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Hospital in the Rock & Nuclear Bunker

 
 4Stars10px  - darkometer rating: 5 -
  
entrance to Hospital in the Rock museumA labyrinthine system of tunnels inside Buda Castle Hill in Hungary’s capital city Budapest that was turned into a bombproof hospital during WWII. It played an important role in the Siege of Budapest towards the end of the war and again during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 that was crushed by the Soviets. Later in the Cold War it was revived and expanded, and became a nuclear shelter as well. Now a museum, it’s a popular tourist attraction, but visits to the site are by guided tour only.

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

  
More background info: Solid information about the history of this place is a bit thin on the ground, so I’m going mostly by memory of what I learned on the guided tour and through the introductory film (see below) in addition to whatever scant info I could find online.
  
The hills of Budapest have lots of natural caves (some are also open to tourists!), including Buda Castle Hill, and some of these have long been in use by humans, e.g. for storage, to provide shelter or as a prison … legend has it that Vlad the Impaler (the historical figure that provided the inspiration for the Dracula myth) was once incarcerated here.
  
At the beginning of WWII it was decided to utilize and expand the bombproof underground space for a hospital, driven into the rock as an extensive system of tunnels and halls, equipped with what then was the latest technology and stocked with medical supplies. This hospital became operational in 1944, just in time for when Budapest was subjected to air raids and the Red Army was advancing from the east.
  
There were 65 hospital beds and one double operating theatre plus supplies, a generator, water tank and so on. Staff and medicines came from a nearby above-ground hospital.
  
As a Red Cross institution, the hospital was in theory open to all, friend and enemy alike. But whether any wounded enemy soldiers were really ever treated in here, I don’t know.
  
Initially it was mostly civilian victims of aerial bombings that were brought here. Then in late 1944 began the long Siege of Budapest as the Soviets encircled the city. Soon the hospital became overcrowded, now also with wounded soldiers, with a peak number of 600 patients exceeding the original capacity almost tenfold. Conditions deteriorated. Patients had to languish on stretchers in corridors, hospital beds were pushed together so that an extra patient or two could be accommodated in the middle. It was hot and increasingly unsanitary (there were only a couple of showers and toilets).
  
As medical supplies from the outside could no longer be brought in and water supplies ran short, things worsened further. Doctors even had to reuse bandages with little means for disinfecting. No wonder infections were rife.
  
Castle Hill (including this hospital) was actually the last bastion of resistance against the Soviet onslaught, but of course it was a losing battle and in February 1945 the Soviets were victorious.
  
After WWII the hospital was used only one more time, namely during the 1956 Uprising, when wounded protesters and revolutionaries were brought here for treatment. But that ended soon, like the Uprising itself, when it was brutally crushed by the USSR military.
  
From 1958, the site was expanded and converted into a nuclear shelter, as the Cold War threatened atomic and chemical attacks. More backup generators were installed, together with fuel tanks and a much larger water tank, plus air filtration and ventilation systems to ensure no chemical agents could get in. But as a nuclear bunker this installation was soon not actually A-bomb-proof – being just 14–18 metres below ground under soft limestone. Any direct hit by nuclear warheads of the sort that were in use by the 1960s could not have been withstood.
  
But still the site was kept operational, and secret (at least all through the communist era), until well after the Cold War. The bunker was never used for its intended purpose but a caretaker family, who lived on-site, looked after it, keeping the technical apparatus in working order and cleaning the place fortnightly.
  
In the 2000s the tunnel system was first made accessible to the public occasionally, and in 2008 the first incarnation of the present museum opened its doors. It has since been expanded and now covers a large section of the former shelter filled with original objects and ones brought in specifically. It is run as a “Public Benefit Foundation” (whatever that may mean in practical terms) and has won several awards. Its official name in Hungarian is “Sziklakórház Atombunker Múzeum”.
  
  
What there is to see: Quite a lot – but by guided tour only. Those for international visitors (in English or with audio guides) begin every hour on the hour, so make sure to get the timing right. I was actually a couple of minutes late but was allowed to join the group for the 3 p.m. time slot I had aimed at. That’s because the visit starts with an introductory film (in Hungarian with English subtitles), meaning that the group hadn’t gone into the tunnels yet. So I went into the cinema room to watch the remainder of the intro film. Since I had missed the beginning I can’t say what the initial parts were about, but I guess the focus would have been on the pre-WWII uses of the natural cave system inside Buda Castle Hill. The film then covered the wartime construction of the hospital and the site’s subsequent history (see above).
  
