On my second day in Budapest I crossed the Danube on foot to the Buda side of the city in order to explore the castle district. In addition to the cafes, there were several buildings and other sites I wanted to visit and photograph. So, after taking the funicular up the mountain I began wandering around. I deliberately kept my map inside my backpack so that I could discover the territory more accidentally, or in keeping with my philosophical disposition, errantly.
The first thing I noticed is that the castle district in Budapest is a lot different than the castle district in Prague. Prague’s district is much more populated with restaurants, cafes, and stores, yet without being that touristy. One walks almost continually uphill to reach the castle in Prague, where Budapest offers an almost flat surface once one reaches the top of the mountain. This is not to say that Budapest’s castle district is any less enchanting. There is an element of the fairy tale to Budapest’s castle, it’s just much more sparse, less medieval, than the one in Prague.
I immediately got lost and wandered into a more modern and pedestrian part of town. I walked down several concrete staircases on the opposite side of the hill that I had gone up. After my initial frustration, I stopped at a café to reluctantly check my map over a beer. The café was full of locals stopping for drinks (mostly pints of beer) and cigarettes. As far as I could tell there were very few tourists in this part of town. I nursed my beer and enjoyed myself for an hour or so by just watching the interaction of the locals. It’s not often that I am able to feel like a complete outsider, and this was one of those times when travel gives you the wonderful gift of anonymity.
On my way back up the hill and toward the castle I knew that I wanted to visit the Labyrinths beneath the castle. On my walk I had seen a few signs here and there, and one of them advertised a Dracula exhibit. As a long-time Dracula fan (I began reading about him in the library of my elementary school and wrote stories featuring Dracula beginning some time in third grade) I was now resolved. The entrance to the Labyrinth is nothing more than a doorway with a sign placed above it. It’s easy to miss, and if fact, I did miss it twice. Once through you walk down a series of stone steps into a faintly lit hall carved into the earth. At the end of a long passageway sits a young man in a glass booth selling tickets. I debated with myself if I wanted to spend the money on this after all, since it looked more like a tourist trap but I was already in, so I decided to give it a try.
The Labyrinths constitute a series of long tunnels and rooms beneath the castle district. It was damp and misty, with water sometimes running down the stonewalls. The floor was dirt and stone, with electric lights placed every few feet. Music was piped in from speakers along the tunnel walls. First Vivaldi, since the initial exhibit was based upon one of his operas. My initial reaction was that I had paid a fair bit of money to see nothing more than a glorified wax museum, but as I wandered deeper into the labyrinth, the historical markers began to catch my eye. Various stonewalls and marble cornices were on display, accompanied by signs explaining their significance in both Hungarian and English. When I finally reached the Dracula exhibit I encountered two signs. Both signs displayed pictures of the historical figure and both gave brief descriptions of how Dracula was arrested by King Matthias of Hungary in 1462. For all intents and purposes, the arrest of Dracula seems to have been a betrayal on the part of Matthias who used Dracula and his forces in the ongoing war with the Turks. At the time, many hailed Dracula as a Christian hero, including Pope Pius II. Nevertheless, Dracula was held prisoner for twelve years in the very labyrinth I was now walking through. After a few dark and damp twists and turns, I came upon a sign that stated I was now standing in the very cell that held Dracula. On the ground in front of me is a large slab bearing the name “Drakula” carved into the marble. At the head of the slab is a winged demon crouching upon a ball. It’s a marker for a tomb without a body, since the actual burial place of Dracula’s remains is a mystery to this day. Still, the cell is significantly eerie, and it was made more so due to the fact that I was the only one occupying the room at the time.
Later, as I was nursing a beer back on the Pest side of the Danube, I read that Dracula was held prisoner by King Matthias in a dungeon to the north of Budapest and only passed through Buda. I have since ordered two books on Dracula (one of which is by two scholars from Boston University) to dig a little deeper into this mystery.