There’s a rumble, then a strange metallic buzz, the glow of amber lights, doors open and close, and in less than 10-seconds, the yellow-orange cars are moving on to the next station. My favorite subway, the old Millennium Line, rolls its dignified way along the 11-station route only a few feet under Andrassy Street, the entire length of which is a World Heritage Site. First constructed in 1895, it’s Europe’s second oldest subway, and the first here in Hungary’s capital city, Budapest.
I love trains, pure and simple. It’s been a lifelong passion. As far back as I can remember, I looked forward to my dad setting up our family’s Lionel train set right around Christmas every year. As an adult, I’ve seized just about every opportunity I can to ride trains practically anywhere. I’ve taken Canada’s national train, VIA, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, clear across the plains, over the Canadian Rockies, and on to Vancouver. That experience sealed my love for those old-fashioned, glass-enclosed observation cars. On Taiwan, I rode a crowded, small-gauge, red-colored train that crawled its way up Ali Mountain, a traditional honeymoon destination for Chinese couples. In North Korea, I entered the deepest subway in the world, gripping an escalator that seemed to have no end. To most tourists’ surprise, the Pyongyang subway is glorious in its own right, with large colorful lights in the shape of flowers, and giant sweeping propaganda murals depicting workers, artists and farmers happily joining together for the good of the State. On that capital city’s diminutive subway line, passengers seem intensely uncomfortable when they suddenly find themselves riding alongside curious foreigners.
To my complete pleasure, Hungary has its share of special train lines. There’s the Children’s Train high in the Buda Hills, managed and operated by kids. Here in Budapest, there are three major train stations, the one closest to our flat, the dignified, though in dire need of renovation, Nyugati Station, designed and built by Gustave Eiffel’s office in Paris. Yes, that Eiffel. Trains regularly depart Nyugati Station and its two counterparts, for destinations clear across Europe.
Budapest has a robust subway system which I unofficially refer to as the Green, Blue and Red Lines. Then, there’s my favorite, the old Millennium Line. While small in scale, it’s impressive in its quiet elegance. Like an old man sporting a beret and a well-waxed mustache, the train requests your admiration. Each station is adorned with oak doors, closets or lockers, and covered with white and maroon tiles that are so shiny, they look like they were just washed by Mr. Clean. The exclamation point on the platform is a wooden ticket booth, occasionally staffed by a transport employee dressed in dark blue.
Both ends of the line feature notable tourist destinations. Near the eastern terminus, you’ll find Heroes Square and the world famous Szechenyi Baths. At the western end, lies busy Vorosmaty Square, steps from the Danube, and at the northern end of Vaci Street, the busiest tourist lane in Budapest.
Not surprisingly then, while riding the Millennium Line, one almost always hears passengers speaking languages from around the world. The tourists are invariably chatting about what they’ve just seen or excited about where they are headed. It’s safe to imagine that their stay here in Budapest is meeting, more likely exceeding, their expectations.
Old photos and drawings reveal images of those early cars that rode the Millennium Line’s rails back in the 1890’s. They have all but disappeared, except for one solitary car. And, if you want to see that last surviving original car, you’ll have to head clear across the Atlantic Ocean. The last Millennium coach resides in, of all places, the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine.
So, whether you’re heading to the baths, or considering riding on the city’s majestic ferris wheel, the Budapest Eye, the venerable Millennium Line will get you there. While in Budapest, if you want to get there in style, ride the Millennium.