By Maria-Diana Vlad
Born in Bucharest, at the age of 7 I moved with my parents to Canada. At 19 we moved to the Netherlands, where I pursued my higher education in the social and environmental sciences. Last year, just before the pandemic hit, I returned to my home country. Most people here find it hard to believe I moved back after so many years spent in the “civilized” world. I normally do not give an explanation, but the reason is very simple: I care very much for this country, and God wants me here.
As to for what purpose, I will discover this as I tread the path, finding out what life is about in a process of self-discovery and rediscovery. I had left behind a deep spiritual part of me in Romania, and now I am back to find it. There is so much potential in this country, and I believe that Romania will reach it in the future. This is a sacred place. It gives much, even though so much has been taken away, and is still being taken. I have faith that one day it will receive the great renown that it deserves. The following is the story of short weekend trip I recently took with my father to Hunedoara county. We went with the aim of visiting Sarmisegetuza Regia – the Dacian capital, but came back with so much more. Sarmisegetuza, a UNESCO World-Heritage site, along with the other 5 Dacian fortresses, is the perfect place to begin discovering Romania, going back to its early beginnings.
Cozia Monastery We left early Saturday morning, 7th August, at 05:30 from Bucharest, in a rental car. Waze told us it would take approximately four and a half hours to arrive at Sarmisegetuza, but it took us about seven. We stopped a couple of times and took our time to take in the amazing views. Hunedoara really is one of the most beautiful counties in the country. Our first major stop was the famous Orthodox Cozia Monastery of nuns by the Olt river as well as Cozia National Park. It is renowned for its architecture. We stepped inside, prayed a little, took a photo or two, and then continued on our journey. Unfortunately I missed the Arutela Roman military fort and the Turnu Monastery nearby. This region has many ancient fortresses and monasteries, it is easy to miss them.
Afterwards we continued on our journey to the main destination. On our way we passed Sibiu, the famous medieval town, travelled through Orastie, Orastioara de Sus, and finally the town of Costesti, where our guesthous
e was located. There was a nice place there with people selling food and souvenirs, including traditional Dacian pie made with cheese, a delicacy still preserved to this day. We arrived there about 1 pm, and the fortress closes at 20:00, so we had plenty of time to have a look at it. Finding a parking place was a bit tricky at first, but we found a good one, and then only had to hike about 10 minutes uphill. I believe the Dacians found a very good place to “hide” their fortress, surrounded by forests, between the hills. It is not so obviously accessible. The site is still being thoroughly discovered. Unfortunately, much of it was destroyed at the time of the Roman occupation of the area, which lasted 200 years. Regia was the last Dacian capital dating back to the second century. After its destruction, the Romans built their own capital, known as Ulpia Traiana. Not wanting to admit defeat and be taken captive by the Romans, King Decebal fled to the mountains where he committed suicide. As you enter the area, you approach a Dacian paved road on the left, quite well preserved (the rest of the stones have been reconstructed). This road supposedly led to a sacred place downhill to the right, where there are now three temples standing. The area is composed of a civilian settlement on the slope, a fortress situated at the highest level, and a sacred area with three temples. The structures were built out of blocks, plinths, drums, made of limestone andesite and wooden columns, lost to time. I won’t get into too much detail, you have to go there yourself to see and to read about it, but the Main temple and the Solar Disc temple warrant detail. The Main temple is cone-shaped and stands in the center of the Sacred Area, which is now partly reconstructed by archaeologists. It is believed to have been built in honor of the greatest deity of the Dacians-Zamolxis. The Solar Disc temple was where sacrificial rituals were performed, the blood draining into surrounding ducts. It is believed that this temple was also used for something related to astronomy.
Standing there, breathing that air, it feels like the Machu Picchu of Romania. Situated deep in the Orastiei Mountains, you enter a clearing and voila, you are there! The first thing I laid eyes on was the Sacred Area on the level below. The bright sunlight shone through the trees, the sky a deep blue. I felt invigorated by the peace and liveliness of this place…as if it were not just a ruin, but yet very much alive. I paid no mind to all the tourists, but allowed myself to be completely absorbed into the landscape, and transported back in time. There were some people meditating there, as it is said that the place emanates a lot of pure energy. It was quite emotional for me to be there, the first time going to the sacred place of my ancestors after so many years away from home…it was a warm welcome, and a tribute of respect on my part, for we must never forget where we come from, no matter how far we travel. I feel a deep responsibility to help protect this land, just as my ancestors fought so bravely for it…
Afterwards we went to the guest house to settle down. It is called Costesti and I highly recommend it – very friendly host. After a drink we climbed for 50 minutes up to the Blidaru Citadel, the second of the six Dacian fortresses which are part of a UNESCO Heritage Site. It was quite a beautiful climb through the forest. I was a little dizzy from the glass of beer I had drunk and the heat, but made it there just fine. The foundation of the fortress was quite well maintained, especially the main entrance, and from this one can better see how Sarmisegetusa would have been built. The remains of the towers can also be seen. There was also a sign warning of poisonous snakes. They usually lurk in deep grass and stones. I was anticipating one at every moment, but there really is nothing to worry about, just to watch where you step. I saw many lizards instead! The way down was quite easy. After we reached the bottom I went to buy some souvenirs, and that is when I noticed that 50 lei from my pocket went missing! I considered it a sacrifice to my ancestors ;). We then enjoyed a nice traditional meal and went to bed.
