I have never considered myself a religious man. Baptized as a Catholic in a predominantly Catholic Country, the Philippines, I never had any fervent desires to be closer to god. Being Catholic was just a regular thing to be in the country. I went to church as a child growing up, every Sunday without fail. I did more Hail Mary’s than I would care to remember. However, as I immigrated to America and thrown into the American School system, I have started to practice Catholicism less and less.
So, when I traveled to Romania. I wasn’t expecting to end up in one of the most prominent Catholic pilgrimages in Europe – In Romania’s Harghita County in the town of Csiksomlyo.
To give a little backdrop as to how that happened. I had been freelancing to fund my travels around Eastern Europe. I picked Brasov in Romania as my headquarters because it is quiet, cheap, and had great internet. Everything has been good except for the perpetually gloomy weather that allowed little regarding photographic opportunities.
Time to bounce
Bored out of my mind, I asked Monica, a soft-spoken receptionist at the hostel I was staying at (Kismet Dao) information about places I can visit that’s not often visited by tourists. She hooked me up with her friend Cornelius. Cornelius was an avid traveler himself and freelances as a private tour guide for corporate clients.
Cornelius knows Romania very well and knows many people. He told me that there was a massive Catholic Pilgrimage in Sumuleu Ciuc in Harghita County. At first, I was a little hesitant. I’m not religious, and the thought of going back to church on Sunday just threw me back to tedious hours where I’d be kneeling on a wooden plank on the floor. Not fun. I would rather sit in the gloomy hostel with a 2-liter bottle of Ciuc beer on my hand.
However, Cornelius showed me a couple of pictures of the masses of pilgrims gathering like ants an on top of a hill; I thought that might be an excellent photo opportunity. He also sweetened the deal by offering to let me stay in a spare room in his Communist Era apartment. I have never been to one!
So, I ran to the first train I could hop on and make my way to a place I have never heard of. This is what I live for, adventures and out into the unknown. Csiksomlyo is a district of the city Miercurea-Ciuc, and the train ride from Brasov to Miercurea-Ciuc took 1 hour and 45 minutes. I learned later that the famous Romanian Ciuc beer came from here!
Cornelius was there to meet and greet me when my train arrived. We started walking towards his apartment but detoured for a quick tour around town. It’s town with a city center, nothing grand and it is probably going to attract a ton of tourist to the area.
I will try to explain it as vividly as I can.
It’s like a major throwback to the eighties, as if the Berlin wall did not fall!
Communist era buildings are everywhere thrown next to earth 18th Century Baroque architecture. The contrast is amazing. I never understood why people clamor to go to Cuba, but now I can see the allure of going to a place that never moved through time. Guys, if you want to check out some out of the ordinary non-touristy stuff and you’re in Romania, definitely check out Miercurea-Ciuc!
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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, and it all has to do with the history of this place.
A little history of Harghita
I did a little digging into the account of Harghita. Harghita County sits in what used to be the extent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Transylvania. After WWI, the empire disintegrated 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. 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 six 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 appears to be what’s prevalent, but I can sense some unease between Romanians and Hungarians – in fact, that’s been my experience traveling throughout eastern Europe. Cornelius (who’s Romanian) seems to get along well with everyone here (majority Hungarians).
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 before 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 as 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 impressive 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.
That is a quarter million people!
Pilgrims start their journey from villages far as 55km away waving banners and flags that represent their communities 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, a pilgrimage is a communal event illustrating the spiritual unity of Hungarians living in Transylvania.
I have only ever seen this sort of fervent devotion to faith before – In the Philippines; people would volunteer to be themselves nailed to the cross and whipped how Jesus was in history. It makes you wonder the sort of mental state these people are in to allow such an act. Apart from its religious significance, the pilgrimage is a communal event illustrating the spiritual unity of Hungarians living in Transylvania.
Csíksomlyó is lush with rolling green hills where old villages could be seen over the horizon. It is well known for its mineral springs and spas. There was a gathering of people near this well that was spewing out natural water from deep inside the earth. Cornelius told me it was ok to drink and that it would be healthy.
I got in line.
Filled my bottle.
Yuck, it tasted like somebody farted on my water.
Its got a unique taste, like carbonated mineral water that was rusty and stinky.
Not my cup o’ tea but I drank it for health anyway.
After the end of the day, some pilgrims extend their stay by spending a night in the Church while some make their way into the former boundary of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Ghimes. The pilgrimage more or less ends with various artisans and artisans selling Hungarian wares along the way.
Several vendors are selling typical Hungarian dishes such as Kürtőskalács, Goulash, Langos, and various cured and barbecued meats in the streets. I have more than had my fill of the different dishes and beers offered during the festival.
Ahem, I mean pilgrimage.
Now, this is the part of the “pilgrimage” that I truly enjoyed.
WANT TO CHECK OUT THE CSÍKSOMLYÓ PILGRIMAGE?
- The pilgrimage is the largest in Southern Europe.
- The pilgrimage is 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 Miercurea-Ciuc worth checking out.
- A road less traveled. I recommend it!
Travel Resource & Planning For The Pilgrimage
It’s mostly religious Hungarians of the Catholic faith that go to this pilgrimage. I’m neither (none-practicing Catholic) but I still had a blast. You can too. It’s still worth checking out if you have some time in Romania.
I use Booking.Com to book all my hotels and hostels. I also couchsurf with locals and friends I met throughout my travels. There are many hotels in Miercurea-Ciuc and the surrounding cities. I also use Airbnb to rent apartments from locals, up to $55 Airbnb credit when you sign up!
I use Booking Buddy to find cheap car rental overseas. Sometimes I use bikes and scooters to get around, and I rent them via Bikes Booking which gives reasonably cheap rates. You can also get around using BlaBla car, which is very popular in Romania; it’s a ride-sharing app that lets you post your itinerary. You can also get around by hitchhiking, which safe and popular in the country. There also trains and buses that frequent the county of Ghimes, in fact, there are special trains that travel all the way from Hungary just for this festival.
I recommend having your trip covered in case of unfortunate incidents. World Nomads is a good place to start and they’ve never let me down. I’ve also used Travelex and Roam Right in the past, both are good options. Do some comparison shopping and find the one that caters to your trip best.
Best Guide Book –Lonely Planet Romania & Bulgaria (Travel Guide)
Recommended Reading – A Concise History of Romania (Cambridge Concise Histories)