I’ve been stuck and working in Brasov for almost 3 weeks in miserable weather with little to no time to explore and photograph the area. But it wasn’t for naught as I was gathering information from locals in places that might fly under the radar as a tourist destination (at least for Americans).
Monica, a soft-spoken receptionist at the hostel I’m staying at (Kismet Dao) suggested I contact her friend who knows places, Cornelius. So when I got a message from Cornelius that there’s a massive Catholic Pilgrimage in Sumuleu Ciuc in Harghita County, I couldn’t resist but jump on a train and witness a pilgrimage in a place I’ve never heard of.
The train ride from Brasov to Miercurea-Ciuc took 1 hour and 45 minutes. I was invited to stay Cornelius’ apartment which was a communist-era building from the eighties. Walking around town, you can’t help but notice the stark contrast of the architecture. You’ll see old buildings mixed in with soviet era apartments.
After a quick tour of the town square, we met with Cornelius’ friend Eva, a beautiful woman with striking blue eyes, for dinner at San Gennaro Pizzeria. Right off the bat, she proclaimed that she’s Hungarian. The pride in her voice echoes a connotation that deserves mention.
A little history
Harghita County sits in what used to be the extent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Transylvania. After WWI, the empire disentegrated and the nationalities within wanted to proclaim their independence. The Treaty of Versailles placed Transylvania under the sovereignty of Romania. However during Nazi era, on August 1940, the second Vienna Award granted the northern half of Transylvania to Hungary. However, at the end of WWII, the territory was again returned to Romania.
The history here is deep, full of intrigue and enough to spin your head around in circles 6 times if you’re not into history. It seems like a place ripe for conflict but that’s not what I’ve observed. Inter-cultural tolerance seems to be what’s prevalent and I can sense this with my interactions with everyone I met in town.
Csíksomlyó became a pilgrimage site in 1567 when a Hungarian King wanted to convert the Székely population to Protestantism, the Székelys resisted. A battle took place in a field nearby on Saturday prior to Pentecost 1567 and the Székelys came out victorious. The monks saw this as a sign of a blessing from the Virgin Mary and ever since then became a pilgrimage site.
Throughout the years, thousands of people from around the world, coming as far the United States and Australia, joined the Harghita locals to pray for miracles and blessings from the Virgin Mary. Even the president of Hungary, János Áder, was there to make an appearance (2016).
Masses of Pilgrims
The masses of people ascending up the hill and gathering in droves is amazing to behold. I estimated somewhere between 100,000 – 150,000 pilgrims making their way up the hill. Cornelius told me that at one point, it was recorded that over 250,000 people showed up.
Pilgrims start their journey from villages far as 55km away waving banners and flags that represent their villages as they continue their march towards a steep hill, called the “Way of the Cross”, to gather pray at a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary.
The statue is purported to have caused hundreds of miracles and fulfilled wishes. Besides its religious significance, the pilgrimage is communal event illustrating the spiritual unity of Hungarians living in Transylvania.
The area is lush with rolling green hills where old villages can be seen over the horizon. It’s also well known for its mineral springs and spas. There’s a natural running mineral water source deep from within the earth you can drink and purported to have health benefits. It tastes unique, like carbonated mineral water only with more iron. The only resource I can find about it is HERE.
The pilgrimage is more or less a festival with various craftsmen and artisans selling Hungarian wares on the way. There are several vendors selling Hungarian dishes such as Kürtőskalács, Goulash, Langos, and various cured and barbecued meats in the streets.
Some hardcore pilgrims extend their stay by spending a night in the Church and some make their way to the former border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Ghimes. Some took a special train that departed from Budapest, Hungary taking them to the last train station in Ghimeș. Upon arrival, the pilgrims continue their walk towards the border for more celebration.
WANT TO CHECK OUT THE CSÍKSOMLYÓ PILGRIMAGE?
- The pilgrimage is the largest in Southern Europe.
- Celebrated every year during the Pentecost.
- Several trains and buses run daily from Bucharest or Brasov to Mircurea-Ciuc.
- There are also special trains that will depart from Budapest to the old Austro-Hungarian border 55 Kilometers away.
- Cheap accommodations are available in Mircurea-Ciuc and Csíksomlyói is the next neighborhood over.
- There’s an old Saxon fortress near the center of Mircurea-Ciuc worth checking out.
- A road less traveled. I recommend it!