February twenty-sixth, 1993 is a cold day in Budapest, Hungary, but the sun shining brightly in a clear sky of cobalt-blue offers the promise of spring, as I jump off the bus with my mission companion, Matt. As young, nineteen-year-old missionaries for the Mormon church, it's our free day, the one day a week when we aren't expected to be out knocking on people's doors, or teaching gospel lessons to people who are investigating our church. We've just crossed over the Danube River to the Buda side of the magnificent city, in order to visit the old royal palace and the medieval fortress walls that once protected it. We've been here before, but having a fascination for castles and old structures, I make every excuse to come here. Fortunately, Matt is an easy going guy that doesn't seem to mind my little forays into what is known as the Castle District.
Budapest, known as the gateway to the east, just might be the most beautiful city in the world. Before being connected by a bridge, Budapest was actually two cities separated by the Danube River: Buda on the hilly north bank, and Pest on the flatter south. Even though Budapest is officially now considered one city, the Hungarian people refer to the two sides as if they were still separated.
On foot, we head past the famous Mathias Church toward the palace, which at the moment is a museum. This is a touristy part of the city and the cobble-stoned streets that lead to the palace are lined with quaint souvenir and pastry shops, little cafes, and bookstores, along with other similar shops and stores meant to attract foreigners. But, having lived in Hungary for almost a year now, and having learned to speak the language, Matt and I have no interest in such places, and we walk right on by.
It's not a long walk and pretty soon we arrive at the huge gate cut into the massive, thick outer wall of the palace grounds. The Hungarian coat of arms, emblazoned on the side of the wall, stands out as a reminder of the nationalistic pride of the Hungarian people, and I can't help but feel a small sense of reverence as we enter the grounds. One of the first things we see is a statue of an eagle high up on a pedestal, its wings outstretched, a sword clutched in his talons, his beak open as he screeches in silent rebellion against those who would attack. This particular statue bespeaks of Hungary's more ancient roots. To the time when the pagan, Magyar tribes arrived in the Carpathian Basin over a thousand years ago and conquered it for themselves.
I haven't come for any particular reason except to walk the battlements and take in the unbelievable view that is to be had from this vantage point. The entire city sprawls away to the south, the enormous dome of St. Stephen's Basilica rising up from the clusters of buildings on the flat Pest side, floating on the horizon like a black moon. The unmatched Hungarian Parliament building stares out at its own reflection in the Danube River as the water snakes by the opulent, Victorian structure.
As we walk along the top of the fortress wall, we pass beneath thick arches that once might have served as gatehouses that could be closed as a means of defense. We pass crenelations that line the top of the wall like a row of giant, stone teeth. In my mind's eye, I can envision the top of the wall lined with determined warriors, courageously defending the walls against a besieging army in some forgotten struggle of an age that has long past.
It's as we are passing through one of these arches, a door made of iron bars, coated with faded, red, and chipping paint, grabs my attention. The door is set into the side of the castle wall to our right. We've definitely walked by this inconspicuous door of iron bars before, but on this occasion I stop and take extra notice of it. Walking up to it I can see that beyond the door, is a narrow tunnel with a low, arched ceiling burrowing its way straight back into the wall. I can only see a few feet of the tunnel before it's swallowed up by darkness. "Wow," I say, my imagination beginning to spin up, "I wonder where that goes."
For some reason, I grab onto one of the bars and give the door a small tug. The door swings open as the old, rusted bolt that holds it shut breaks loose!
In disbelief, I look back at Matt, the silent question hanging between us: are we going in there? I note the look of resignation on Matt's face. This isn't the first time we have worked together as missionaries and he probably knows me well enough by now to realize the answer to that question is, a big YES.
One advantage to sightseeing in Budapest on a cold February day, is we mostly have the area to ourselves. So, nobody is around as we both slip into the tunnel and quietly close the little door behind us. The tunnel is only wide enough that we can go single file. I feel like I'm at the start of one of my childhood Dungeons and Dragons adventures as I lead the way, the darkness quickly enveloping us. The only thing missing is a guttering torch in one hand and a gleaming sword in the other.
Only after about ten or fifteen yards, it has grown so dark, that I'm just about ready to turn back, when the tunnel comes to an abrupt end. We are now standing in front of a spiral staircase made of stone that winds its way upward. Another staircase next to it vanishes downward into pitch-black darkness. We choose to go up--at least there seems to be more light coming from up there.
The stairs are just as narrow as the tunnel that brought us to them, and we are forced to stay in single file. Still in front, I lead the way up the sharply-twisting stone steps. The staircase doesn't climb far before we find ourselves on a small landing, any more forward progress blocked by another door of iron bars, just like the one at the front of the tunnel below. Except the locked bolt isn't rusted and broken on this door and we are forced to retreat back down the way we came.
Undeterred and thirsting for adventure now, we make an attempt at taking the downward staircase, but only make it a few steps before the absolute darkness forces us to retreat back up and into the tunnel. There is just no way to continue without some sort of light source to illuminate our way. I quickly make the determination that the only worthy way to continue this adventure is by candlelight. Torches would be better, but don't seem like a viable option at this time. Matt, being the laid back guy that he is, decides to go along with my eccentricity, and we set off immediately in search of a store where we might be able to purchase candles and matches.
