Monday, 3 October 2016

The Railway Children on the Children's Railway

On a tiny forest rail platform, the sombre-faced teenage boy in a starched uniform politely approaches to sell us tickets and check departure times. Shortly after, the train itself pulls up, the carriage-door opened by an equally earnest teenage girl. Along the platform, a young boy with a flag signals the departure, and we set off, our tickets checked by a more ebullient lad of about ten.

The Gyermekvasut (Children's Railway of Budapest)

By turns both charming and slightly sinister, this is the Children's Railway of Budapest.  It's a leftover from the city's Soviet past, restored in 1990. During the Thirties, the Communist government created these 'Pioneer' railways, run by the highest-achieving members of the party's youth wing. It was a good way to build team spirit and identify future leaders. They opened Pioneer railways all across the USSR, this one in 1947.

The schoolchildren's solemnity is appropriate. This is serious business. Only the highest academic performers may apply. They are trained for four months and take the same professional exams as adult rail workers. They form elite cadre, and to be selected is one of the highest privileges for a young person in Budapest. Though adults still actually drive the trains (boo!) the kids work as conductors, sell and check tickets, and even man the points.

Despite their sincere demeanours there is a fun element. They are given two days off school every month for their services, and during the holidays they attend summer camps similar to those in America - like railway-themed scouts.

The Zugliget libegő (chairlift): a surprisingly serene way to reach Budapest's highest point

It's a delightful and eccentric way to get around the beautiful forests of the Buda hills. We initially take a chairlift from Zugliget to János Hill, to visit the Elizabeth Tower. Like most 'Elizabethan' locations in the city, this is named after 'Sisi', the beloved 19th century Austrian Empress who adored Hungary and pushed for it to be self-governed despite disapproval in Vienna. The tower is the highest point in Budapest and when we turn our gaze away from the city, to the hills and valleys to the east... we can see Slovenia!

The view from the top of Elizabeth's Tower. In the distance: Slovenia!

It's a short walk through wooded glades, down to the Children's Railway. We catch the train down to the small town of Namafa for delicious lunch at Gyurgi's Bistro. Then the Cogwheel Railway back down to Buda proper. Three unusual transport methods in one afternoon!

As we pass each station, the uniformed children salute the train and passengers. Some, beneath their stern caps, even crack a smile.

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