Hiking and Pilgrimage Trails in Wider Budapest
Words András J. Molnár
Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is undoubtedly one of the world’s travel destination gems. The charm of the city with its unique landscape attracts millions of visitors each year. Tourists and local inhabitants enjoy walking through the streets of the city centre, along the riverbanks, as well as through the hilly, western part of the city.
In order to find relaxation, one needs to leave the city and head towards the relatively unknown hidden natural features and marked trail network which expands mainly towards the west and northwest of the city, making it possible to go for recreational walks or sport hikes, and visit much of the natural and historical heritage, connecting villages and small towns.
Contemporary Budapest is a result of the unification of the former cities Buda, Pest and Óbuda, as well as several surrounding towns and villages. They are situated on both sides of the wide Danube, one of the longest rivers in Europe. The city is located at the meeting point of the Great Hungarian Plain, which expands towards the south and southeast, and the Pannonian (a.k.a. Transdanubian) Hills, towards the west and northwest.
To the north, not far from Budapest, the river Danube flows from the west and enters a valley at the historical town of Esztergom. Here, the Pannonian Hills meet the innermost, lower range of the Carpathian Mountains, the major mountain range of Eastern Central Europe, situated to the east of the Alps. The river winds through an area of the forested Pilis, Visegrádi and Börzsöny mid-mountains – which lie between a hundred to almost a thousand metres above sea level at differential points along the mountain range – and changes its direction towards the south.
This picturesque range is called the Danube Bend, or the Visegrád Gorge, and is a famous tourist and recreational area north of Budapest, with its many panoramic viewpoints, small cliffs, caves, valleys, hiking facilities, historical site and smaller surrounding towns and villages.
The most significant places to visit on the one side of the River Danube are: Szentendre with its charming town centre and the Hungarian open-air ethnographic museum; Visegrád with its castle and fortress remains, valley and sidehill trails (the Spartacus former hunting trail and the Apát-kúti Valley); Dömös with its valley and gorge paths (Rám-szakadék and Lukács-árok) and the lookout tower of Prédikálószék; Dobogókő with the first mountain hut of the area (which is today a hiking museum), spiritual centre and other facilities; and the already mentioned Esztergom.
On the other side of the Danube river lies the historical town and diocesan seat of Vác, the riverside towns of Nagymaros and Zebegény with their natural and built heritage, the shrine of Pauline monks at Márianosztra and the village of Nagybörzsöny in the more rural Börzsöny mountains, with the highest peak at Csóványos. The trail network expands the whole area, and it is easy to find less visited ranges where the landscape can be enjoyed without meeting large crowds of people.
As the river reaches Budapest, it flows adjacent to and continues along the foot of the hill range. At the foots of the hills of Buda, thermal springs supply the world-famous spas of the city. The hills of Buda feature a unique system of caves, some of which are open to the public, and offers pleasant walking trails starting from – amongst others – Normafa, Hűvösvölgy, Fenyőgyöngye, Solymár and Nagykovácsi.
Protection and Management
The rich geological and botanical diversity of this sensitive area (including volcanic and karstic terrains, with species only found here in the world) is protected by the Duna-Ipoly National Park (member of the International Carpathian Network of Protected Areas with hundreds of protected areas across seven countries), and its public lands are managed by the state-owned Pilis Park Forest and Ipoly Forest companies. In the stricter protected areas, hiking is prohibited and allowed only along the designated trails.
Trail History and System
Formal, professionally organized hiking and mountaineering in Hungary started during the second half of the 19th century. At that time, until the end of WWI, Hungary, with its multi-ethnic population, was part of the Austrian Monarchy and included large parts of the current neighbouring countries, and its border mainly followed the main Carpathian Mountain range, of which the Hungarian Carpathian Association was among the first mountain organizations in the world to be founded in current Slovakia. Its regional chapters established paths, huts and other facilities in order to make it possible for the wider public to visit and enjoy the natural beauty spots and study the natural environment.
At the end of the 19th century, the Pilis-Visegrádi range became one of the first areas in contemporary Hungary where marked hiking trails were established. After many years of development, a unified trail concept and marking system was introduced in 1930 and was gradually implemented across the whole country, with the extended version still in use today.
Trails are usually marked in both directions, and the trail marks have a standard rectangular white background, extended with an arrowhead wherever needed. Trails are marked with various shapes in different colours, making them easier to identify and denote their function in the network. Apart from hiking trails, a route network especially designated for biking and horseback riding also exists. Some of the neighbouring countries have similar systems with their own variants.
Long-Distance and Local Trails
Main routes are marked with horizontal bands depicted in four colours (blue, red, yellow and green – in the order of significance). The main national trail, the Blue Tour traverses the whole country and is part of the long-distance European trail E4 from Gibraltar to Crete and offers a stamping system for certification upon completion. An example of a local main route is the Green Trail of Buda, starting in the heart of the city at the Cave Church next to the spa and metro station Szt. Gellért tér, along many of the attractive public parks before it takes the hiker through a district of villas and further out towards the natural forests.
Local variants and connective trails of the main routes are usually marked with a cross of the same colour as the band of their main trail. Side-trails or local trails to specific destinations are marked with other shapes using the same colour: a triangle marks trails to hilltops or panoramic spots, a square marks accomodation or transportation points, a circle indicates springs or water wells, an omega is used for caves, etc. Circular trails marked by an open circle with an arrowhead are especially recommended for visitors taking easy round walks (1-1.5 hours). Similar to these are the educational trails, mostly marked by a symbol T.
