The entrance of the Pálvölgy Cave is found in the north-western part of Budapest's District II on Szépvölgyi Road. This is where Éva, our tour guide, is preparing 10 visitors who are full of expectations – almost all of them are sport-enthusiastic Asian tourists – for the descent into the world below. She shuts one iron door after the other and the small group, each member wearing the same coloured jumper and a helm, climbs down the iron ladder, which ends several metres deeper on a dark rocky surface.


Underground excursions

The air gets noticeably cooler, as there is a constant temperature of 11 degrees in the cave. It's humid and smells like clay. The tour participants turn on their headlights, illuminating at least a small part of the stone room. Beyond these walls the Pálvölgy Cave stretches out for more than 30 kilometres with its many tunnels and cavities. Many parts can be discovered via different routes by the visitors, who have no previous climbing experience – but only with a guide.

The Caving under Budapest company offers such guided caving excursions. Besides walking the caves on developed pathways, the company offers challenging adventure climbing tours. You get to explore about one kilometre of the branched cave system in two and a half to three hours.

During these underground excursions you don't only need to climb but also slide and crawl through narrow tunnels. This is an activity that although it suits beginners, still requires a certain level of physical fitness.

For nature fans they also offer a geology tour that presents crystals and underground water sources, which are also quite frequent in the caves. The Caving under Budapest company also organises birthday parties for children in the passageways under the earth.


Back to the past

"There is a quite narrow passage ahead," Éva tells us. "If you duck, you can pass to the next area. We call it the bar, since the rocks there look like a counter. Unfortunately, the bar is closed today." The visitors follow her in a row to the "bar". The ceiling is very low. The rock formation resembles a high bed and divides the space into two levels.

"Normally hundreds of bats live here," Éva says. "You can see their traces on the walls. However, when we make noise here, they disappear into the deeper caves."

She points out the groups of fossils on the ceiling and the walls. They are the remains of mussels, corals and sea urchins. "This stone here is 40 million years old," she explains. It's limestone, which was formed by sediment deposits of a tropical sea that stretched over the Carpathian Basin about 40 million years ago.

The Pálvölgy Cave itself originated some two million years ago through both a landslide and erosion. Researchers are still very interested in this cave, examining not only its story of origin but also the animals and plants living in here.


Underground acoustics

"The next section will be a bit more difficult. You need to lie down on your belly with your head upfront and crawl through this tunnel," Éva instructs the group. Feeling a bit oppressed, the participants climb through the extremely narrow tunnel. It's not possible to stand up, you can only move ahead. Your knees and your elbows rub against the hard rocks – this is not for the faint at heart. After a few metres the tunnel widens again, uncovering a hall-like area in front of the adventurers.

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"We call this the theatre room," Éva comments. The ceiling is high, the sound of the tourists echoes through the hall, slowly fading away in the distance. "The acoustic is so good that we even organise concerts for the cave climbers here at Christmas-time and New Year's Eve. Without a piano, of course," Éva jokes.

She turns off her headlight and asks us to follow her example. "Let's make an experiment." All the lights go out around the group. There is absolute darkness and silence. All the noises of the environment are shut off by the thick rock layers. It's so quiet that our own blinking – although it can hardly be heard – is the loudest noise. It's a very strange experience.

After some time all the lights are turned back on and the tour continues. "In the next section we are going to slide. You need to lie down, put your legs on the left and your arms over your head." Éva points out a hole that nobody noticed before. Some of the participants have to find the right angle to fit into this naturally created slide. The heads disappear between the rocks but the feet come out again even deeper down.


Discovery and survey at the Pálvölgy Cave

Since it's easy to get lost in the widely branched pathways, the route within the cave is marked by iron rings. If you were here alone for the first time, you could bring a rope with you and fix it to the rings in order to be able to find the way back.

The Pálvölgy Cave was discovered in 1904 during quarrying. Later it was partially lit and thanks to its stability used as an air-raid shelter during both world wars. However, only a very small part of the underground cave system was known until the 1940s. Some heavier boulders were then removed, opening up the path to the major part of the cave. Using laser rangefinders it was finally possible to estimate the size of the cave and draw a rough plan of its corridors and halls.

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Prepared for everything

However, the age of discovery may not be over yet. The last occasion when they discovered a link to another neighbouring cave was in 2011. Éva is enthusiastic about discovering cave systems and finding new pathways that nobody has entered before. She has been guiding the cave tours for ten years and for the last one and a half years has been working for the Caving under Budapest company.

As with other extreme sports, she had to complete a course in cave climbing before becoming a certified tour guide. When she enters the cave with visitors, she always carries a map and rope, carabiner hooks and flashlights. Should a visitor have any difficulties, Éva could climb up or down the rocks within seconds to help. Luckily nothing serious has happened so far.

After spending several hours in the cave Éva and her group climb the stairs to return to the outer world. It's already dark outside. Everyone is smeared with clay and completely sweaty despite the cool air below. "You have survived," Éva dismisses the recreational adventurers with a last joke.


Caving under Budapest
Budapest, District II, 162 Szépvölgyi Road
Tour prices: HUF 4900-10,000
See www.caving.hu


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