Eighth of August (08.08) is said to be a day filled with extraordinary healing energy. After we left the guesthouse we went to see the Cetatuia citadel nearby, and that is where I soaked up a lot of energy. I must say this one was the most well preserved! It was a magical feeling to be there, I really felt like I travelled back in time. Plus it was clearly still an archaeological dig, with more to be discovered and reconstructed. I don’t have the space to encompass all of it in just a few words. This one was quite a large settlement. And much to my amazement, we found two temples where we really did not expect them, built below the fortress. Hidden on a lower level between the trees, one can see the foundations for the columns laid out. It was simply remarkable, and it caught my breath. There are also two houses being reconstructed by archaeologists. One of them, most likely belonging to the leader, still has remains of the access stairs.
Sarmisegetusa Ulpia Traiana Next we visited Ulpia Traiana, the Roman capital in the Dacian province after the conquest. This was a better preserved fortress, and much larger. The difference in foundation layout could be seen. The Romans did not use wood. The most impressive parts
were the amphitheatre, where of course, just like in the colosseum, battle games were held, and the Forum. The amphitheatre’s foundation was quite well preserved, and the doors that opened from the ground in the middle, from where tigers and other exotic animals once emerged, was still preserved.
I couldn’t help but imagine that Dacian captives were among the gladiators fighting in the games. The Forum was a large area where Roman nobility gathered to discuss various matters. The entrance was made up of two fountains, which still has a part of the frame remaining. It was impressive to see the massive columns laying down on the ground in front of me. In the back of the Forum was the Gold treasury – as Dacia was renowned for its large golden reserves, the main reason for its conquest by the Romans. I did not want to leave this place, but eventually my dad had convinced me to hurry up as time was very short!
Jiu Valley National Park
On our way home, we drove through the Jiu Valley National Park, extremely impressive, decorated with tunnels through the mountains, and you can see the Parang mountains from there. It is a protected area. It felt almost like going down a long slide with the car.
Through this valley we eventually arrived at the famous Lainici monastery, which is in Gorj County. This is a monastery, an old church and a new church. As I stood in front of the Jiu stream, contemplating how I should photograph it, a young monk approached me. He asked me if I was a professional photographer, and I responded it was just for pleasure. He invited me to visit his schit (hermitage) on the hill above the monastery-Poiana Pustnicului (the Hermit’s Glade), where he lives together with one other monk. He referred to me as sora Diana (sister Diana), which was a nice feeling. At the end of the conversation, he gave me his phone number and email. For me it was a very special encounter, as I always seek the authentic, and to enter unforced conversations with native people of a particular region.
Our last stop before embarking on our long journey home was Horezu (Horezi) Monastery. The famous monk known for his ability to tell the future, Arsenie Boca, also preached here. It is a long walk to the church as you enter the monastic gates, but extremely breathtaking, with a cobbled stone road. The Byzantine paintings were particularly unique. We did not stay long here, but it was a good feeling and a chance to catch our breath. My father allowed me to drive the car from there all the way back to Bucharest! This was my first time driving in the Olt Valley, and in any mountain area in Romania for that matter. Despite some occasional traffic here and there, it was a very fine drive, with good music from Magic FM and an enjoyable conversation as we reflected upon the short but incredibly enriching trip.
This part of western Romania, Hunedoara, Valcea, and Gorj counties have an enriching history and breathtaking views, and do not fail to surprise. Bringing both a Romanian and foreign perspective, I will briefly illustrate both. From a Romanian point of view, it is a region where one can rediscover his or her roots as well as lost history. You definitely get in touch with it here. From a foreign perspective, friendly people abound along with attractive destinations, food, guesthouses, scenery, history. That said, many areas, including the Dacian fortresses of Blidaru and Cetatuia, could be better promoted and guarded, as at the moment they can be visited without supervision, even though there is an active archaeological dig there. With a bit of maintenance, a sign showing the way, and maybe a little more arrangement to make tourists more comfortable and willing to stay there longer to explore the area could really go a long way. I have yet much more to see in this region, including Tismana monastery and Palatul Corvinilor (Corvin Palace), which is among the most well-preserved and reconstructed palaces in the entire country. I really hope that all these wonderful places will be more and more heard of, promoted, and visited, so that their preservation will become a priority. There are many obstacles along the way, but this is important, and we must not give up.