Cambridge Underground 1991 pp 47-51

Frankie goes to Budapest

Francis Turner


This is an article about a trip I made to Budapest and Romania in the summer of 1990. I stayed about a week in Hungary, mainly Budapest, a week in Izverna (in Romania near the Iron Gates) and three nights in Bucharest. The week in Izverna was as a member of an expedition to go caving/diving in Romania as well as to deliver relief supplies to the vicinity. This article contains lots of sweeping generalisations, the occasional description of a cave, some attempts at humour, and with luck will make the reader feel really jealous. It is also fairly lacking in names, mainly because I can't spell the foreign ones and I've forgotten the UK ones. Name dropping is therefore out; however, if people want to cave in Romania, the guy that "organised" the whole affair was Andy Ive, who lives in Ingleton.

The scene is set

The CUCC expedition is drawing to a close: everything has been derigged, my spanner has been nicked, the rope has been washed and its time for Francis to do a runner in case he gets volunteered to help do anything else. Eventually I get on a train to that throbbing centre of dowdy old pensioners: Vienna. I met some friends there and lots of South Americans but was otherwise unimpressed; the best view was to be had on the banks of the Danube on a Sunday afternoon where there weren't many pensioners. So, after a weekend there, I set off into dangerous post communist Hungary. To be honest, it was a bit of an anti-climax. Hungary looked just like Austria, they had plenty of tractors and things in the fields and essentially you would never have guessed you were in a country that was supposed to be communist and poor and so on.

Budapest the beautiful

Arriving in Budapest merely confirmed this opinion, the busses had adverts on them, you could buy Coke from street vendors, the only things that gave the game away were the cars. They weren't the Western range of Fords, VWs etc. but were Trabants and Dacias. It was quite ridiculously hot in Budapest and with a tackle sack of caving gear as well as my rucksack, I was a true beast of burden. I got a fair number of strange looks from Hungarians, who had clearly never seen a decadent Westerner with so much luggage. After a bit of fun changing money and buying a street plan I looked up the addresses of my Hungarian friends and set off towards the abode of the first.

I picked the right one, Beata and her family are rich, they live in the Buda hills next door but one to where Rakosi, the first post war dictator, had a house and they have a western car. When I arrived they were redecorating their house and, since Beata was helping her brother shop for his trip to America, I was parked outside in the garden with a large slice of melon to await her return. What with long hair and so on she didn't recognise me at first, but fortunately she noticed my lack of footwear and this provided the necessary clue.

Bea and my other Budapest friends guided me around the sights of this lovely city; took me to the bars that tourists don't go to and so on. Budapest has some fine museums, in one exhibition there was an old book on loan from Trinity and two from the UL, and also some delicious ice cream. I went with my other friend Adam for a day to Lake Balaton where the view was even better than in Vienna. In fact apart from one slight nagging worry everything was utterly utterly heavenly. The minor problem was this: I was supposed to meet up with a collection of other English cavers so that we could go on together to Romania and it was a little unsettling to discover that all the contact numbers I had all claimed not to know anything about them.

However, a couple of days after I had expected to see the others, some of them arrived; we met up with some Hungarian cavers and were taken down the longest cave in Budapest. The first bit of this is a show cave for ordinary visitors but we got guided through into the real cave beyond. The caves of Budapest were formed by hot water going up through the limestone along faults so they have a very different feel to other caves. The first thing is that these caves have no natural exits to the surface so they were only discovered when someone started quarrying the Buda hills. Then once you get inside them you see that they have very different formations with none of the stals that we all know and love. Since they are under a city they are also subject to pollution, and, although this is apparently not a problem now, some parts of the Buda caves had very interesting things in the water.

