Rosia Montana became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Danger in July 2021. It was a huge victory for local and national activists who, years ago, started an almost impossible fight against the opening of the biggest gold mine in Europe. This decision confirms that Rosia Montana, that exists at least since 131 AD, has:
‘the most significant, extensive and technically diverse underground Roman gold mining complex known at the time of inscription’. (Source: https://whc.unesco.org)
Rosia Montana, located in the Metalliferous Mountains, has maybe the largest gold and silver reserves in Europe. Its underground richness in precious minerals is known since ancient times when the miners of the Roman Empire extracted around 500 tons of gold.
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Mining started in Rosia Montana, known in ancient times as Alburnus Maior, after the Dacians’ final defeat (106 AD). The underground exploitation lasted over 166 years, until the Roman retreat. Like all major Roman engineering and infrastructure, mining in Rosia Montana was complex and innovative.
According to UNESCO, the archaeological discoveries confirm that the Empire’s experienced miners used pioneering techniques to exploit the underground minerals. They settled around the exploitations, creating communities that included living spaces, temples, and graveyards. Archaeological finds include ancient wax-coated wooden writing tablets, sanctuaries with altars, a necropolis, a mausoleum, homes, including one with floor and wall heating. (Source: Rosia Montana Cultural and Tourist Guidebook, 2011)
The underground Roman galleries are, nonetheless, the most spectacular heritage of the ancient mining landscape.
After the Roman withdrawal from 271 AD, the first historical mention of mining only appears in the 13th century. The Hungarian King, who controlled Transylvania at the time, sent German colonists to resume gold mining in the area. By the mid-16th century, most gold miners were Romanians and a vast network of stamp mills existed along the main rivers, over 100 by 1676.
Modern mining expanded only in the 1700s and 1800s, during the time of the Habsburg Empire. Modern tools replaced the archaic ways, and miners from all around the empire settled in Rosia Montana. The village became a prosperous mining town, with monumental churches, beautiful stone houses, a miners’ club, a school, and maternity.
After the unification of 1918, the Romanian state became the owner of the underground resources. Concession contracts regulated the exploitation and the final price. But this partnership brutally ended in 1948 when the communist nationalized the industry. They spread terror and executed or condemned to forced labor the miners who opposed confiscation.
Mining continued, with no care for the historical monuments or the environment, during the communist regime and after. Still, the biggest threat came only later, in the early 2000s. At the time, the Canadian company Gabriel Resources, backed by political support, planned to produce over 1,000 tons of gold and silver using hundreds of millions of tons of cyanide.
The reluctance of a few locals to sell their houses to the mining company delayed the panned exploitation. Local activism increased awareness and the civil society’s worries of an ecological disaster. Unprecedented national protests took place in 2013 when the government was again showing support for the project.
With no final decision in place, the threat of cyanide-based exploitation continued to exist. In 2017, a technocrat government finally submitted to UNESCO the request for including on its list the ancient Roman mining landscape. Just one year later, the request was withdrawn by a less reforming party and submitted again in 2020.
The drama ended only one year later with the UNESCO’s decision.
Tourism remains now the main sustainable way to go. While infrastructure lacks or exists at a minimum, there are many great attractions to uncover in Rosia Montana.
Take at least one weekend to visit Rosia Montana or stay longer if you plan some day trips in Apuseni.
As you probably guessed, the Roman galleries are the main attraction if you visit Rosia Montana. You can discover around 200 meters of the ancient seven kilometers long galleries in the underground section of the Mining Museum. Plus, you can see original tools, traditional stamp mills, and archaeological discoveries from different periods in the outdoor area.
This is one of the most interesting museums in Transylvania, and the only downside is it’s closed on weekends.
For a more recent mining landscape, drive to the nearby Rosia Poieni, for decades the biggest copper mine in Romania. The huge amounts of sterile spilled from the exploitation, with no concern for people and the environment, submerged an entire village, Geamana. The steeple of the 18th-century church, rising above the toxic lake, is its only reminder.
This was once a thriving mining town. You can see it even today when you visit Rosia Montana despite the decay.
Crumbling yet imposing houses with Neoclassic and Baroque elements surround the old central square. The German and Hungarian schools, the Casina where miners relaxed and danced, and the five churches of different confessions are all proof of its cosmopolitan past.
Take your time for a long walk starting from the main square. Include all the churches and discover their cemeteries. It’s the best way to understand its multicultural past.
Take a tour of the eight tarns that supplied the stamp mills used centuries ago to grind the ore. Many more existed in the past, some built by Italian craftsmen after the 1860s.
The easy trail of the tarns (blue circle) starts and ends in the central square and takes 2-3 hours. Another circular route (red circle) includes the Carnic Massif, the Raven’s Rock, Sulei Peak, and the Big Tarn.
If you stay longer, hike four hours to the 1,1588 high Detunata Goala (blue triangle, red cross).
Few jobs exist today in the village. Support a local initiative that makes a difference like Made in Rosia Montana, one of the few local employers. They produce hand-made merino wool knitwear and deliver worldwide.
Check their products on https://madeinrosiamontana.com
Donate or volunteer to save the local patrimony, supporting the program Adopt a House.
Find out how you can help on www.adoptaocasa.ro