Transylvania– the land beyond the forest, home for traditions, legends and nature’s untamed beauty. Romania’s touristic jewel is usually visited for its triad of medieval cities Brasov-Sighisoara-Sibiu, to go Dracula hunting in the old castles or to explore the wilderness in biking or trekking tours.
It is a region with a rich, troubled history that nowadays translated into a colorful folklore with century old traditions that vary from one part of the territory to another. One of these regions makes the subject of this post: Zarand Country, a less explored area, not very familiar to Romanians either.
Zarand Country got its name from the nearby Zarand Mountains, part of the Western Carpathians and spreads over three counties: Hunedoara, Arad and Alba. Our sightseeing trip starts in the capital city of Hunedoara, Deva with a visit to the ancient fortress.
The fortress dates back to the 13th century and it has been considered one of the best defense fortifications in Transylvania, “the one impossible to conquer” ,due to its uphill location that allows a 360 degrees view of the entire valley and vipers. Yes, vipers as in snakes! Legend has it that the hill is crawling with horn vipers brought here sometimes in the Dark Ages to bite the possible invaders.
Today, it is the only hill in the country where this kind of vipers live as their natural habitat is at higher altitudes. Fortunately, a visit to the fortress is possible via a cable car avoiding any face-to-face meetings with a lovely viper. Inside the fortress you will see a lot of ”beware viper” signs but they are more of a protective measure than indication of a real threat as attacks haven’t happened for a long time.
After the fortress we head to the heart of the Zarand Country: the small town of Brad and the surrounding villages. The road that takes you there is DN76 from Deva, a quite troublesome road due to very tight turns therefore driving slower isn’t a bad choice. This allows us to really observe the scenery which is spectacular especially during spring when the trees are in bloom and all the plants are covered in a fresh-green coat.
Before entering Brad, you will pass through a village called Podele which is highly important for the happiness of your stomach. Just as you enter Podele you will see a sign on the left for a small shop selling traditional food specific for this area. A must-eat are a kind of sausages called Virsli, made only in this part of Transylvania (Brad and villages around it). As far as I know there are only two families left that produce the sausages and the recipes are kept secret and passed on from generation to generation. Whether you choose to boil or barbecue them, they are delicious either way. You can try other traditional goodies as well and go for a picnic lunch.
Brad is the biggest town and the region’s economic center. It was built for mine workers since here, mining has a tradition of over 2000 years from 21 BC to 2006 AD. The gold and silver from these mines was sent to Egypt and Rome in Ancient times and later to USSR. Closing the mines had a negative impact on the economy of the area but people are strongly against the pollutant methods of mining that were proposed in recent years.
Testimony to the valuable reserves that exist in the mountains is the Gold Museum in Brad. This is a unique collection of gold, silver and different minerals from Romania and around the world presented in their natural form (no jewelry exhibited). The Gold Museum is the only one of this kind in Europe. The stars of the museum are the pieces that are (naturally) shaped like a snake, writing feather, ballerina or even polar bear.
A second stop in Brad is at the train station, a massive building with Viennese influences. I always thought that the station was a bit too grand for this town but it is beautiful and artistic, or it will be once restored. Now it serves as a home for a bunch of crazy pigeons and as starting point for a fun ride with a 1957 steam engine train.
Steam engines (Rom. Mocanita) are running for touristic purposes in several places in Transylvania but since they started working only in recent years it’s still a somewhat hidden treasure. Unfortunately the mocanita in Brad has a special program because the tourists are scarce around these parts therefore it works only on special occasions like Easter, town celebrations or with previous appointments.
The fun part about this ride in particular (besides the steam and the cool pictures) is that it goes through the town for a good part of the journey and you can actually see households and people doing their daily activities. The end of the ride is a bit creepy, to be honest, as it stops at the warehouse where they build train engines of all sorts and sizes. It was interesting to see, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a horror movie would be filmed there.
Moving on and leaving Brad behind we arrive at Tebea where we find the “Pantheon of the Moti”, the only pantheon in Romania and a cemetery for Romanian heroes. During the period when Transylvania was part of the Hungarian empire this was the centre of the Romanian resistance and leaders of two big uprisings (in 1784 and 1848) are connected to this place. The main attraction is an 800 years old oak tree kept together by cement. The leader of the 1784 uprising planned his moves by this tree and it is said that his right hand is buried under it. His execution on the breaking wheel was the last one in Europe as it became illegal soon afterwards.
The grave of another national hero and leader of the 1848 rebellion alongside an interesting church are also part of the pantheon. The uniqueness of the church comes from the fact that the Romanian flag was painted on its ceiling in 1896 as a way to defy the Hungarian authorities. Hungarian rule ended in 1918 when Transylvania became part of Romania but this subject continues to be a sensitive matter on both sides.
The road continues its way out of Zarand Country to the city of Oradea. This region is best to be explored by bicycle in spring and autumn in order to really enjoy the sights. In summer and winter I recommend a car as the temperatures are extreme.
Option 1-the Sibiu route 398 km: A1 highway from Bucharest to Pitesti, then road E81 to Sibiu (Pitesti-Ramnicu Valcea-Sibiu), then road E68 Sibiu-Deva and from Deva is road DN76. This route is my favorite as it passes through the Olt River Valley which is a lovely piece of nature and makes a pit stop in Sibiu possible too.
Option 2:-the Brasov route 457 km: DN1 from Bucharest to Brasov (through Prahova Valley), then E68/E81 from Brasov to Deva and then DN76 from Deva.
During summer it is possible to go on the two amazing roads that pass the mountains: Transfagarasanu (the best road in the world according to Top Gear) or Transalpina.
E68 between Timisoara and Deva and then DN76 from Deva.
Trains to Deva are from all major cities in Romania and from Deva to Brad there are buses just outside the train station.
Addresses, Opening hours , Fees
It doesn’t have an address precisely, you will see the hill with the fortress from basically anywhere in Deva and there are signs that point the direction.
Fees: Adults 10 Lei, Reduced ticket for students, children, pupils and seniors 5 lei
Opening hours: everyday from 08:00 to 20:00 (last cable car going up is at 19:45)
The Gold Museum:
Address: Independentei Str. No.3
Fees: Adults 15 lei, Children above 14 and students 10 lei, children under 14 and seniors 5 lei
Opening hours: from Tuesday to Sunday 09:00 to 17:00, Monday closed
The Steam Engine Train:
For more details: www.cfi.ro
The “Pantheon of the Moti”
Address: DN76 Tebea, Baia de Cris village
Opening hours: everyday from 09:00 to 20:00
Fees: 10 lei