A mining legacy
Countless buildings in Budapest, including the 1902 neo-Gothic Parliament building (pictured), were built with limestone mined from the Kőbánya district, meaning the ‘stone mine district’, on the Pest side of the city.
Centuries of mining, starting in the Middle Ages and dwindling down towards the second half of the 19th Century, carved out an underground cellar system of more than 32km, around 30m below street level.
When wells and chambers in the lower parts of the mine flooded in the mid-1990s, the local government asked a small group of divers to clean up the underwater areas. The divers realised that some of the chambers could be perfect for recreational diving.
“What Budapest was hiding from me”
One of the regular divers is local telecommunications technician, Kornél Domján, who started diving to recover from a ruptured spleen, broken ribs and a cracked hip after falling from a rooftop in 2003.
When a colleague suggested he take up scuba diving to help heal his injuries and rebuild his confidence to work on high-rise towers, he started diving off the coasts of Croatia, Taiwan and Egypt, not knowing that he could dive below his own city just 4km from his home.
“A neighbour first mentioned scuba diving beneath Budapest in 2009,” Domján recalled. “I was very eager to find out how this could at all be possible.” He made contact with Attila Bolgar, master diving instructor with local company Paprika Divers, who introduced him to the dive sites below the city.
When you hang weightless beneath your home city, you are constantly reminded of its history. Without this mine, Budapest on the surface would never have been the same,” Domján said.
A hidden world
There are four dive sites in the abandoned Kőbánya mine. Only one, called Park kút (Park well), is accessible to divers with basic Open Water Diver certification. “This is because the chambers and staircases at the Park kút site have open areas with fresh air above them, and it is safer to dive here,” Bolgar explained.
The other flooded wells are enclosed and only accessible to experienced divers with advanced and special skilled certification. The water temperature remains at approximately 12C.
At Park kút, where divers can dive 17m below the water surface (47m below street level), it takes up to 40 minutes to explore the chambers where disused mining and factory equipment can still be seen. “You can actually see how the stones were mined,” Bolgar said.
Mining, brewing, praying – and fun
According to Bolgar, the last of the limestone mining ended in 1890. During that time, winemakers and brewers were already using parts of the mine for storage or fermentation. All the chambers now used for diving were dug by brewers who needed wells beneath the mine to extract fresh water, he explained.
During World War II, parts of the mine were used as bomb shelters. Engines for the German Messerschmitt fighter planes were even assembled here. It is also during this time that three churches, one in a Gothic style, were sculpted within the mine, Bolgar explained.
Nowadays the non-flooded part of the cellar system is opened to the public a few times a year for underground, recreational running competitions and cycling races.
A city built with its own stone
Historians estimate that 1 million cubic metres of stone was excavated from the Kőbánya limestone mine, said Zita Szederkényi, head of corporate affairs at the Dreher Brewery, which is now located above large parts of the disused mine.
“Although the mine is hidden, we actually witness it every day because so many of our buildings are constructed with the limestone extracted from below us,” she said. “The exact size of the mine is not fully known. The cellar system lies not only beneath the brewery as is generally believed, but extends to much larger parts below the Kőbánya district.”
After a dive in one of the corridors of the old brewery, Domján recounted that he could see a rock that was dug out by miners more than a century ago but was never cut into building bricks. “It’s a real reminder of what happened down here and how large parts of Budapest were built,” he said.
I am so privileged. During the day, I can see all of Budapest’s impressive buildings from above. In the evening, I can experience where they were born,” Domján said.