It doesn't take as long as I thought it might, and we have soon returned to the broken door in the castle wall, candles and matches in hand. After ensuring that nobody is around, we quickly slip into the mysterious tunnel and quietly close the broken door behind us. We walk to the back of the tunnel, the stone staircase stretching before us in the gloomy shadows. We light our candles. It's time to head down. Let the adventure begin.
With the score to Indiana Jones thrumming softly in my head, I descend down the winding stairs. I have the presence of mind to count the steps as we follow them down like a giant corkscrew. I hit twenty or so and begin to grow slightly apprehensive. How far down do these stairs go? How far do I dare to keep going? What would Indy do?
Indy would keep going, and so do we. Finally, after taking more than thirty steps, the staircase ends abruptly and spills us into a tunnel. It's narrow, lined with ancient-looking bricks, and with a low, arching ceiling. By the dim light of our candles we can only see a few yards ahead. I take one apprehensive step into the tunnel's yawning mouth, Matt nervously encouraging me from behind. As we follow this passage, I'm nearly overcome with a mixture of fear and exhilaration. I was born for this stuff, I think to myself.
Suddenly, the tunnel floor drops away into a straight flight of stone steps going down even further. We cautiously descend these stairs, and I begin to become extremely aware of the encompassing darkness, and the closeness of the walls as they press in from all sides.
At the bottom of the stairs, the floor's grade takes a steep angle downward, and the walls grow much narrower. It also begins to twist and turn more severely. We almost have to turn our bodies sideways to fit through. I'm not normally claustrophobic, but at this point I'm starting to get less comfortable in this enclosed space than I care to be. As we press downward into the gloom, I half-expect to hear Tolkien's pitiful creature, Gollum, scrabbling around somewhere nearby, in search of his lost Precious.
At last, this narrow, winding tunnel comes to an end and we find ourselves in a much, much larger tunnel--several feet across--with a tall ceiling, at least twice my height. Maybe more. You could probably drive a truck down here. More stairs lay at our feet, beckoning us down, deeper still. Here, we no longer need our candles. Small rectangular apertures are spaced along the top of the ceiling through which the natural light of day filters through, illuminating our surroundings. At first, I'm baffled by this. I was sure we were at least a hundred feet underground by now. Then it all makes sense as it dawns on me that we have only been following the downward slope of the hill as it runs down to the north bank of the Danube.
Having come this far, we naturally continue our exploration, and begin descending these other stairs. We pass a bit of graffiti spray painted on one of the walls. So, we aren't the only ones who have been down here recently, it appears. The graffiti is a giant, crude depiction of a devil with horns. It's a bit of an ominous sight to come across down here in a derelict tunnel beneath an old castle. My mind immediately conjures up the image of mysterious, hooded figures that perhaps gather down here on certain nights, engaged in unholy, forbidden rites and dark ceremonies.
I do my best to push these unsettling thoughts from my mind and continue to take the stairs, one at a time, until at last we have reached the very bottom. I turn and look back up the way we came. It's been far enough that I can no longer make out the top of the stairs through the gloom. Before us, the tunnel continues on a little further until a pile of rubble marks the end. But, a door made of iron bars--identical to the one that we used to get down here--sits slightly ajar on the left wall. Perhaps our journey is not over, just yet.
Stepping through this door, we come upon another stone staircase, spiraling upwards. With candles still flickering, we head up. It becomes immediately evident that this staircase isn't nearly as tall as the one that originally brought us down here. After only ascending a few steps, I can see a wooden door several feet above me. I hear voices coming from behind the door; it sounds like two or three men speaking casually in Hungarian. I can't make out the nature of the conversation.
I nearly jump right out of my skin when a dog suddenly, begins viciously barking and snarling on the other side of the door! I turn to Matt, and mouth the words, Let's get out of here! Behind me I hear the dog hit the door, its toenails scratching frantically at the wooden surface while we run back down the stairs as quickly and quietly as we can.
I have no idea who those men with the angry dog are, and have no intention of finding out. Matt and I hurriedly trace our steps back up the way we came, and in short order we find ourselves exiting the secret tunnel beneath the Buda castle, closing the iron door behind us. We've definitely had enough adventure for one day and agree to head home, but determine to return in a week to have another look around.
I spend the rest of the afternoon recording the day's events in my journal. I even render a crude map of the tunnel and fold it between the pages. Over the next couple of months, before I'm transferred to the small town of Kecskemét in central Hungary, we make several more excursions into the tunnels. Word spreads through the mission of our unique find and other missionaries request to be shown the way. I become a sort of quasi tour guide, taking other missionaries into the tunnel. My only rules: No flashlights, candles only. And we don't go up the stairs where the dog was.
It's been 23 years since I left Hungary and I've never been back. I have plans to return someday--hopefully sooner rather later. When I do, I definitely plan on making a visit to the castle, and walking along its walls once more. And perhaps that little door of iron bars is still there. And perhaps I'll test it again, as I did so many years ago.
Will it be locked this time? Or will I find myself staring once more into the yawning mouth of that mysterious tunnel, the thrill of adventure and exploration beckoning me forth? I'll have to be sure and bring a candle or two along, just in case.
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