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Hateg Land

Country of Legends

"The grownups never understand a thing alone. And it's so boring for the children to explain them the things again and again."
Antoine de Saint-Exupery


The brave Cande killed the dragon. He cut off its seven heads and rolled them down the slope into the valley. And for his feat to be remembered, he called the mountain Cutoff Range (Retezat). Then he got off his horse at the foot of the mountain and, thanking our Lord for the help during the fight, he built up his church and his citadel.
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Day one
We follow the river Jiu upstream and after Petrosani the space seems to expand in all directions, revealing the unending forests, united at horizon with the peaks of the mountains. Prince Cande must have climbed himself these hillocks, his eyes wandering around, towards the ranges, choosing patiently the place of his foundation.
The last rays of sun fall aslant on the castle built by the prince's descendants in Santamaria Orlea. And across the hill, atop of another hillock the majestic spire of the church points to Heaven, stubbornly enduring the ages.
But we go further, looking for a place to sleep from a village to another, more like the prince must have done seven centuries back, when he was coming home from hunting. Now just like then the peasants greet you with the doors and the hearts open, because they know that no matter who the stranger knocking at your door is, king or beggar, you must welcome him like the Lord disguised in mortal.
We find easily such a villager in Rau de Mori, name reminding the water mills that must have been here since the time of the prince. From the yard we see far away, perching on a stone, among the forests, the Colt citadel, the prince Cande's residence.
We explore the surroundings going up and down green hillocks in the sunset. The cows return peacefully from the pastures, the horses sleep standing and the moon shines among huge stars. The hustle of the city is behind us, centuries ago.

Santamaria Orlea
Santamaria Orlea church
Santamaria Orlea church painiting
Frescoes in the church
Santamaria Orlea church
Church entrance
Santamaria Orlea
Santamaria Orlea church

Day two
We wake up early and head to Santamaria Orlea, the village with a fairy-tale name. The 13th century church, elegant and slender, greets us from a small, green hillock.
The key rotates inside the lock, the wooden door rolls towards the wall and, passing through the small narthex we walk among the magnificent frescoes in the nave, red like the fire, even though many are altered by the ages.
The church, initially Orthodox, has become Reformed and is still in use for the Sunday mass.
Leaving behind Santamaria Orlea we traverse hills with grass still shining with the morning dew, having all the time the Retezat ranges as guide in front of us.
And so, inconspicuous, gradually appearing from behind the hills, the strange spire of the Densus church reveals itself. We pass through the village and somewhere at the outskirts, near the forest skirt, we climb in a hurry the steps that lead to the church.
The feeling is of a short-circuit in the grey matter, because what the eye sees, the mind can't grasp. The church seems a monument created by a mysterious civilization, long ago vanished, because as small as it seems, it is a flamboyant combination of styles and building materials: a Romanic stone spire with a strange shape, some Gothic window frames, some classic columns, pieces of Roman mausoleums, probably brought from Sarmizegetusa Ulpia Traiana, everything on a traditional folklore background. The stone wall in front of the church reminds an all chamber whose ceiling would have collapsed, making room for a yard paved with stone tiles.
The 13th century church, almost unreal is filled with the villagers who came for the Sunday mass. We manage to see the wonderful paintings inside, the oldest dating from the 14th century, all created on a blue background, like the summer sky. The architecture oddities continue inside: four pillars delimiting a square on the floor, seem to head upwards just to sustain the spire where one can climb apparently only using a tiny secret door somewhere above our heads. Everything betrays the creation of a local amateur master, for whom it seems impossible to draw a regular plan and put up a homogenous building.
Densus church
Densus church
the Sunday mass at Densus church
Sunday mass
Densus church
Densus church
Densus church
Densus church
Densus, the church yard
Densus church yard
We find it hard to leave Densus. We head towards Pesteana passing again through the green hart of Hateg Land. We stop first at a relatively new Orthodox church, but we find out that just a bit further, there is the ancient Reformed church. Indeed, we dicover it on a hillock with fir trees that seem as old as the church, which dates back to the 13th century. The church is tiny, probably an old princely chapel, with white sinous walls like plasticine. It is still used by two families in the village, old Romanian families who were Magyarized during the centuries just like the prince Cande/Kendeffy.
We leave Pesteana and follow an empty road that winds along hills to the destination: Prislop Monastery. One of the oldest monasteries in the country, dating back to the 13th century, Prislop attracts pilgrims from all over the country. On the river stone walls of the church one can still see small pieces of plaster bearing ancient paintings.
Pesteana church
Pesteana old church

On the magnificent blue sky clouds begin to gather and when the sunrays are filtered by the clouds the colors fade and the landscape appears like in a medieval fresco, Strei church dominating the horizon with its picturesque stone spire. This 13th church also preserves inside incredible frescoes in a combination of Byzantine and Gothic styles, almost as old as the church itself. In a corner the master painter himself is depicted on a background as blue as the sea on an autumn day. Dressed in a suit typical to the 14th century merchants, his name is Grozie, according to the inscription next to the portrait.
It's time to head once more to our basis at Rau de Mori, an opportunity to see Colt church , built around the year 1300. The river stone church is perched on a height, just opposite the rocks to which the Colt citadel is hanging. The evening falls with grace and the light rain amplifies the feeling of mystery which surrounds this piece of Heaven.
Prislop monastery church
Prislop monastery church
stone from a Roman mausoleum used at the Strei church
Roman stone used at the Strei church
Strei church
Strei church
Strei church paintings
Strei church paintings

