Scenes from Budapest, Cogwheel Train

watercolor - mixed media work of Budapest cogwheel train in winter
«A budapesti fogaskerekű — Budapest cogwheel train», mixed media 2012

The cogwheel train, with its toy-box red body, its bells and melodies, chugging up the hill on a winter’s night— one of my first impressions of Budapest.

In the years since, I have ridden the cogwheel through the seasons, spring, summer, fall, and winter, paced up and down its platforms, learnt each of its station names, saluted its conductors, walked alongside its cog tracks.

Even at home, unseen, the rumble of its passage is our grandfather’s clock, marking the passage of time. Its toy-like compartments mark the beginning and end of my trips to and from the city.

So bear me while I write a bit about this quaint hillside transport, its past and its role on New Years Day.

The snows had melted away a few days after Christmas, leaving the hills somewhat naked and forlorn. Along the cog tracks running behind the house, the ground had reverted back to the mottled brown of decomposing leaves, mute and humid underfoot. Evenings, only a few Christmas lights and the windows of the passing cogwheel would periodically illuminate the darkness— a series of rounded square windows framing muffled faces that ascended and descended with regularity behind a screen of stark trees.

But on the first morning of the New Year, I came to the window to find a fine filigree of frost lacing every twig, every branch, every leaf, every gate, every roof tile, every stone. And the air, it seemed a diaphanous white veil, through which one moved like a trembling young bride. From this hazy picture, the red and cream cogwheel emerged like a carriage from a fairytale. Its sliding doors opened with a whoosh just before our feet on the icy platform, and in we stepped.

It is a family tradition to take the cogwheel train up to the top of Széchenyi Hill for a little stroll in the forest on the first day of the year.

I imagine that at no other time, at no other moment, does the cogwheel ride resemble more its first journeys of the late 19th century than on a white winter’s day— snow and frost render almost invisible the houses that have multiplied in the past four decades on the hillsides, the canvas is once again blank. One is transported to those times when vineyards still covered the slopes, with only a scattering of villas, visited during the weekends by those living in the seething cauldron of Pest.

When Niklaus Riggenbach, a Swiss locomotive designer, built continental Europe’s second cog railway here in 1874, he replaced an hours-long horse-and-buggy service that had effectively limited expansion on the Buda hills with an open-window steam-powered train decked in green livery.

Even in the few decades following 1929, when the steam engines were replaced with electric trains and yellow passenger cars, there was nothing but a lone school among fruit orchards and grassy slopes near our station.

The present cogwheel trains are rarely ever filled to capacity. One begins to recognize faces, of passengers and conductors, one runs into neighbors. Once, on our way back home after midnight, well past the hour of the last train going up hill, we spied a darkened cogwheel heading towards a station we happened to be passing. Rushing to the platform, we waved to the conductor, who halted the train, and begged him to take us up. He opened the doors with a whoosh, and we took up seats in the dark. Up went the phantom train, with lights switching on midway, not stopping until it had reached our station, whereupon we thanked the conductor, bid him a good night and happy holidays, letting the cogwheel continue on its way.

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