In 2016, when Lonely Planet rated Transylvania as the first tourist destination in the world, we decided to defy the trends and invite you to a marvelous route in… Oltenia – the southern-west part of Wallachia.
Bucureşti – Piteşti – Slatina (around 3h with the car, 190 km)
- Tour in the old city of Slatina with a dictionary of architectural styles in your hands (1h)
- Short stop at Atletul Albanez (Albanian Athlete), the oldest merchant establishment in Romania (30 min)
Slatina – Craiova (45 min, 60 km)
- Lunch at the Bulevard Restaurant (1h)
- Tour at the Art Museum, to enter the world of Brancusi (1h)
- Prefecturii Square, Old City center, Romanescu Park and getting lost on the streets (2h)
Craiova – Ponoarele (2 h, 130 km)
- Dinner at the Association for Tourism Mehedinţiul de sub Munte
- Spending the night at Guesthouse Maria Elena or Conacul Boierului
- Guided Tour at the Limestone natural wonders in Ponoarele (God’s Natural Bridge, The fields of clints, The Cave, The lakes Zatonul Mare, Zatonul Mic) (2h)
- Visit at grandma Victorita – seeing a traditional household in Bratilovu (1h and 30 min)
Ponoarele – Sohodol Gorges (30 min, 25 km)
- Lunch at Runcu – Casa din Pădure (1h)
- Visit Sohodol Gorges and discover the legends about “the ring of the fair lady” and “dragon’s nostrils” (30 min)
Sohodol – Hobiţa (30 min, 22 km)
- Visit the Memorial House of Brancusi (1 h)
Hobiţa – TgJiu (30 min, 25 km)
- Visit Brancusi Sculptural Ensemble and Targu Jiu City Centre (1h)
- Visit The Endless Column (30 min)
Tg Jiu – Cartiu (17 min, 13 km)
- Dinner and accommodation at Casa Cartianu
Cartiu – Curtişoara (15 min, 12 km)
- Visit the Museum of Popular Architecture from Gorj (1h 30 min)
Curtişoara – Crasna (20 min, 20 km)
- Visit Crasna Hermitage (45 min)
Crasna – Novaci (15 min, 10 km)
- Visit the Ethnographic Collection of Daciana Ungureanu (2h)
Novaci – Măldăreşti (40 min, 30 km)
- Lunch at Maldar Mansion (1h)
- Visit the Kulas Ensemble in Maldaresti (1h)
- Visit a pottery making workshop – Horezu (1h)
Horezu – Bucureşti (3h, 220 km)
The route begins with Slatina, a place where the old didn’t have the chance to meet with the new.
50 of the buildings you can see in the old city centre are on the UNESCO Heritage list. Built between 1860 – 1938 they offer an almost complete image of the architectural styles that can be found all over Romania: Neo-Gothic, Neo-Romanian, modernist, Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Most of these architectural jewelries can be found on the streets: Poboran, Dinu Lipatti, Gradinitei and Fratii Buzesti. You cannot miss Radu Greceanu Highschool (1891), Slatina City Hall (1905), The Ethnographic Section of Olt County Museum, Caracostea House (1902), The Teachers’ House (1899) and the old headquarters of the National Bank of Romania from Slatina (1908).
At the beginning or at the end of the architectural tour you must stop on Dinu Lipatti Street 25 at the coffee shop Atletul Albanez – The Albanian Athlete. This is the oldest merchant establishment in Romania that survived through the communist era. The Memish Family of Albanian origin has been involved in the Balkan trade for over 300 years.
In 1912 a great-great-great grandfather who settled in Slatina won a contest of Greco-roman battles organized by the circus that came into town at that time. Out of respect for the city and its citizens, he donated the award of 300 napoleons to the city council and the council rewarded him by allowing him to open his shop: Albanian Athlete. Here you will taste braga – a drink made of fermented cereals, alvita – traditional candy and ice cream and you will feel the presence of all the people who enjoyed their time in this place throughout centuries.
The tour continues with Craiova and its restored city centre. Here you will find a diversity of architectural styles: Renaissance, Baroque, classic, neoclassic, romantic, Neo-Romanian and buildings built by French, Italian, Romanian or German architects. We recommend you to see the Council Square, Old Town, Romanescu Park and get lost on the streets of the city.
