As I was looking through the window of our car I could see the abandoned railway of the “mocănița”, an old type of steam powered train that traveled very slowly between mountains, built in Romania at the beginning of the 20th century. That’s when the memories hit me. Back when I was little, on the Arieș Valley in the Apuseni Mountains, there was a line of “mocănița” which ran once a day. I can still remember when my father first took me on a ride in this funny machinery. Waiting in the train station, I was carefully measuring the railways. Ours was much narrower. And then I saw it coming towards us, the steaming locomotive followed by the tiny wagons. But the most spectacular thing about this train was the platform at the end, a sort of “convertible” wagon for tourists. That’s where we sat during the entire journey, that lasted for a good deal of hours, even though the distance was of only 93km. We traveled through forests, avoiding branches at all times. We were so close to the banks of the Arieș River that I thought we were gonna fall right into it. The narrow gauge railway train did not stop in stations. It didn’t need to.It was going so slowly that passengers could get in or out as it went. When it reached its fastest speed, you could still outrun it if you really tried. Nowadays, no “mocănița” passes through this valley anymore. The railway is abandoned. However, except for a few places where it’s covered with gravel, it is still intact.
Quick steps toward the 600 years old “Sub Piatră” hamlet
When we saw the massive limestone of the Bedeleu plateau rising above the valley, we knew we were close. In Sălciua de Jos, a village on the main road, we were on the look out for any signs pointing us into the direction of the “Sub Piatră” hamlet. The asphalt turned into a dirt road. We were driving along “Valea Morilor” (Water Mills’ Valley), named after the 12 water mills that used to work here. At the end of the valley, an isolated establishment is revealed before our eyes. People have inhabited this place for over 600 years. The name of the hamlet, “Sub Piatră”, means “under the stone”. They couldn’t have come up with a better name, as it is set right under the steep rocky slopes of the mountain. Standing proud above the houses, we spot the “Sub Piatră” Monastery.
The “Sub Piatră” Monastery
On a plateau above the hamlet we found a nun monastery. The setting is considered one of the most picturesque in Romania, placed right at the edge of the pasture, opening up toward the entire valley. It was built around a wooden church dating back from 1798. It is a small and simple building, separated from the rest of the monastery by a stone wall. The church was declared a historical monument and it seems that it was built on the foundations of an older church.
Bold steps toward “Huda lui Papară” Cave
Hidden behind the hamlet and the monastery lies one of the most spectacular caves in Romania. A shortcut takes us down from the wooden church, back to the valley. We crossed the river on a footbridge. That is when we noticed the huge hole in the white limestone wall ahead. That’s actually where the river was coming out from. This is “Huda lui Papară” Cave, the biggest in the Apuseni Mountains and home to the largest bat colony in Europe. In prehistoric times it was used as a hideaway and a place of worship. It is believed that Zamolxes, the god of the Dacians, took shelter in this cave.
As we were getting closer to the 40m high natural entrance, we saw that the stairs and footbridges above the water were broken, some even completely pulled out of the walls. Back in 1986, a significant part of this large cave was set up with metal bridges and stairs in order for visitors to enter in safe conditions. In time, due to the lack of interest on the behalf of the administrators, everything began to deteriorate until it was finally destroyed by a flooding. Today, the cave can only be visited by speleologists because it requires special equipment. We promised we would return some day and perhaps then we will get the chance to see more of this natural wonder.
It’s a good thing we brought along our map because we were not even close to the end of our journey. Just above us, waiting for our arrival, was another great wonder of the Apuseni Mountains.
To be continued…