The Railway Children: Budapest Children’s Railway
“Is it this stop? No. Is it the next?,” says Hannah at every station as the cog railway slowly chugs up the hill. Like many people in Budapest on this beautiful Sunday morning we are on our way to the top of the Buda hills. But unlike everyone else we aren’t going to have breakfast up in the buzzing café’s, take a walk around, or mountain bike down. We are trying to reach the top of the hill so we can travel back down again on the Children’s Railway and then the chair lift. Our tight schedule doesn’t allow us to actually do anything when we get there.
Two days in Budapest seemed more than enough when we were planning the trip. You can see a lot in two days, especially on a bike. But the weather is hot and the bikes are enjoying a little holiday in the Hilton Hotel garage. And we had no idea just how big Budapest is, how long it would take to get around it and how many treasures there are. In this city there is literally a delight and surprise around every corner. From history to architecture, from culture to nature, we simply can’t do it all in a weekend.
Just a quick ride in the Budapest Hills
This afternoon we are being given a guided tour of the city from some Budapest locals organised by some friends in England. So this morning, in an attempt to escape the heat and see something they are unlikely to show us, we have taken to the hills. But we have to be back in the Hilton lobby by 2pm. And just getting to the cog railway involved a half hour walk down the hill from the Castle District, and a tram from the centre of town. It’s feeling a bit of a rush.
The cog railway finally reaches the end of the line. We walk a few hundred yards, past enticing cafes doing Sunday morning breakfast under the shady trees and canopies, to Budapest’s famous Children’s Railway. We will take this for four stops, and get off at Janos-hegy, the highest point in the hills.
A railway run by kids for kids?
The Children’s Railway is what it says on the tin; a railway run for children, by children. All the staff here are under 14. The Railway with eight stops was built in 1951 by Pioneers (a socialist version of the scouts.) But it’s a lot more high risk than British scouting; while our boys learn how to tie knots and make fires in their spare time, these guys stoke boilers, run a popular and profitable tourist industry and have to deal with people like me. As a steam train sets off from the station, I queue for tickets while my children wave to the passengers. A serious girl in glasses who looks like a slightly older version of Hannah is taking tickets. She doesn’t wave. Neither do the boys that stand beside her acting as guards. The ticket desk is run by a youth too, dressed smartly in a shirt and tie with his hair nicely brushed. It’s hard to communicate what I want with the noise of the steam train, the language barrier, and the strange experience of trying to buy tickets from someone that looks like they should be playing Nintendo with my kids.
With five tickets in my hands, and the steam train now departed, I head over to the others who are crowded around a timetable, debating how stupid our plan is. The next train is still some time off, and there is a kilometre walk to the chair lift after we leave the Children’s Railway. In its turn, the cable car will dump us in a part of town we don’t know. Then getting back to the hotel will require maybe two trams or the underground, plus a walk. This will leave our contacts waiting for us in the Hilton lobby while we are somewhere in Budapest. Why didn’t we just go to church?
Our timetable is going all wrong
As captain for the day I must make the final decision, so I resolve to sell the tickets back to the ticket office. But the boy in the tie now has a long queue in front of him. I imagine the scenario of explaining in my marvellous Hungarian why we wanted five tickets one minute, but don’t the next.
So I come up with the next best plan. To bestow my tickets on a Hungarian family. I choose a woman with an orange bag and a selection of small people at her heels. I present her with the tickets. To my surprise she doesn’t question why we don’t want them, just smiles and thanks me and whisks her children onto the waiting train.
We stand on the platform, waving to the family we are sending on a journey into the hills this sunny Sunday morning. The woman’s face is now beaming as bright as her bag and the serious girl with the glasses is giving our tickets the once over. We feel good. They feel good. It’s time for us to get back on the cog railway and return to our hotel.
During our precious two days in one of the most amazing cities on earth, we have spent several hours sitting on a tram, a train and station platform going to a place we haven’t even had a chance to see. But then we have managed to carry out a random act of generosity on another holiday making family. Sometimes that is enough.