Ancient Dacia and Romania’s Stonehenge – Sarmizegetusa, Romania

P1120331“Sarmy . . .  That place.  You know what I’m talking about.”  That’s how I usually started conversations about our weekend trip to Sarmizegetusa, the ancient capital of Dacia before the Romans invaded – hidden from modern civilizations, buried in the mountains, only recently found.  One of only six UNESCO World Heritage sites in Romania, the ruins of this Dacian fortress are far from the well-beaten tourist haunts and require a long, tortuous drive and steep hike.  This makes for destination visited by few – until now.  

Google mapsIn and of themselves, the 1st century B.C. ruins aren’t exotic.  No monoliths and no massive fortifications.  “Although conquered by the Romans at the beginning of the 2nd century A.D. the extensive, well-preserved remains of these defensive works, still stand in spectacular natural surroundings and give a dramatic picture of a vigorous and innovative civilization.”  The emphasis from this Tourism Romania quote must be on the dramatic, ‘spectacular natural surroundings.’  Situated in Romania’s oldest national park (Retezat National Park, est. 1935), the forest on the surrounding mountains has been spared the deforestation so prevalent on Romania’s hills.  The setting is fitting and seemingly far more mythical than similar sites that hold ancient monuments, but are surrounded by tourist buses and kitchy souvenirs.  

Trajan's Column, in two pieces, at the V&A in London.
Trajan’s Column, in two pieces, at the V&A in London.

The Dacians were a formidable bane to the Roman’s expansionary efforts.  If you’ve been to Rome, you have likely seen Trajan’s Column, the pillar depicting the victory of the Roman Emperor Trajan over the Dacians between 101-106 A.D.  (An exact replica of the column is on display in the Victoria & Albert museum in London, which I photographed in April).  To the modern ear, the Dacia name might elicit visions of old communist clunker cars or the popular and more recent Dacia Duster, but the name goes back much further than the car company.  

While researching for our weekend getaway to explore the Sarmizegetusa region, I did what I usually do – google it.  There seemed to be some conflicting information on its location, so I must highlight an important quote from wikipedia (which I did not read until after our trip): “Sarmizegetusa Regia should not be confused with Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa, the Roman capital of Dacia built by Roman Emperor Trajan some 40 km away, which was not the Dacian capital. Sarmizegetusa Ulpia was discovered earlier, was known already in the early 1900s, and was initially mistaken for the Dacian capital. . .”  Make sure you visit the Sarmy you intend to visit.  If your trip does not involve a long drive up a mountain, parking at the base of a cobble stone road, and hiking another 20 minutes to the top a mountain, you’re at the wrong one.

Cobblestone road still under construction. Soon access to the site will be nearly effortless.
Cobblestone road still under construction. Soon access to the site will be nearly effortless.

It might seem like a quite the effort, but a Romanian we walked past on our way down was exhilarated.  He had last visited in 1996 when the road at the bottom of the mountain was unpaved and ended well before the historic site.  He then had to hike several hours to reach this little-known location.  Today, the last stretches of pavement, courtesy in part to EU funds, should be complete by June 30.  Guards patrol the grounds at all times, making sure you don’t touch the ancient stones or disturb the sacred grass.  Tickets can be bought from a guard at the mountain hut.  

Oh, and if you need to use the toilet, bring your own paper and find a tree.  The new toilets also don’t open until June 30.

Click on a photo and use the arrows to view photos with some descriptions.


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