On our list we also have Madona Dudu Church, a pilgrimage spot due to the miraculous icon of Mother Mary that – according to the legend – was found in a mulberry tree where the altar was built later on. Even beyond the spiritual beauty, we recommend the church for its cultural beauty and for the painting signed by Gheorghe Tatarescu.
Baniei House is the oldest laic building in the city today, being built in 1699. Now it hosts the Ethnographic Museum and in the past it used to be the meeting point of Craiova assembly. Judging by the input of art historians, the building was rebuilt by Constantin Brancoveanu based on the model of a building by Barbu Craiovescu from XV century.
Two beautiful buildings remember of a little Paris of Oltenia – Jean Mihail Pallace (now the Museum of Art Craiova) and Vorvorenilor Pallace (the official headquarter of Oltenia Church).
Entering the Art Museum and following Brancusi steps, we will discover one of the greatest legacies of Romanian and Oltenian art. The art works displayed here represent the first creative time of the artist, student at the School of Arts and Crafts of Craiova. Here we find The Kiss – built in stone in 1907, Vitellius – the oldest art work of Brancusi created in 1898 from gyps, Woman Torso – marble work from 1909, Vanity – from 1905, Head of a Boy – from 1906, Mademoiselle Pogany, Chair and Corset – from 1902.
From the museum, after we visit the city centre and the English Park, we continue strolling on Unirii Boulevard until Romanescu Park, a relaxing spot where we encounter landscapes of the past century.
We spend the first evening at Ponoarele, in the heart of Mehedinti Plateau. From Craiova to Ponoarele we have a good journey, seeing small and tidy households as we pass by. Walk slowly and look at the sky.
We start the new morning discovering the natural wonders of Ponoarele Limestone Complex:
- God’s Bridge
- Ponoarele Cave
- Fields of Clints
- Zătonul Mare and Zătonul Mic
God’s Bridge is the biggest natural bridge in Romania and the second as size in Europe (30m length, 12m width, 22m height). It is the only one of its kind opened for car traffic. The story says that the natural bridge formed due to the falling of the Ponoarele Cave ceiling. The legend on the other hand, tells the story of the Devil who lived there. The people from Ponoarele were praying to God to save them from the evil one. Hearing their prayers, God hit the ceiling of the Cave with his hand and it all fell over the entrance. But the Devil escaped, going out on the other side of the cave and grabbing with his claws the top of The Hill Cave, forming the clints fields. The Devil climbed then on a rock that is now called Devil’s Rock and he drained all the lakes.
The Fields of Clints (Afrodita and Cleopatra) are formed by calcareous channels created by water erosion. The ditches are sometimes higher than 4-5 metres length and have a depth of 30 cm. They are similar to corridors cut in stone where you can find different vegetation forms like thyme or nettle.
Zatonul is the biggest lake formed on limestone from Romania but it is a temporary lake. Depending on the season and on the amount of rain, you can see the lake as something huge or as a small stream of water.
Ponoarele are galleries, wells where the water disappears in one place and appears again a few kilometers further on. All this area is full of ponoare – this is why there is an abundance of limestone phenomena.
We continue our visit at grandma Victorita, the grandmother of our friend, Adriana and the wife of Ion Suciu – both of them successors of shepherds who ran from Transylvania under the Austro-Hungarian rule in the XVIIIth century. There are many villages that have the Transylvanian heritage and Bratilov is one of them, together with Titerlesti, Novaci, Vaideeni, Baia de Fier, Corbi. Dumitru Suciu, the father in law of Victorita was part of the management committee of Shepherds’ Trade – association formed by shepherds to protect them and their rights. In the interwar times they used to organize gatherings and also publish a monthly magazine called “Sheepfold”. In the house of the Suciu spouses we find out about the shepherds traditions: black and white costumes from Jina, marquisette costumes from Gorj, carpets, bags weaved at loom and bats sculpted in sycamore tree by the Suciu men. If you are patient, we read stories and poetry written by great grandfather Suciu.
We say goodbye to the atmosphere created by grandparents and to the house full of memories and we go towards Sohodol Gorges. Quick, quick, we eat a delicious meal at a guesthouse and we enter the gorges – natural reservation with impressive landscapes that covers over 350 hectares. When we exit the canion, we notice a gate – a ring in the rock and the nostrils formed by Sohodol river in the bottom part. With a binocular we can notice the protected birds including the butterfly and the rock martin.