After being guided round the cave and trying to show that English cavers can squeeze their way through cracks that Hungarians can't (effort partially successful) we were taken to the HQ of the institute of Hungarian Speleology and shown tantalising pictures of other caves in the city. We planned to go caving again the next day, and I turned up at the show cave at the appointed hour. An English car drove up containing two rushed cavers who said that our leader had arrived and had decreed that we were all going to set off post haste to Romania. After doing more rushing to collect my stuff from Bea's, dumping the keys, and nearly running out of petrol we ended up at the camp site. The boss had gone off ahead, I met up with a couple of new cavers and all us laggards set off for the border. We didn't get very lost and eventually ended up at the last petrol station in Hungary, where we met up with the rest of the gang. This was the easy bit.

Romantic Romania

Getting in to Romania with four vehicles, loads of relief supplies, and some not very convincing visas was fun. It was complicated by the fact that the minibus containing the relief supplies was supposed to remain in Romania as a gift to cavers there and therefore had to fail to appear on any documentation that would be seen when we tried to leave. This bus would have fitted in nicely with the cars CUCC took to Austria and almost certainly punctured the Romanian customs officials' ideas of Western technological expertise. After quite a bit of sweet talking, a point blank refusal to unload a bus full of teddy bears and things, and a few packs of Marlboro we were permitted to leave and drove off hurriedly in convoy with our leader. It was very foggy, and we got split up. The bus really wasn't happy, so after navigating Arad we stopped and grabbed about two hours kip. When it got lighter we set off again, met up with the others and continued through Timisoara. This is still bullet scarred and was the first Romanian town most of us had seen in daylight. We did not enjoy the sight of the endless drab blocks of flats that house almost everyone in urban Romania. English city planners may do their best to pack the plebs into soulless buildings but, possibly due to the fact that western houses don't start falling down as soon as they are built, they have a long way to go before they can provide serious competition for the Romanians.

After quite a few trials and tribulations, including maps that lied lots, main roads not much better than tracks, not much petrol and a bored police officer who wanted to know what a load of foreigners were doing on an obscure mountain pass, we ended up in Izverna village. There we encountered the nice side of Romania; the beautiful scenery, the amazing hospitality of the inhabitants and the lovely caves. When we were about half an hour's drive from our destination we met hordes of Romanian cavers going to a cave in the vicinity. We had just stopped to take a few photos of breathtaking scenery where the road goes over a natural rock bridge when we noticed a convoy of cars coming the other way. The convoy screeched to a halt by our abandoned vehicles and those of us who had not previously caved in Romania feared we were about to be robbed or worse. Our leader ran back shouting "Christy! Christy!" and from the answering shouts of "Andy! Andy!", it became apparent that we weren't going to be victims after all.

When we finally arrived at the village, it was clear that the most appropriate words for the whole place were 'picturesque' and 'out of this world'. As seasoned travellers know 'picturesque' can almost always be translated by 'uncomfortable' and 'out of this world' by 'primitive beyond belief'. Izverna proved this to be so. However, we weren't too badly off because it was summer, we were camping anyway, and the locals were quite amazingly hospitable. The first day, a mere hour after I had arrived, I went down Izverna Cave to carry bottles for the divers. I was well impressed with my keenness, the cave entrance was at least fifty feet from the campsite and coming out of it was a howling gale of nice cool air. Inside I was even more impressed: this cave is one that is used mainly to teach novices the principles of caving and diving and so should be like, say, Long Churn; but while it was true that the more accessible stals had been hit by clumsy cavers, there were still loads left. This was a very pleasant change after the beautiful decorations not to be found in 161! Since cavers are by definition part of the underground, there were also a number of slogans proclaiming 'Jos Iliescu' and 'FSN=PCR' that is 'Down with Iliescu' and (in essence) 'The communists just changed their name'.

Because we had brought medicines for the local hospital (in fact the first they had seen for a few years), and toys for the local orphanage and for the village children, we were local heroes and nothing was too good for us. Going for a walk was tricky because you tended to get invited in by some grateful villager and forced to sample cheese, bread, fruit, suica (the local firewater, hooch or moonshine) etc. and generally take away what you hadn't finished. You usually weren't allowed to leave without finishing the carafe of suica. This was pleasant the first stop but although you never minded at the time, the fact that at least two other villagers would do the same meant that you usually failed to leave the village sober and also really suffered the next day.