Thematic routes, mainly pilgrimage routes have their own special designated symbols further extending the system of standard trail marks. Budapest is one of the most eastern of starting points on the Camino de Santiago, and the trail is continuously marked from Budapest to Galicia in Spain. The city is also a major crossing point of the Central European Mary Way network, connecting shrines in seven countries (under development). The Hungarian Pilgrimage Way crosses the country in a north southerly direction, predominantly following the river Danube and has become part of the Jerusalem Way, the world’s longest peace trail initiative. The Via Margaritarum has its starting point at the tomb memorial of St. Margaret in the public park on the island bearing her name.
The dense trail network offers almost unlimited trip variations, and with proper advice, the best suited route combination, dependant on interest, level of fitness, the weather and time available can be arranged. Most trails are available all year round, and the seasonal climates offer an array of beautiful colours in the autumn and flurries of snow in the winter.
Trails can be easily identified using either a digital (such as the OpenStreetmap-based WaymarkedTrails) or paper hiking map, available at most bookstores in the city. Unfortunately, due to administrative and financial issues, the trail signposting system is incomplete and not unified, but trail marking (blazing) has been significantly improved in the last two decades and is usually reliable.
Marked trails are largely based on existing tracks created or used by the forestry commission or inhabitants, of which some are regularly maintained walkways, whilst others are unkept natural pathways. Trail blazing is maintained by the trail organizations, most of them are members of the Hungarian Hikers Federation (MTSz), or affiliated with the Budapest Sport Hikers Federation (BTSSz) or the Hungarian Tourist Association (MTE). Volunteers of our Viator Association maintain the trail marks in and around the town Esztergom, for example.
In the past, most hikers would walk in organized groups. However, in the recent decades, self-guided sport hiking and running events have become increasingly popular, taking place on specific days, allowing participants to register and receive a brief description of the route at the starting point. Throughout the route assistance and refreshments are available at special checkout points where hikers receive their stamps to certify their progress and completion of the trail. The first, and most popular amongst these is the Kinizsi 100, starting at Budapest to the west, and reaching the town of Tata in a single day (24 hours) after 100 kms of walking. Most events offer shorter, more comfortable route variants for less experienced or performant hikers. The events are normally hosted in Hungarian, however, where some of the organizers speak English or other languages, visitors are encouraged and welcomed to attend.
Pilgrimage events have become increasingly popular, especially along the pilgrimage routes. The annual event of the Living Rosary started 13 years ago and follows a route around the city. Canoeing events of pilgrimage have also started in the recent years. The special event Pálos 70, founded exactly 10 years ago with close collaborations from ecclesiastical and civil organizations. The event is hosted annually in October and offers a combination of sport hiking, family hiking and group and individual pilgrimage routes between Budapest and Márianosztra, with a rich cultural, historical and spiritual content, also providing accomodation, transportation and catering.
For walks and trips close to the city, the Hills of Buda can be easily reached by car or by public transport. Some of the tram and bus lines travel directly through the hills, including a cog-wheeled tram line. The highest point of Budapest, marked by a lookout tower, can be reached by a chair-lift.
The Danube Bend area can be reached in 1-2 hours by the Szob-Štúrovo, Esztergom and Szentendre train lines, and by regional buses, including the Visegrád-Esztergom line. Several ferries cross the river and there is a tourist boat service along the river during the summer. The Börzsöny hills feature three lines of narrow-gauge forest railways, formerly used for transportation by the forestry and mining industries, and has been reconstructed and transformed for the tourism trade. The “world’s biggest toy railway” is a real mountain train line in the Hills of Buda, mostly operated by youngsters.
Being one of the largest transportation hubs in the region, Budapest can claim good links to all areas of Hungary and the surrounding countries, qualifying as a natural “base camp” or an intermediary station for visitors on longer day trips in the countryside and nearby cities: either towards the west of the country (Transdanubia) with the famous Balaton Lake, and further on to Croatia, Slovenia and Austria; or towards Eastern or Northern Hungary, Slovakia and Poland; or finally, towards Transylvania in Romania. The unknown beauty of the Carpathian Mountains and the Balcan area, as well as the gentle landscapes of rural Hungary offer ample opportunities for hiking to visitors from all over the world.András J. Molnár
Need for More Information
Basic information, as well as trip recommendations are online available from various sources. There are some hiking groups or businesses offering special trips for visitors. Although the marked trail system is relatively well developed, the information available for foreign visitors needs to be substantially improved in the future. The demand has grown significantly in line with the current travel trends worldwide.
The author is readily available to provide advice to anyone who is thinking about visiting the area and its trails, and is pleased to announce that an active English speaking hiking group with international students and local citizens established last year by the Viator Association hopes to restart after the lockdown restrictions, due to the current pandemic, have been safely lifted and travel resumes.
Many thanks ito Lisamaria De Pasquale for her proofreading and valuable suggestions.
About the Author
András J. Molnár (Hungary), is a passionate hiker since his childhood and has been guiding, walking and developing the hiker and pilgrimage trails, along with organizing events for more than 20 years. He has a PhD in information systems, as well as BA in theology, and is a certified walking and tour guide. He studies and teaches trail networks, marking and signage systems, and was the editor-in-chief for updating the trail marking guidelines for the Hungarian Hiking Federation. He currently chairs the Viator Association and is a member of the World Trails Network ‘Trails and Sustainability’ Task Team.