Lizard Kingdom on Eagle Hill: A Walk on Sas-hegy

Our first attempt at summiting Sas-hegy was, in the words of the great ancient philosopher Clarksonius, BC 4, a terrible disappointment. Sometime in spring it had come to our attention that this particular hill, lying in the cosy proximity of the BAH interchange and the MOM park shopping mall, had eluded our attention in the (not overly) methodical project of climbing all of Budapest’s hills. We therefore set off, still under partial lockdown to discover that the park was, well, locked down. Our assumption had been that while the exhibition centre may be closed, the trail itself would still be available, just like the majority of Budapest’s hill trails. We were, however, gravely mistaken.

The reasons for this mistake were later revealed to be Sas-hegy’s status as a Natura 2000 reserve- one of the very few such areas located within city limits in the whole of Europe. As such, solo exploration is limited to the exhibition area, which is a glorified Alpine hut with a reception desk, a projector, and a bathroom, plus the viewpoint, about five minutes’ walk away from the hut. For those interested in visiting the whole area, guided tours are available on the hour from 11 AM to 3 PM (general opening hours are from 10 AM to 6 PM). The trail is about 850 metres in length, and the guide is a Hungarian speaker- English language tours are available but subject to pre-booking.  Since the blog’s industrious co-photographer was identified as a sloppy speaker of Hungarian, we were however helpfully provided an English booklet and the guide entertained us with the English names of a number of plants, bugs and birds, so we are now botanically and zoologically confused in several languages. At the time of writing, the Hungarian guided tour costs 1500 forints and can be attended only with a valid immunity document issued by the Hungarian government or an equivalent from a country with which Hungary has a bilateral agreement.

The easiest way of approaching the Sas-hegy reserve is by taking trams 17 or 61 to the BAH interchange, then walking up the hill to Tájék street. The name of the hill became established as Sas-hegy in the 19th Century, as a direct translation of the German Adlerberg- Eagle Hill. Legend has it that in 1686, to mark Buda’s liberation from the Ottomans, eagles were flown from Sas-hegy to the castle- a vaguely eagle shaped totem has been erected close to the viewpoint to commemorate this momentous event. Prior to being Sas-hegy, the hill was also known as Királyhegy, King’s Hill, since the country’s sovereigns would occasionally make pit stops in the area while hunting.

Up to the second half of the 19th Century the hill was covered with lush vineyards overseen mainly by the city’s Serbian population, who brought with them a typically Balkan grape variety, the Kadarka. As so many of Europe’s vineyards, these were destroyed by the phylloxera blight, and the Buda hills never regained their wine making fame. An attempt to recreate this classical Budapest kadarka is underway in the nearby Jókai garden, another city park belonging to the Duna Ipoly National Reserve. After the disappearance of the vineyards, the hill was slowly engulfed by housing, but retained a green area that gradually turned into the park as we know it today. As per our guide’s explanations, it was a classical case of the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In an attempt to make the area more attractive to the masses seeking a leisurely walk in well tamed nature, a number of non-endemic but highly invasive plant species were introduced. And thus, I discovered that my beloved black pines and lilacs were brought in from Mediterranean habitats during the Ottoman occupation and turned out to be just as expansive and all conquering as their masters.

Today, efforts are made to reduce their numbers in order to allow indigenous plants to thrive. Said indigenous plants are however decidedly less sexy, even if many are quirky species left behind from the ice age. The Sesleria or nyúlfarkfű, meaning bunny’s tail grass in Hungarian, is exactly that, a grass, and the Ephedra, csikófark, meaning horse’s tail (we can see a trend here) is a tiny, vaguely pine-like plant. Its specimens are gendered, but don’t much enjoy each other’s company. Sas-hegy hosts almost exclusively males, whereas the females grow on the nearby Kis-Gellérthegy- the wind and the bees enable the rest of their socially distanced procreation process.

Right next to the ephedras we were presented with one of the attractions of the hill, the rocky outcrop where the reserve’s elusive foxes like to take dumps in what is probably the toilet with the most spectacular view in the whole city. On clear days, one can see as far as the factories of Százhalombatta and the edges of the North Hungarian mountain range. Considerably closer to the hill, the BAH interchange reveals itself as part of a road that existed in some form since Roman times. Snaking up along the Danube, it connected the city of Sirmium (close to what is today Sremska Mitrovica, in Serbia) to Aquincum, the Roman precursory to Budapest.

Given the hill’s relative isolation, there are few mammals roaming around, but plenty of bugs and lizards. Of these, the Pannonian lizard is the reserve’s mascot, and may have been classified for the very first time on Sas-hegy by botanist Pál Kitaibel- he shares the lizard’s Latin name Ablepharus kitaibelii fitzingeri with zoologist Leopold Fitzinger. The Pannonian lizard has tiny legs and is well on its way to becoming a snake, and it’s also a prey for the larger, more robust green lizards. The hill is also home to a pair of common kestrels, of whom the male inspected us from above as we were slowly plowing through our route.

One of the main reason why visitors are not allowed to roam freely in the reserve is its soil, made up primarily of dolomitic rock. Dolomite can easily become dislodged when you tread on it, so straying away from the paths can lead to a speed up in the erosion of surfaces which support plant life. Some bits of dolomite have grouped into peculiar formations: one of these is known as the Beethoven rock, and the other as Bear rock, although neither really looks the part, or we just lack some skill on the active imagination front.  

For up to date information on opening hours, access requirements and special programmes, you can visit the reserve’s site here.

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