One day some of the Romanians went on a hike in the hills around Izverna and three of us foreigners went along too. Austria was definitely a face saver, it meant that I was able to keep up with the locals rather than straggle behind with all the cavers. We were constantly being told by the cavers that this bit of Romania was nothing special and that other bits were far prettier. I don't see how that can be possible! The forests are the wonderful deciduous kind which forestry departments hate, and the tops of the hills look like the park of your average English stately home. The only real difference is that the ha-ha at the end is a few hundred metres high. One of the cavers, although he lived in Bucharest, came from a village close by and he told us many stories about the inhabitants. One was about his grandmother, who, aged 90+, climbed some 1000 foot or so twice a day to milk her cow. She was asked why she didn't get one of the herdsmen to bring the cow down the hill and her reply was "The cow is too old to climb that hill twice a day!" On the way back from the jaunt the whole party was invited to try out this year's distillation at the village still. We made it back to the camp but not without difficulty.


We were based at the cavers' hut in Izverna but we made a two day visit to the nearby cave system of Topolnita. The main streamway goes underground for about a kilometre and the passageway is big. It starts at 50 odd metres high and 20 or so wide and never gets smaller than 30 by 5. At the resurgence you have to swim for a hundred metres or so. The Romanians said all that was needed were a pair of wellies and something waterproof but that although for the first 900m they were right and wellies, swimming trunks and oversuit were quite sufficient, the total immersion for the last 100m was utterly crap and we spent half an hour or so huddled around a fire before going back across the top.

The fossil passages in this system were locked up in a fashion that made the struggle with the lock of GB seem like just walking straight in. Only two of the Romanians know how to gain entrance to these caves and all I can say to would be vandals is that the easiest way through is probably to use a stick of dynamite. Getting inside made it all worthwhile. There were neolithic remains, bats, and enough formations to equip about five caves of equal size (five miles plus). The Romanian guide for Rakowitz gallery (and the main streamway), Christy, brought his 8 year old son along with him and this lad showed a lot of promise for the future. Christy also told us about the best method for getting the right amount of exposure for a long time exposure photo. It is very simple: set up the camera and illuminate the appropriate part of the cave; press the button; light a cigarette; when the cigarette is finished press the button to shut the shutter.

The evenings were very pleasant, with Andy strumming his guitar and singing and various Romanians doing much the same. The only real problem was, that apart from Andy, none of us could remember any decent English songs and singing Bestiality's Best in such surroundings and as answer to some wonderful folk-songs seemed sort of wrong. At such times we also heard many tales, mostly terrible, about the fun and games of the coup and its aftermath. One of the more amusing and less gruesome went like this:

One of the cavers has a lovely, beautifully trained game dog and as I was complementing him on his dog, he said that both he and his dog were getting fat. I asked why and he replied "Most winters we spend a lot of time hunting game and so all the fat we put on in the summer gets worked off. This winter we didn't get out so much, we were hunting other game.."

Not so Romantic Romania

After a week in and around Izverna the Bucharest cavers were going home and we were told of another site where some nice diving and caving could be done which would be sort of on our way back too. It was very sad to leave the village, especially since it had got its first delivery of beer that night and we all needed a change from suica. Eventually we set off next morning for another cave/dive site called Sule Maia (and almost certainly spelled differently). The journey to this place led us through lots more breathtaking scenery (Scenic route = Not suitable for motor vehicles) and a couple of absolutely foul towns. Sule Maia is another cave with a huge entrance (40 metres to 50 metres) and in this case it goes on for ages before (we're told) coming to a simply huge chamber containing lots of pretties including a calcified bat. I would love to claim that we saw this but unfortunately we didn't as we gave up in disgust when we were probably only a couple of bends from the chamber. That was it for me as far as the caving was concerned and after lots of hospitality from the locals I packed my stuff and went to bed.