After the film, the group (my estimate is ca. 30 persons) were called out by the guide and the actual tour started. Participants were invited to make use of the coats you can borrow (for free) at the entrance to the tunnels, as it is only about 15 degrees Celsius inside, so on a hot summer day (as it was when I visited) this is a welcome service if you didn’t bring extra layers yourself.
  
The tour then leads into the first tunnel, past a large Red Cross sign and past an initial pre-examination station and a kitchen, before reaching the first hospital part proper.
  
There’s a section about Friedrich Born, a Red Cross delegate for Budapest (originally from Switzerland, like Carl Lutz) who saved thousands of Jews by handing out protective documents, similar to what Carl Lutz and Raoul Wallenberg did – see also under Budapest and Holocaust Memorial Center. (All three are honoured as “Righteous Among the Nations” at Yad Vashem.)
  
As expected, you get to see reconstructed hospital wards on the tour. These come complete with dummy doctors, nurses and patients. While such figures can often be on the cheesy side, the waxworks in this place were actually quite convincing and lifelike. They were also all individually designed (unlike the refashioned shop-window mannequins you often find in such roles – see e.g. Kelvedon Hatch) and many had quite striking facial expressions. Obviously there are also some gory scenes with blood-soaked bandages and such like. The operating theatre is naturally another such place of gruesomely reconstructed scenes.
  
Part of this section also displays a large collection of medical instruments and equipment. Some are original, others were brought in from elsewhere. Here the group was given time to take a closer look on their own at these exhibits and their labels (bilingual in Hungarian and English). Elsewhere, however, I noticed several informational text-and-photo panels on the walls that we were not given time to take in. That’s a downside of being on a guided tour. I would have welcomed the alternative of an individual self-guided visit, but I admit that this would have required proper signage of the circuit one would have to follow. After all, this tunnel system is quite a maze, and without signs, or the guide, you could easily get lost in there.
  
Another downside of the regime in place here is the strict no-photography rule. That was really a shame as there would have been plenty of marvellous photo opportunities. But, again, I can see the reasoning behind the rule. With groups this size and the labyrinthine nature of the tunnel system, it would be difficult to keep the group together if everybody was busy taking pictures, which would also have distracted from the narration, I suppose. Still I found the no-photos rule regrettable, not least because it means I can’t give you, my readers, a photo gallery for this chapter.
  
Anyway, the tour continued past a point where you could peek (through a glass panel) into a part of the natural cave system. I also spotted a well in there and asked the guide whether this would have been used for water supplies. But I was told that by the time of WWII the well would have either long dried up or only produced non-potable water.
  
Also to be seen on the tour was a switchboard room and a radio and plotting station with dummy soldiers. There was also a life-size diorama (apparently a more recent addition) of a scene from the Siege of Budapest in late 1944/early 1945, including nurses tending to wounded soldiers in the field just behind a machine-gun position.
  
When we reached the largest hospital ward we were informed by the guide that back then this overcrowded space would not have been the cool 15 degrees we had, but more likely around a stifling 35 degrees (due to the presence of so many people – a human body emits about 100W of heat). Another display included a reconstruction of improvised “wards” with numerous patients lying on stretchers in the corridors of the hospital, which simply didn’t have enough beds (see above).
  
Moving beyond the war years, there’s a large hall with a whole Soviet-era helicopter inside (obviously taken apart and then reassembled here) together with displays of Special Forces dummies taking wounded soldiers from the battlefield to such a rescue helicopter to fly them out.
  
About halfway through the tour, we were shown a model of the labyrinthine tunnel system and were invited to guess where in it we would be at that point. A few of us came pretty close.
  
There was also a section about the 1956 Uprising and one exhibit was a Hungarian national flag with the communist coat of arms in the centre cut out – such flags became a symbol of the revolution.
  
Eventually we were taken into the more modern Cold-War era parts, with working electrical systems, the two diesel backup generators and their fuel tanks, and then on to the large water tank, air filtration system and a decontaminating station.
  
Then there was a rather substantial extra exhibition part about nuclear war, including various hypothetical scenarios with atomic bombs of different yields, but the main part was actually not about the Cold War but about Hiroshima.
  
There were numerous exhibits actually from Hiroshima, either copies or items on loan from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, such as singed roof tiles and lunch boxes with charred contents and such like.
  