Day three
The street takes us past green hills and a gate in time seems to open suddenly when we pass next to ancient ruins. We stop, this is Sarmizegetusa Ulpia Traiana. The museum gate marks the entrance only formally, because beyond it present and past merge in the strangest ways: we walk past haystacks which lay next to the ruins, here and there an orchard surrounded by fences which lay against amphitheater walls, temples and mausoleums, from place to place a modern house with stone fence obviously brought from the neighboring ruins, some cows graze peacefully, even a tractor drives undisturbed among ancient temples as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Of course, there are no tourists. It's only us and these modern peasants lost in antiquity.
We go ahead. We visit Deva. The crowded, unfriendly city at the outskirts becomes more and more attractive as we approach its center. And suddenly, as if unreal, the citadel shows up floating above the region from its magnificent volcanic rock.
We are transported to the top by a modern funicular which courageously climbs the extremely steep slope, giving us creeps. The citadel, built in 1269 was destroyed in the 19th century by an explosion in the ammunition barracks. The remaining walls defy the horizon, offering unparalleled views in all directions.
From Deva we reach Hunedoara, with its huge 14th century Corvinesti castle. It has just closed, but we don't mind, we visited the castle on another occasion. We are happy to see the restoration works, done with a great sense of taste and care.

Colt church and citadel
Colt church and citadel
Sarmizegetusa Ulpia Traiana
Sarmizegetusa Ulpia Traiana
Sarmizegetusa Ulpia Traiana
Sarmizegetusa Ulpia Traiana
Tara Hategului landscape
Tara Hategului landscape

From Hunedoara the road takes us over the hills to a legendary place: Padureni Land. We drive along the shore of the Cincis lake for a few kilometers, after which the landscapes become wilder, the forest thicker and the villages seem older and older. The asphalt road changes to sand and stone and, because the evening is falling, we get back.
Again we go up and down the hills, we cross orchards and green fields, looking for a village which seems to defy our maps: even though it appears next to Calan town, it's nowhere to be found. We ask from place to place, finally we find out the whereabouts and as we climb a slope, the old church of Streisangiorgiu shows up. It is a small family chapel, profoundly contrasting with the communist blocks of flats nearby. It is a oasis of archaic in this forgotten place where this church stood stubbornly against the ages.
The quest for the old churches in Hateg and Strei Lands was turning into a competition against time: when we were discovering an Orthodox church about which we thought it was the oldest in Romania, after a short time we would find another, even older. And apparently the oldest is neither in Densus, nor in Strei, nor in Colt, but here, inconspicuous, unknown, among these modern blocks of flats, in Streisangiorgiu: based on some Arpadian coins found in the tombs around the church, it is dated back to the years 1140-1150. The paintings on the interior walls are revealed by the three layers, the oldest dating from 1313, created by "Teofil Zograf", the first Romanian painter in our entire painting history. The magic atmosphere is deepened by the dusk of the sun, which filters the last rays among the clouds beyond the mountains.
Deva citadel
Deva citadel
Hunedoara castle
Hunedoara castle
Cincis lake
Cincis lake
Streisangiorgiu church
Streisangiorgiu church

Day four
We wake up early and stop in the neighboring village, Ostrov. Here too there is a small 13th century church, typical for the Hateg Land. The painting on the Western portal is unique, depicting the Virgin with the Child in unusual colors: Mary's clog is red, while her veil is green and Jesus's clog is yellow while His waistcoat is green. The painting, with obvious Byzantine roots and resembling the one at Santamaria Orlea dates from the 14th century. The spire with a square cross section is among the most picturesque in the region. Inside the church there are still vaguely preserved some old paintings, probably dating from the 14th century.
We leave Hateg Land promising ourselves to come back again to this fabulous region, home to the oldest Romanian churches. We head towards Caransebes, with its picturesque center, then we cross the mountains to Baile Herculane and stop at Orsova, where the Danube drills courageously the hillocks, shaping blue bays.
After that we stop once more in Craiova, whose monumental center, recently restored, is full of pedestrians, even though it's a workday.
We leave behind the Craiova's relaxed atmosphere to reach, on the verge of the falling night, the city we left only four days ago, looking for the hidden treasures of Hateg Land.
Streisangiorgiu church
Streisangiorgiu church
Streisangiorgiu church
Wall painting fragments
Ostrov church
Ostrov church
Ostrov church
Ostrov church
Orsova
Danube at Orsova

...............................................................................
The brave Cande is sitting on the stone. He has killed the dragon and he's tired. Then he lays on the grass still wet with morning dew, leaning his head against the elbow. His eyes shut, but the hand still holds the mace with vigor. And in front of the soul eyes, wide open, the villages at the foot of the mountain pass by, with names that inspire legends to come: Santamaria Orlea, Rau de Mori, Ostrov, Streisangiorgiu, Sat Batran, Clopotiva .... "Now, this is my ministry", he thinks and falls in a deep sleep.

Sorin-Alexandru Cristescu, September 2007
Craiova
Craiova


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