I got a lift to a convenient railway station at an hour that seemed like them crack of dawn and set off on my own to Bucharest. I chose a train that was not fast, and also got delayed so I spent the whole day on it. It showed me a lot of Romania, both pleasant and ugly, as it wandered about the country. Eventually an extremely parched and hungry Francis climbed out of the train at Bucharest station at about midnight. The journey had been great except for the lack of food and drink; I did have some bread and cheese but not enough and my water bottle was full of Suica, which was at least 50% alcohol. I could just tell that it would not quench my thirst so I didn't even try.

Bucharest was full of bullet scars and nasty buildings; I got a guided tour by Mihai, my host, who tended to say things like: "And here was where I stood when Ceaucescu made his last speech" (it was about 300 metres away from Ceaucescu) or "This was the police station the miners took me to and nearly beat me up in". He also had some photos which he had taken on the days of the revolution, which were the sort that made you glad to have been somewhere safe. While Romania is certainly not a democrat's paradise now, the improvement since the overthrow of Ceaucescu is enormous. The only problem is that the government seems to think that not being oppressive unless you speak out against it is what is meant by democracy and sadly many of the people are so relieved to be shot of the blatant oppression of Ceaucescu that they don't complain enough, yet, about the limited freedom and justice they are being offered now. But all is not so dim, Bucharest has a lot of political graffiti, most of which claims that the current government is almost the same as the old one and a number of newspapers which print more and more depressing tales of Securitate chiefs making huge profits now that they are officially allowed to.

Ceaucescu really did wreck Bucharest. His palace of culture, which was never finished, is absolutely enormous and a classic example of the Architectural style known as Totalitarian Giganticism as are the boulevards leading up to it. Bucharest does, however, have some nice bits and Mihai lives in one. In Izverna I was informed by all the Bucharest cavers that I was to stay with them when I got to Bucharest. The only way to say no and not mortally wound them was to say "I'd love to, but Mihai asked first" and also point out that as I was only planning on staying for three nights it was silly to visit everyone. Mihai's family, his mother in particular, were also astoundingly hospitable; I was not allowed to do anything but make polite conversation and be fed. English habits of guests offering to help or even thinking of doing something for one's self had to be ruthlessly suppressed.

After three days of this I left on a train to Yugoslavia and the decadent West. I had fortunately reserved a place, if I had not I would not have been on the train, it was full of Romanians and their bags. All these Romanians were going to sell the contents of their bags in Yugoslavia or possibly Italy. This trade is so profitable that the shops are now emptier than under Ceaucescu. In fact this private enterprise manages to sell these goods for considerably more foreign currency than Ceaucescu ever got so he must have been doing something seriously wrong! I got on the train by climbing through the window of the correct compartment, shouting "Reservation!". If I hadn't I would never have been let in. Mihai and his family shoved my rucksack through after I had got in. In spite of the fact that my rucksack was the usual Inter-railer's type with humungous bulges and bits hanging off I still had far less luggage than any of my fellow travellers. It was impossible to go to the toilet - assuming it worked, I never saw - because of the millions of people on the corridor with all their piles of luggage. The train made British Rail appear positively punctual: we were SEVEN HOURS late! This was spent mainly at the border processing the Romanians and their goods. It was very silly and very hot and entirely pointless except for allowing the customs to be bribed substantially. This time however Francis had food and water and so was not a parched wreck when he got to Beograd.

It was a good job that I had been in Romania and learned how to drink the almost undrinkable (ie. suica) because on the train from Beograd to Munich I shared a compartment with five Jugoslavian Gästarbeiter. They all had about three different bottles of slivovits and I was forced to try each one and say which one I liked. The truthful answer, "none", was not a valid response!

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