Located in the heart of Transylvania, bordered by the clear waters of Mures River on the east and by splendid and lofty hills on the west, surrounded by the waters of Ampoiu River rushing through fertile fields, the city of Alba Iulia is always ready to receive enthusiastic guests and share with them countless legends.
Neither the 340 kilometers that separate it from Bucharest nor the 100 kilometers that one has to travel from the international airports of Cluj Napoca or Targu Mures should stand in the way of someone who wants to discover the past secrets of the Alba Carolina Fortress.
ALBA IULIA – a City that Breathes History
The historical data that proves this settlement’s existence since ancient times and traces of all the events that have marked the history of this city is still present on its walls is well preserved and worthy of any traveler’s attention.
An important Neolithic settlement dating from 5000 BC was revealed in the north of the city. An earth castle dating from the Iron Age was discovered at about four kilometers from Alba Iulia, on the Mures River.
The origin of this city’s name also goes quite far in the past. In 953, Zsombor, a Hungarian prince, was baptized and received the name of Julius (Gyula). Hungarians called this settlement “the white city of Gyula,” which was later translated into Latin – Alba Iulia.
The next remarkable moment in the city’s history was November 1st, 1599. The political unification of Transylvania, Moldavia, and Wallachia into one state led by Michael the Brave was achieved on that day. The city’s keys were handed over to the new ruler by Bishop Demetrius Napragyi, who later became chancellor of Transylvania.
The event marked the history of Alba Iulia, although the unification did not last for long. The final union of Transylvania, Banat, Crisana, and Maramures with the Romanian Principalities (Moldavia and Wallachia) was proclaimed centuries later, on 1st December 1918.
The unification was truly completed on 15th October 1922, when King Ferdinand and Queen Mary’s coronation took place in front of the Reunification Cathedral in Alba Iulia.
The 1st of December became the National Day of Romania, after the 1989 Romanian Revolution against the communist party, and it is a tribute to the city’s historical importance.
The Route of the Three Fortifications – a Journey Along the History of Two Millennia!
Balkantrails offers the opportunity of traveling over two millennia in time by visiting the vestiges of three fortifications built successively on the same location but in three different eras. Each fortification encompasses the previous one: the Roman Fort (106 AD) is encompassed by the medieval fortress (built between the sixteenth and seventeenth century), which is in turn encompassed by the Alba Carolina Citadel or the Vauban fortification (built in the eighteenth century).
The Alba Carolina fortress has been recently restored and is open for visits. Anyone who crosses its thresholds should spend at least a few hours to see the discoveries made in the main chamber and the channel between the walls, the artillery platform, the tourist routes of the city, and the park in the Fortress.
The Gateway to the citadel is the starting point of this journey through ancient times. The first building at this location was a Benedictine monastery, documented in 1294. However, after the dissolution of the monastery, this is where the Principality Mint began to function. Coins were stamped here for almost two centuries, starting with 1714. In the nineteenth century, the same place becomes the city’s prison.
Another stop in your journey brings you even further into the past. The Southern Gate of the Roman camp, part of the Roman fortress, was built in 106 AD. The “Principalis Dextra” Gate was flanked by two towers, from which only the foundations can now be seen. The Camp was constructed when the 13th Gemini Legion remained in this area to guard the land and supervise gold’s transportation to Rome. This was one of the defining moments in Romania’s history. After the withdrawal of the Roman armies, at the end of the third century, the local population continued to live together with the legions of veterans who received land and with migratory peoples who have settled in this area afterward. Alba Iulia would be considered in the next period the political center of the entire area.
Another attraction that can be seen on the “Route of the Three Fortifications” is the platform artillery. Three functional guns dating from the eighteenth century are placed here. The guns were actually made in the city’s workshops, established ever since the 16th century. Arsenal and artillery barracks were hosted in the former princely palace, in the southeast of the “Route of the Three Fortifications.” Every Saturday at 12:00, the flag of Alba Iulia is hoisted on the wall of Alba Carolina Citadel, and a salvo of honor is executed with the three guns, using a technique of the early eighteenth century.
