of Europe, trying to fit in as many countries as possible in a two-week time frame. I filled every moment, checking off a list of destinations. However, when it came to Budapest, I had nothing. My travelling companions wanted to go, so I went along with it, but I was anxious about not having a plan.
As I checked into our hostel, a flyer caught my eye. "Adventure Caving" it advertised. Intrigued, I pocketed it.
The next couple of days played out like they had in previous cities. I looked online for a list of must-sees, and my friends and I dutifully checked them off of our list. However, I noticed that I was becoming jaded. Museums no longer held my attention. Architectural wonders were pretty, but doing nothing for me. I felt like a compliant tourist who played things a little too safe. I craved conversations with locals, hidden gems, getting lost and stumbling upon something amazing. I wanted adventure, but was too afraid of missing out on what others thought I should do. I was, unfortunately, letting popular opinion control my agenda.
But that flyer was burning a hole in my pocket, and I kept coming back to it. After visiting the famous SzÃ©chenyi baths for the third time, I finally brought up the idea of caving to my friends, who were immediately onboard.
The next day, after a hearty meal of beef goulash and langos"” a Hungarian treat of fried dough topped with sweet or savory toppings"”I embarked on an hour-long bus ride. Watching the buildings give way to trees, I arrived in an area that even the locals referred to as "the boondocks of Budapest." Gone was the bustling city, and I felt the thrill that comes with straying from the beaten path. This was going to be an adventure.
Adventure Caving charged 7,000 Hungarian Florins (about $25), for a 2.5-hour tour of the cave of MÃ¡tyÃ¡shegy, one of Hungary's longest caves. (Be warned, they only take cash, a fact that left us scrambling at the last minute).
The guide handed everyone a helmet with an attached headlamp, and a red jumpsuit. It all seemed a little unnecessary. Who needs all this to walk through a cave?
Turns out, I did.
Our guide was a wacky, lovable prankster, who constantly popped out at us as the cave's resident monster. He boasted having ventured into this cave over 6,000 times, and referred to it as his second home. To get to it, he led us through a cluster of trees to a bunker that looked like something out of post-apocalyptic movie. The group climbed down an impossibly tall ladder, and gathered in a small, stone room. That's when the claustrophobia started to creep in.
"No one has ever died in this cave," our guide reassured me. "Just kidding," he added, before disappearing into the next room of the cave.
That did nothing to soothe my nerves. However, I had come that far already, so I took a deep breath and followed him deeper into the cave. I wasn't sure if the quickening of my heartbeat was from fear or excitement.
The cave was cramped and damp, and nothing at all like the spacious cavern I had been envisioning. Our guide pointed out various plant fossils in the cave walls, explaining that once upon a time the cave had been completely submerged underwater. When the group came to a large room dubbed the "Theatre Room," due to the flat rock in the corner that looked like a stage, our guide shared that there is a "Cave Band" that holds an annual performance down there. My friend tested the acoustics by singing out songs from the musical Floyd Collins "“ a story about a man who gets trapped in a cave and dies. I didn't care for him tempting fate like that.
Pausing in this room, our guide instructed us all to turn off our headlamps and enjoy a moment of silence. Extinguishing the lights and sealing my lips allowed me to experience the deep dark and deafening silence of an undisturbed cave. With no sound and no sight to distract me, I found myself in an unexpected moment of reflection.
This gave me a chance to let my reality sink in. I was in a cave. In Budapest.
To get to the next room, the path wormed its way down through "The Wedgie." This was the tightest squeeze of the tour, it was also the most memorable. I was instructed to lay on my right side and raise my right arm up by my ear to protect my face. Our guide called it the "The Superman" position. I then entered the hole, feet first, and slowly slithered my way down the long, skinny passageway. I was grateful for the helmet, as my head clanged against many rocks on my way down and giggled, watching the others try to fit ourselves down this incredibly small chute.
When I had reached the bottom, I looked down. Clay smeared my jumpsuit. The group all gathered in the small room that we had worked so hard to get to for only a minute before continuing on our hands and knees again, crawling to the next room. This is how most of the tour went. It was less about seeing things, and more about the journey.
What I Got from Caving
This expedition harkened back to the days when the first explorers of the cave wandered through its wonders. The few marvels of this cave weren't preserved behind glass. I wasn't an observer; I was a part of the cave. I remembered a trip I took to Carlsbad Caverns years ago. Fear of degradation of the caverns forced us to keep our hands to ourselves. The stalagmites and stalactites were incredible to view, but that was all we could do. We were confined to a very strict and set path, with no room for deviation. This time around however, we were encouraged "“ required even "“ to get down on our hands and knees, and to touch, and grab, and feel the rocks.
I felt like I was a part of a group of caving pioneers, armed with nothing but headlamps and our bravery. We weren't just visiting this cave, we were experiencing it.
When I finished the tour"” sore and covered in bruises"”I just grinned at the others.
This outing reminded me of what travel is all about: breaking out of your comfort zone, trying new things, and yes, even getting your hands a little dirty. It taught me that it's okay to not know what's going to happen next"”that's part of the fun. This unconventional escapade rekindled my sense of adventure. I am no longer afraid to walk into a situation without a plan"”I'll figure it out along the way.
When you go:
Written by: Julia Stier
Julia Stier is an LA-based actress, playwright, and songwriter. When she's not in rehearsal, she loves to travel and write about her experiences. You can learn more about Julia at juliastier.com
Header photo by: Szenti TamÃ¡s (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Other photos by: Julia Stier
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