A clandestine war hospital and a storied history lesson

Up and about early, I nipped at my hotel breakfast – bacon, oh my word, the extra crispy bacon! – grabbed a crusty croissant, and I got my buda in gear for a trip up to the Buda Castle, Palace, and all the goodies in between.

I took the metro west, under the river and to Batthyány tér, one of the closer metro stops to the Vienna Gate entrance leading up to the Fisherman’s Bastion and the beauty I saw from Pest last night. I rolled my Lonely Planet book back and looked quickly at the map to lead me up to the hills. Using my excellent sense of direction, I headed to a local cafe and get a caramel latte, then walk north. I followed the river up and found a few beautiful churches that were worth a stop and a moment of admiration. I went up a few streets, then I realized – I shouldn’t be going north. I saw a sign for Margit Hid, Margaret Bridge to Margaret Island, and knew that I was going in the wrong direction.

Heaven help me, why bother with maps when I don’t even follow them?

With a quick turnaround, I walked south along the river and then took a street going west, up toward the hills. The street gently elevated the further I walked, and then I took a detour south again, this time going up old, cobbled steps along the streetside. Finally, at the top of the slop, I reached a large, imposing structure – Vienna Gate. I had finally found the entrance to the hilltop.

I scrambled through the gate, still heading upwards. I turned left, following the sign for a toilet and for the Military History Museum. I was in search of the Hospital in the Rock Museum, a place recommended by my hotel’s concierge. I kept walking, and then I made it to the outer walkway and the rock wall surrounding the hill. The view here of Buda-side was gorgeous. The sun was trying to desperately break through the leaden grey clouds above, and little peeks of light blinked on the hillsides. Red roofs on buildings looked like something from a folktale.

I continued along the wall, following signs for the Hospital in the Rock. I realized it’s down a narrow set of stairs, so I followed them down and around, finally sighting the museum’s entrance to the cave network.

A tour was about to begin in English, so I joined the queue. I wish I had brought my teacher ID (teachers, medical workers, students, and locals get a ticket discount), but I’ve heard that it’s so worth the visit anyway. We started the tour with a short historical video about the hospital itself, which was built for WWII and started to take on patients in 1944 until 1945, especially during the Soviet siege. The second time it was used was in the 1956 Uprising.

The hospital is a huge network of rooms and tunnels constructed into the soft rock under the castle. With the Hungarian government allied with Nazi Germany, it was a Hungarian-German stronghold during those years of the war. The museum features several original rooms with wax figures in period dress, along with original medical machines. The claim to fame is the anesthesia machine from the 1950s, which is seen briefly in the movie Evita with Madonna. When she needs to go under, the machine from the museum, the only one still in working condition, was used for effect.

The hospital itself was as state-of-the-art as it could be for the 1940s. It featured an x-ray machine as well and an operating room. The wards were cramped for sure, considering it was built to house 120 patients and ended up with 200+ during the height of the fighting. When the Soviets took over the nearby hospital where supplies came in from, this subterranean wonder lost its supply train. Bandages were washed and reapplied to other patients. Equipment was at a minimum as more patients poured in. Add in a stray German bomb blowing up the hospital’s water supply, and now there was no heated steam to sterilize equipment. Thus, many people started to die of infections and spreading disease.

In the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet-satellite Hungary prepared for nuclear war. The Hospital in the Rock was reinforced and turned into a bunker for survivors. There was ventilation put in, water tanks and filters, and a radiation-clearing room. People were trained to be ready there up until 1989. Wow.

The hour long tour was fascinating – an interesting look at some little known history. I highly, highly recommend visiting it if in Budapest. Also, it’s the only place I know of where you can purchase Soviet-era gas masks for about 1,500 Fnt, or $5.50 USD.

Nothing like hanging one of those up in your house, right?

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