Tue, Oct 30, 2018 - Page 7 News List

FEATURE: Budapest’s caves attract divers from far and wide


A group of divers prepares to descend into the water at the entrance tunnel of Budapest’s Janos Molnar cave system on Oct. 2.

Photo: AFP

Not every diver’s dream is to watch shimmering shoals of fish swim through coral reefs in dazzlingly blue seas.

For Laura Tuominen, the ultimate diving experience is not to be found in the Red Sea or the Caribbean, but in a labyrinth of spectacular underwater caves beneath the pavements of Budapest.

The Hungarian capital is already famous worldwide for its steaming hot spas and thermal baths, but of late, the underwater Janos Molnar cave system, named after the Hungarian pharmacist who discovered it in the 19th century, has become a hot tip for diving aficionados.

About 7km in length and previously open only to scientific expeditions, the cave became accessible to the public — that is, qualified divers — when a diving center was opened here in 2015.

“We are under Budapest. It’s amazing,” shouted Tuominen, a 39-year-old Finnish anesthesiologist and passionate amateur diver, as she jumped into the warm waters from a platform mounted in the narrow space at the bottom of the entrance tunnel.

She was one of a group of hobby divers and speleologists, wearing dry suits and carrying double cylinders of compressed gas on their backs, who descended into the gloomy waters, the light from their torches gradually fading out of view.

The group is accompanied by a diving center staff member who directs it with the help of “guideline” cords through the maze of narrow passageways and cavernous cathedral-like chambers.

“It’s the only underwater cave in Budapest open to divers,” said Attila Hosszu, who has run the center since it opened. “Speleology is a niche market. It doesn’t have mass appeal. And our urban location makes us special. It’s very, very rare.”

The advantage of being underneath a city is that “you don’t have to haul your equipment up a mountain or down a deep valley to get here,” Hosszu added.

The entrance to the center is a discreet metal door near one of Budapest’s main boulevards and just a block away from the Danube river, which separates the city’s two halves, Buda and Pest.

According to the diving center’s Web site, the cave was formed many millennia ago, when the geological fault line on which Budapest is situated cracked. The ascending thermal water ate into the rock to create caves close to the surface.

“You can see amazing stalactites and stalagmites in Mexico, but you have to travel for days to get there. Here, you just walk in and dive, it’s very exciting,” 38-year-old Russian traveler Irina Litvinenko said after getting off the tram on her way to the center.

Outside on the streets, the autumn wind was blustery, but inside the center, the air was still warm and humid, making the divers sweat as they prepared their equipment.

Explorations from the 1950s began to reveal the full extent of submerged canyons, halls and passageways, but until the diving center opened three years ago, only scientists were permitted entry to explore or collect samples for laboratory examinations.

Zoltan Bauer, who has been guiding groups through the cave since 2015, said that visitors come mostly for the stunning underwater landscapes.

“There are only a few creatures in the cave,” the 29-year-old said, referring mainly to tiny crustaceans. “But what I really like is the shape of it, how it looks, its beautiful formations.”

Litvinenko, a Cyprus-based finance worker, was similarly entranced.

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