On one wall you could peek through little holes at photos of the often gruesome effects the nuclear bombing of the city had on its citizens. The guide made it quite clear that this was optional and not recommended if you’re squeamish. I had seen plenty of such images at the museum in Hiroshima (and at the Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki), so I gave this a miss so that other people could take a look.
  
An add-on in this part was a subsection about the story of Sadako Sasaki, the girl who died of radiation-induced leukaemia ten years after the bomb and who became famous for her folding over a thousand origami paper cranes, which in Japan are a symbol of hope (see also Peace Memorial Park and Peace Memorial Museum).
  
The tour ended with an emotional peace message that wars are never a good thing and peace should always be what we strive for. You get such messages a lot in war-related museums, but on this occasion, at the time of my visit in June 2022, it sounded somewhat different, given the war raging in Ukraine at the same time …
  
After the tour ended I also looked around the museum shop, which had not only the usual coffee mugs and T-shirts with the museum’s logo on it (which is a combination of the Red Cross and the yellow radiation symbol), but also original items such as WWII-era syringes and lots of gas masks from the Cold-War era … I admit I was tempted to buy one of those, as they weren’t even expensive, but in the end I resisted (I already have too much clutter, so where would I put it, I told myself).
  
All in all, I must say I found the tour better than I had anticipated, the wax model dummies looked more convincing than elsewhere, there was a lot to see and the narration by the guide was good and clear. The thematic coverage was also broader than I would have thought, especially with that Hiroshima section towards the end. So I can only recommend visiting this site.
  
A big let-down was the fact that photography wasn’t allowed. Not only does that mean I can’t provide a photo gallery here, but also I couldn’t use photography as a memory aid, as I often do, taking pictures of text panels for reading/reference later at home, and to track the chronology of things for when I write up chapters for this website. So if, in the absence of such aids in this case, I got the order of things a little mixed up in the description above, or missed out some elements, I apologize.
  
  
Location: on the western side of Buda Castle Hill, the heart of the old Buda part of Budapest on the western banks of the Danube. The entrance is on Lovas Street (at number 4/c) just below the city walls.
  
Google Maps locator: [47.5008, 19.0315]
  
  
Access and costs: not too difficult to get to, a bit expensive (by Budapest standards).
  
Details: From within Castle Hill, the site can be reached easily on foot. From the Matthias Church walk down Szentháromság utca, then down the steps (or use the lift) to Lovas utca and head right. The entrance is impossible to miss, being large and clearly marked (see the lead photo at the top of this chapter).
  
From further away you can either get metro line 2 (red) to its terminus at Budapest Deli train station, walk through Vérmezö park and ascend the stairs connecting first Attila utca and Logodi utca and then a second, steeper set of stairs up to Lovas utca, then turn right until you get to the entrance. Alternatively bus lines 5 and 105 also get you close. For people with mobility problems all those steps are an obstacle, but so is the museum itself, which also involves a few steps and is definitely not wheelchair-compatible.
  
Visits are by guided tour only. English-language tours start on the hour between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.; additionally audio guides are available in six extra languages. Closed New Year’s Eve/Day and over Christmas as well as first of November.
  
Admission: this entrance fee is labelled “donation” here and the regular price is 5000 HUF or 16 EUR – the ticketing machines work only with credit or local bank cards, i.e. no cash is accepted! Some concessions apply (e.g. for students, seniors, teachers). Children under 6 are not allowed in and those aged 6-12 must be accompanied by a supervising adult. Admission for under 18-year-olds is half price.
  
Note that a strict no-photography rule is in place!
  
  
Time required: The guided tours last one hour, but you may want to have a few minutes extra afterwards to have a good look around the museum shop.
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see under Budapest.
  
The closest other dark sight in the city are the Semmelweis Museum and teh adjacent "1914-1922 - A New World Was Born" exhibition to the south of Castle Hill, within walking distance from the Hospital in the Rock (alternatively go to the bottom of the hill to the west and get bus line 5 for a couple of stops).
  
   
Combinations with non-dark destinations: in general see under Budapest.
  
Given the location, combining a visit to this site with a stroll around Buda Castle Hill would be the most natural option. Wandering around the cobbled alleyways of Castle Hill are a delight, as is the famous Fisherman’s Bastion, which affords great views over the rest of the city.
  
 
 
 
 
 

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