BALATONFUZFO, Hungary (Reuters Life!) - Unlike most vacationing Hungarians, Bela Szigeti best remembers Lake Balaton for a steep descent into a smoldering abyss.
Szigeti, 74, spent his formative years working as a mechanic in the underground power plant of a gunpowder factory on the cusp of central Europe’s biggest lake, the Balaton, 110 km (68 miles) west of the capital Budapest.
The coal-fired plant, all but forgotten until its owner chemicals firm Nitrokemia Zrt. recently came up with the idea to use or sell it, went online in 1927 after Hungary’s World War One.
It was built underground as a defense against air strikes but also to cover up its operation. Its chimneys were puffing in the woods nearby so that in case of a bomb attack, the plant, hidden beneath a thick layer of earth, would remain intact.
Entry into the plant is through an unassuming office block.
A spiral staircase winds its way down into a steep concrete tunnel, which ends on an iron gallery perched atop the first of three gigantic halls.
“Ours was like a jack-of-all-trades brigade. We fixed coal bogies, furnaces, exhaust fans,” said Szigeti, one of the few remaining workers of the former power plant. He took up work at the age of 16 in 1951 and worked eight years underground.
Despite all the hardships, the noise, the extreme heat and the constant draught in the hangar-sized concrete halls of the two-storey power plant, out of operation since 1972, Szigeti said working there had a very intimate atmosphere to it.
“With colleagues, we were almost like family. Unfortunately, there are very few of us left,” Szigeti said.
“We liked coming here so much that if the shift started at 6, we were all down here already at half past 5 ... chatting about the events of the past days.”
Almost all of the equipment of the plant, save for a few coal bogies, were sold as waste iron in the late 1990s. Yet once inside, Szigeti recounts the whereabouts of his former tools as if he had last been there the day before, not four decades ago.
UNDERPANTS AS DUNGAREES At the heart of this dungeon-like power plant, complete with proper bathrooms, dressing rooms and workshops, were four coal furnaces, each the size of a smaller bus, feeding two power generators to supply the gunpowder factory on the surface. The coal was moved to the furnaces through a long tunnel leading deep inside the hill, where the constantly smoldering furnaces created the most unforgiving conditions.
“Near the turbines it was very noisy and down beside the furnaces it was very hot,” Szigeti said. “Down here it was so hot we wore underpants as dungarees.”
At its peak, the power plant, carved 60 meters (197 ft) into the hillside, burned up about 275,000 tonnes of coal a year. By the late 1960s, however, it could not keep up with rising energy demand as the factory began producing various other chemicals.
When the plant was shut down workers employed there took up jobs elsewhere in the factory, including a new oil-fired power plant on the surface designed to replace its hidden counterpart.
Reporting by Gergely Szakacs, editing by Paul Casciato