Roșia Montana – Where History and Industry meet Progress and Conservation
Roșia Montana is a name that needs no introduction. It is a symbol that is synonymous with the history of Roman Dacia, medieval Transylvania, gold, corporate greed, hippies, and the power of protest. In 2013, the streets of Cluj were filled with people chanting “Uniți, Salvăm, Roșia Montana!” Even I, having never visited the place, felt myself sympathetic to a Romanian uprising against environmentally concerning business deals and took part in the protest. It was ultimately successful because as of 2015, the project is currently on hold and I recently found myself at Fânfest, in order to learn more about why Roșia Montana is a special place and should be preserved for future generations.
Roșia Montana lies in the Apuseni Mountains, in the ethno-geographical region referred to as Țara Moților. The region follows the area of the Arieș river valley and there can be found many canyons and highly placed settlements. The people are referred to as “Moți” and “Mocani” and are of interest due to their higher relevance of blondism and lighter features compared to other Romanians. There are many theories on their origin ranging from Slavs to Alans though the most likely hypothesis is that they are directly descended from the Dacians. Support for this theory lies in the way that they wear their hats. The word chica refers to the way Dacians would wear their hats in that it would be pulled forward and the moți are famous for pulling their hats down towards the right side. Continuing with my description of the area, mining appears to be the chief occupation of the moți as the mountains have been mined for copper, silver, and gold for centuries.
Gold, the precious metal that has built empires as well as destroyed them due to avarice, is the star of our story today. The mountains surrounding Roșia Montana are filled with gold and it is what led to the Romans establishing Alburnus Maior, a mining colony, shortly after their conquest of Dacia. Many funerary stele as well as inscriptions in Latin and Greek have been found in the area and mining continued throughout the ages finally ceasing in 2006 due to environmental concerns shortly before Romania’s ascension into the European Union. Upon arrival in Roșia, we visited an ancient gallery that led to a 100 meter descent deep into the mines. There, to my astonishment, you could see bits of gold on the walls just waiting to be extracted and processed. Our guide explained to us that there are still tons of unexplored galleries in the hard volcanic rock that possess even more gold. Looking up towards the surrounding mountains, I noticed even larger gallery openings and even signs of strip mining. It is very easy to understand why mining has been the lifeblood of the village for centuries.
The village itself deserves mention. It lies in a valley along the Roșia River and despite being small, is charming in its own way. There are many buildings with interesting architecture that points to German settlement in the past. At one point I did see the ruins of a German school dating from the nineteenth century. I use the word “ruins” in grief because many of the buildings are in very poor condition and could truly benefit from the type of renovations that took place in nearby Rimetea. There are many signs of mining there – a building for a miner’s union, a monumental reverse overshot water-wheel in the main square, and of course – a mining museum.
After our exploration of the galleries a volunteer from the Fânfest event led us on the “Turul Țarinei.” My Romanian being far from decent, I asked others what exactly did it refer to. To my surprise, no one really seemed to know. We began walking up an inclined gravel road through a village called Țarina that often gave us some nice lookout points of the surrounding mountains and we continued … and we continued some more before arriving at a lake. The lake seemed unremarkable to me though I did take note that we were probably currently at an elevation of around 2500 feet at the time; which would probably make it one of the highest lakes in Romania. Unfortunately we were soon waylaid by the rain and the spirits of the group were dampened as the realization slowly dawned that we would be climbing the 4000 foot mountain in the background. The road was graveled and in pretty good condition, but it was raining and many of our group were in clothes and shoes unsuitable for hiking. The group’s disappointment was not comforted by being told that we were heading towards a weather station on the summit.
After another hour of slow hiking we finally reached the summit where we learned about how a weather station works. It was interesting in its own right, though it did not seem to be case for others due to the circumstances of the visit. The group’s morale nearly evolved into mutiny when our guide explained that we would descend by going down a grassy, wet, slippery, heavily inclined field. The descent did not seem particularly tough, though there were many among us who did not have proper shoes for such a trek. After some complaints, the guide simply began walking down and from there, the group lost its cohesion and separated into a very long line as some managed to keep pace with the guide and quickly rushed down, while others were left to descend however they could. Here, I felt a rush of anger that the guide would remain at the forefront of the group without a concern for those (including an elderly man) who were not so technically sound in descending such potentially treacherous terrain. After an hour long trek, we returned to the village, the group had already completely dissipated and everyone was left to explore Fânfest on their own terms.
The festival is a very nice concept, designed to teach people about the history and geographical beauty of Roșia Montana. It is also a platform for activists to spread the word about helping protect it. There were booths with information, handicrafts, homemade țuica, and other interesting things. At night there are also concerts where bands perform for free. It is quite pleasing to see that so many people show an interest in protecting one of Transylvania’s treasures. I must admit though, I do wonder how the locals perceive the situation. There is the argument that the Roșia Montana Project could bring jobs to many local miners in an area where the unemployment rate is estimated to be 80 percent, but at what cost? While eco-tourism might never bring in the type of money gold mining would, it is a sustainable concept. Should the project be given the proverbial green light then the mines could find themselves exhausted in a matter of years and the unemployment situation would simply return to square one. Our world would be better served by loving our environment, keeping our water clean, and preserving what was once was for future generations. Each and every village, town, and city in the world has its own special value and Roșia Montana is beginning to discover its own – one that goes beyond gold.