With our stomach calm and with our eyes delighted by natural landscapes we continue our journey to Hobita at the Memorial House of Constantin Brancusi. We found out about the artist in Craiova already and here we will imagine how he saw endless columns in the oaks from his neighbors’ garden, how he would sculpt, how he remembered the gate of his house and sculpted an identical one in his workshop from Paris.
In 1938, he finished the World War I monument in Târgu-Jiu where he had spent much of his childhood. Table of Silence, The Gate of the Kiss, and Endless Column commemorate the courage and sacrifice of Romanians who in 1916 defended Târgu Jiu from the forces of the Central Powers.
Analyzing the artist’s words and knowing the symbols of his other works of art, we realize that The Gate of the Kiss is an Arc of Triumph under which the heroes pass at peace into the other world. It seems that the main idea from The Kiss is simple: love as fusion between two separate entities brings back the original unity of life. Here it is about life after death.
The Table of Silence was carved in stone and represents symbolically the table before the battle of the Romanian soldiers. The chairs around the table are in the shape of an hour glass and measure the time, while the number of the chairs remembers of the Last Supper with the 12 disciples.
It talks about family reunion, meditation upon life and cherishing time.
At the end of Hero’s Pathway we have the park that waits for us with the Endless Column. It is a symbol of the endless sacrifice, embodying an axis mundi that aims to support the sky for the eternity.
Our night ends very close by at Cartianu Villa – the house built in 1769 by Enache Cartianu, a very rich governor who held 400 hectares in Cartiu village. His successors built near this place (now part of the Etnografic Museum of Tragu Jiu) the Cartianu Guesthouse, a local jewelry that respects traditional values.
The third day starts with the road from Targu Jiu to Novaci. We recommend a stop at Curtisoara – Museum of Folkloric Architecture of Gorj and at Cornoiu’s Kula. The museum in open space hosts architectural monuments and folkloric techniques from Gorj. Other than the Cornoiu kula (XVII century) here we can also find reassembled buildings like Saint John the Baptist Church (1820), peasant constructions made out of wood (houses, cellars, roof tops, technical installations from XVII-XIX century) with typical furniture, costumes, sewing, ceramics, tools. The oldest house presented here was built over 200 years ago: the house of Udriste Priest from Olari village from 1802.
On our way we will stop at Crasna Hermitage, a place full of peacefulness and spirituality while we enter the house of a painter in love with ethnography and traditional symbols.
In an interview for jurnalul.ro, Daciana Ungureanu talks about the Ethnographic Collection Daciana Ungureanu and welcomes us into the story: “I have inherited from my family many objects that I keep dearly. Two of the dowry coffers that I keep are full of costumes from Gorj and Hungary, old lace and other textiles for the house. I have most of the pieces from my grandmother on my mother’s side and were worn by her. This means a lot for me. These are extremely fine pieces, most of them for celebration purposes and they are woven in amazing colors and details through diverse techniques and materials. I do not have enough words to describe them, you must see them.”
From Novaci, we follow a zigzag road beneath the mountain, towards Baia de Fier (Iron Bath), Polovragi, Vaideeni, Horezu. From there, we follow the signs that lead to Maldaresti Kulas. The kulas were built by Oltenia governors to protect themselves from the Turkish invader groups coming from the Danube. Due to their uniqueness, they were nominated to be part of the UNESCO heritage. The name comes from the greek word “kale” or “kule” which means “tower”. There were a lot of kulas in all Oltenia and in the west part of Muntenia but from a few hundreds of such houses, only 27 survived until today. More than half of them, not being given the chance to be transformed into museums, are in a precarious shape or already in ruins.
Most of these buildings have thick walls of 80 cm. When the enemies were coming close, the servants were hiding the animals in cellars. The governors were running at the first floor and put a thick wood at the door to be sure the door would resist. If the first floor became unsafe, they were going up to the defense tower on a rope ladder. They were getting water from the cellar’s well, had food and waited for the threat to pass by.
Lunch will be served at Maldar Manor and the road to Bucharest goes through Ramnicu Valcea and Pitesti. If you wish to stop on the road, there are things to visit for another 2 days.
photos by Claudiu Netoiu, Mihaela Dinca, Florin Valcea