Alba Iulia, history at the heart of Romania

Alba Iulia is a tourist destination many may have never heard much of, but this up and coming tourist spot will definitely see increasing interest in the future. It’s time to plan a trip there before it gets too crowded. Most travelers go there with low expectations, but end up in awe and decide to revisit.

What the majority know about Alba Iulia relates to its rich history – this is the place where the great 1918 Union took place, which makes the city commonly referred to as the other capital city. But only a few people know about the Alba Carolina citadel, which now, after the restoration with EU and private money, looks stunning. The citadel and the relaxed feel of the city will definitely turn Alba Iulia into a tourist magnet.

It’s the heritage that makes this city a must-include-in-my-holiday destination, but it’s not only that. The main attraction is the Vauban fortress called Alba Carolina, and a trip around the citadel – which should be guided, otherwise you’ll miss a lot of stuff – is a trip through Romania’s history, back to the Dacian and Roman settlements, to the Habsburg citadel in the star-shaped configuration designed by the French engineer Marshal Vauban. Should you need a guided tour, the place to ask for one is the Museum of History (where the Union Hall is also located), where they can organize tailored tours, depending on how much time you have. They’re talented story tellers too – the museum director Gabriel Rustoiu is one of them.

The Vauban fortress was built between 1715-1738 after the Habsburg conquest of Transylvania, and it looks great restored. The seven gates of the star–shaped fortress are a tour in themselves, and what sets them apart from other Vauban–type fortresses are the decorations that are still present on the majority of them.

But the history of the place goes further back in time: this was the place where King Michael the Brave unified the three Romanian provinces for the first time (and for a short time) in 1600. Later on, in the 20th century, this was the reason the city was chosen for the Great Union of 1918. To this end, the Union Hall within the Union Museum is a must see. Later on in 1922, King Ferdinand and Queen Maria were crowned in Alba Iulia, at the Orthodox Cathedral, which was built for this occasion. A rarity to see an Orthodox Cathedral so close to a Catholic one, which had been on the site since the year 1000 – and yet they ‘live’ together in the Alba Iulia fortress.

There are several palaces that need to be visited – so book at least a day for your tour of the fortress. You will be impressed by the attention to detail and by the local authorities’ understanding of the need for entertainment. If you visited other citadels in Romania and found it a bit boring, it might not be the case here. From the guards dressed in historic costumes who perform a change of guard ritual every day and fire the cannons on Saturdays at noon, to the photo magnet statues located here and there in the fortress, everything creates a positive experience.

The fortress is a lively place, especially if you happen to visit while they organize one of their frequent cultural events. But even apart from that, a lot people from down the city spend time there, a lot of them biking and mixing with tourists. The change of the guard is also very popular among tourists and locals alike, and so is the new Roman guard the Museum of History has put together – people dressed in Roman army costumes, performing their ritual during the evening.

The city itself is very quiet and perfect for de-stressing, as it is not on the main transport route, like the nearby Sebeș is, so chances are high you will enjoy a stress–free weekend. There’s plenty accommodation available – check below for our recommendations.

While in Alba Iulia, there are several other destinations apart from the citadel. One is the Râmetului Gorge, which was an adventure in itself and a must try for those who like adrenaline and a bit of climbing – it’s good for beginners as well.

Once the highway being built to reach Sebeș is finished, it will be even easier to get to Alba Iulia from Bucharest, but even so, on the Bucharest – Pitești – Râmnicu Vâlcea and then the Olt Valley route, it takes about five hours to travel the 350 kilometers before reaching Alba Iulia. The road there is good, although in some areas only just acceptable, but scenery on the Olt Valley is so beautiful that you’ll ignore some bumps in the road. If you have time, stop at the Cozia monastery in Căciulata, just at the entry to the Olt Valley.

On your way back to Bucharest you can take a slightly longer route via the Jiului Valley and make a stop at the famous Sarmizegetusa Regia Dacian site in Hunedoara county. Then head back to Hunedoara and Petroșani to enter the beautiful Jiului Valley. In 2013, the road was closed for repairs three days a week, on Tuesday, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, so better check before planning the route.

By Corina Chirileasa