Also, Must See…
The Armory underlying Bethlem Bastion is one of the medieval citadel’s former guard-rooms, now reconstructed as an armory, with vintage decor. When the works for building Alba Carolina Fortress began in 1715, the Guard Room was transformed into a bakery. Two huge ovens used for producing the bread required for all the city residents functioned in this room until the beginning of the twentieth century. Ancient weapons, shields, and armor can be discovered in this room.
ALBA IULIA’s National Museum of Unification is among the most important museums in Romania. The museum is housed in a building named “Babylon,” built between 1851 and 1853, originally for military purposes. “Babylon” is the most important romantic architectural monument in this town. The building is located inside the Citadel Alba Carolina and has two floors and over one hundred rooms, hosting the main exhibition and a library and restoration laboratories.
The St. Michael Catholic Cathedral is the most valuable monument of early Transylvanian medieval architecture. It was built in the thirteenth century, around the same time as Notre Dame de Paris. The cathedral harmoniously combines the Gothic and the Romanesque architectural elements.
The sarcophagus of John Hunyadi, along with those of his brother, Johannes Miles, his eldest son, Ladislaus (located along the south aisle, at the right of the entrance), and those of Queen Isabella and her son, John Sigismund (located on the opposite side), are inside this cathedral.
The Orthodox Cathedral of Reunification, known as The Coronation Cathedral, is where King Ferdinand and Queen Maria, sovereigns of Romania, were crowned on 15th October 1922. The cathedral was built between 1921 and 1923. Its architecture is inspired by the royal church of Targoviste, being an example of the Romantic Movement initiated in Romanian art in the last decades of the nineteenth century. With a bell tower of fifty-eight meters, both the cathedral itself and the surrounding wall and buildings are imposing.
The Union Hall is another building of great importance for the city of Alba Iulia and the Romanian people’s history. This is where the most magnificent Romanian history took place: the Union of 1st December 1918. 1228 representatives of the Romanians in Transylvania have met in this hall on that memorable day and decided to unite the two Romanian Principalities. The original documents signed on that day and the flags brought by the delegates who came to the great union from across the country are exhibited in the main hall. The basement also hosts a permanent exhibition of ethnography.
The Bathyaneum Library is a Baroque building. Its interior was modified in 1780 according to the destination it currently has: as the library of the Bishop of Transylvania, Ignatius Bathyani.
It is worldwide known for its collections of great value, including manuscripts, incunabula, and rare prints. The Codex Aureus (dating from the ninth century), the manuscript known as the Gospel of Lorsch (including the Gospels of Mark and Matthew and the Psalms of David and dating from the twelve century), the Codex Burgundus (dating from the fifteenth century), the New Testament from Belgrade (dating from 1648), and the Bible of Serban Cantacuzino (dating from 1688) are only some of the library’s most valuable items. The first astronomical observatory in Romania was founded here in 1792.
HOT TIP: Ask your Balkantrails guide to take you to the statuary group of Horea, Closca, and Crisan (three Romanian leaders of the revolt of 1784, who have fascinating, tragic, and amazing death stories), but also to the Gallows Hill Monument, the Princes’ Palace and the Busts of King Ferdinand and Queen Maria and the equestrian statue of Michael the Brave – the Unifier!
Balkantrails Recommends a Feast of Good Taste in ALBA IULIA
Last, but definitely not least, there is one thing that no one should miss on tour in ALBA IULIA: enjoying the cheerful Romanian music and dances, tasting the aromatic wines and the wonderful Romanian cuisine, as well as the great food recipes of Roman chefs, since the culinary customs of people who lived in the ancient city of Apulum have been revived after 2,000 years in ALBA IULIA, in the exhibition event called “Taberna De Gustibus.” The domestic environment, the ancient food-related customs, and authentic items of furniture and home décor have been reconstituted for this event. Practically, an authentic Roman tavern was recreated, along with the famous Roman Baths. You can enjoy the festive atmosphere of a Roman banquet, specific to the middle class of plebeians, including traditional ancient dishes, such as lamb soup, stew veal, or stuffed cabbage with sauerkraut, but also “balmosh” – a Romanian traditional meal. Besides all that, only a suitable choice from the wide variety of Romanian wine collections can make the atmosphere even more pleasant and fun.
Explore ALBA IULIA with Balkantrails and enjoy the wonders of over two millennia of ancient history and Romanian traditions, and you will earn unforgettable memories!