Narrow-gauge nirvana on Hungary’s Lilliputian locomotives

Narrow-gauge nirvana on Hungary’s Lilliputian locomotives

They’re no bullet trains but these ambling “little railways” are a smart way to get out of Budapest
Staff reductions: Kids run (most of) the show on one of Hungary's narrow-gauge lines.

For all its cool bars and faded elegance, there’s a lot more to Hungary than Budapest.

If you want to explore the countryside one of the best ways to go is by rail -- but not just any old rail.

A Hungarian specialty, narrow-gauge railways -- or “little railways” (kisvasut), as Hungarians endearingly call them -- offer a route into the country’s hinterland that's an attraction in itself.

These Lilliputian lines are the vestiges of Hungary's once extensive narrow-gauge network, which according to an enthusiasts' website once covered more than 4,000 kilometers of track.

Most of the surviving tourist lines are short on length but long on character -- and, happily, run through some of the most picturesque parts of the country.

Lillafüred route

Narrow-gauge lines get a nation of train lovers all steamed up.In eastern Hungary, on the edge of Miskolc, one of Hungary's largest cities, are the forested Bükk Hills, with lakes, cliffs, waterfalls and walking trails.

The local narrow-gauge railway, using a line that once supplied an iron forge in the Lillafüred valley, now transports tourists from the eastern suburbs of Miskolc up into the hills.

To get there, you take one of the hourly trains from Budapest's Keleti station to Miskolc (two hours), then catch tram number 1 from the station (en route traversing the city's handsome central boulevard) and get off at Dorottya utca.

From there the line, which the Narrowgauge.hu website calls "maybe the nicest narrow-gauge railway in Hungary," takes you onward and upward.

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This is no Shinkansen -- Japan’s bullet train.

The carriages on the Lillafüred route roll around drunkenly as the train chugs uphill at a stately pace.

The Palace Hotel -- royal temptation on the Lillafüred route.But it’s a railway fan’s fantasy, with proper locomotives (including a modern diesel-electric hybrid), carriages, a ticket collector and even a wood-burning stove in winter.

The views are dramatic, with cuttings and viaducts slicing through the steep hills.

You'll halt by the imposing Palace Hotel at Lillafüred, but you should stay on the train until the last stop at the village of Garadna, deep in the forest.

From here it's an easy walk back down the quiet valley, via trout ponds and the old iron forge (with museum), to the lake.

A path (follow the little blue crosses) goes around the lake back to the Palace Hotel, where you can order a lavish meal suiting the setting.

Alternatively, the modest Park Büfe next to the railway station serves small but succulent servings of local trout.

Read: Hungary on a plate -- signature dishes

Nation of train lovers

The “little railways” seem to appeal to Hungarians' sentimental side, not to mention their love of trains, and there are more than 20 lines nationwide to choose from.

Ferenc Joó, a Hungarian railway expert and photographer who has traveled on most of them, recommends some within easy reach of Budapest.

If you're not driving, the simplest to get to are around the villages of Kismaros, by the Danube north of Budapest, and Balatonfenyves, by Lake Balaton.

The Kismaros train ... where's the steam!?Like Miskolc, both can be reached easily by train from the capital (Kismaros is less than an hour, Balatonfenyves around 2½ hours).

Kismaros is on the Danube Bend, an area of forested hills where the river sweeps south toward Budapest.

Its narrow-gauge line boasts a state-of-the-art solar-powered train and, at the terminus in Királyrét, a restaurant and “draisine loop.”

Draisines, also known as handcars, star in many a Warner Bros. cartoon: the ones here resemble 4-wheeled bicycles on rails, and on the loop you can have a try for yourself.

Balaton, meanwhile, is the largest lake in central Europe (slightly bigger than Lake Geneva) and one of Hungary's main holiday destinations.

A selling point of the narrow-gauge railway at Balatonfenyves is its pass through a bird and game reserve.

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Past the Valley of the Beautiful Women

Another line accessible by public transport is the Mátra railway, starting at the town of Gyöngyös, which has two branches.

One takes hikers into the forests, terminating at Szalajkaház; the other goes to Mátrafüred, which has several restaurants and is fairly close to Hungary's highest peak, Kékestető (1,015 meters).

Lipizzaner horses are bred along the Szilvásvárad route.From Budapest, Gyöngyös can be reached by direct bus, or by taking the train to Vámosgyörk and changing.

A similar, albeit longer, two-leg train trip, via the city of Eger, will get you to Szilvásvárad.

Eger’s wine cellars, in the intriguingly named Valley of the Beautiful Women (Szépasszonyvölgy) are worth a detour.

As well as being a center for breeding the Lipizzaner horses made famous by the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Szilvásvárad has a narrow-gauge line into the Bükk Hills.

These are covered with walking trails -- but Ferenc Joó says many people who take the train from Szilvásvárad don't hike at all.

Instead, they relax in the meadow by the end-station (which has a small food stall) and nearby Veil Waterfall.

Read: 8 must-see Budapest buildings

Kids at the controls

Other lines worth mentioning include Nagybörzsöny, a pretty village with a medieval Romanesque church, where you can catch the small train up into the forests for a meal (or a swim) at the hotel near the terminus.

Chief mechanic on the Children's Railway ... maybe someday.If you don't have time to escape Budapest, there’s the Children's Railway, home to two steam engines.

To ride it, Joó recommends traveling by tram to Hűvösvölgy in the western suburbs, then taking the train up to Széchényihegy (Széchenyi Hill), from which there are great views of the city.

The Children's Railway is so-named because it‘s actually staffed by kids.

It’s an extracurricular educational program so, yes, there are a few adult supervisors around.

Finally, if you're seeking the full Hungarian safari experience -- and feeling lucky -- Joó mentions the Gemenc system, starting at Pörböly, in southern Hungary.

It gets "washed away once or twice a year by the Danube," he says, and passengers are "often attacked by millions of mosquitoes."

What a ride!

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All aboard

For narrow-gauge information and timetables ("menetrend," in Hungarian), see Narrowgauge.hu.

To check the times of regular trains, use Deutsche Bahn's excellent Europe-wide search engine.

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