Situated at the easternmost part of the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania, Romania, the Gyimes/Ghimes Valley consists of a 25km-long string of mountain villages stretching along the border between the two historical regions of Moldva (not to be confused with the country Moldova) and Transylvania characterised by steep hillsides, lush meadows, never-ending fields of wildflowers and rich pine forests as far as eyes can see. The “Csángó” people, who are fortunate enough to call this magical place their home, consider themselves to be the descendants of the Szekler people, more precisely Szekler deserters, who, in the 16th-17th centuries, escaped from Szeklerland and found refuge here. This breathtakingly beautiful valley became their home then and since the end of the 17th century onwards, the area has been continually inhabited by them. They didn’t construct compact villages though, but rather each family built their separate homesteads or ranches near one of the many streams running through the valley, and the streams often got their name after that particular family living there. The “Csángó” have outstandingly rich folk tradition still strongly preserved today; especially their ancient folk poetry and tradition of folk dance and music are unparalleled. When visiting the region, do not expect hordes of tourists and over-commercialised mountain resorts as it is not a mainstream travel destination, yet, and relatively unknown among tourists. What you can expect, however, is modern yet cosy, privately-owned guesthouses run by the friendliest of people, great hospitality and warm welcomes, fine cuisine consisting of hearty portions of local specialities, crisp air, exciting nature trails running through spectacular mountain scenery, authentic villages rooted deep in ancient culture and tradition. And what’s even better, you can have it almost all to yourself (and the few other adventure-seeking nature-lovers who ventured out to this earthly paradise hidden in the easternmost part of Europe).
Where to stay/what to see
The oldest of the settlements in the Gyimes Valley is Gyimesbükk/Ghimes-Faget situated at the pre-1920 former Hungarian border, the so-called “thousand-year-old frontier”, thus, once one of the easternmost villages of Hungary, today belongs to Bacau County, Romania. Here, it’s worth visiting the ruins of the Rákóczi Castle, a frontier fortification castle, built around 1626, from where you can have magnificent views over the village and the Gyimes Valley. At the foot of the castle there are three monuments still standing, which indicate that once the country border-crossing ran along here. In the village, you can also visit the once easternmost railway station/guard house of Hungary, newly renovated and now home to a railway history museum.
The next village is Gyimesfelsőlok/Lunca de Sus stretching from the stream of the Tatros River to the Boros Stream, established around the beginning of the 18th century. From here, there’s a mountain trail leading through the Kabala Pass to the ruins of the Chapel of the Holy Spirit (Szent Lélek Kápolna), a popular place for pilgrimages, situated on a mountain plateau at 1,341m above sea level. Currently, a new “rotunda” chapel is being built in place of the old ruins. Views are amazing from here. Around the village, you can also find some fascinating rock formations, of which the most spectacular one is called Bagolyvár (Owl Castle) where fires are lit on the eves of bank holidays beautifully illuminating the whole valley.
Gyimesközéplok/Lunca de Jos, situated just a few steps from Gyimesfelsőlok, dates back to 1721. Here, you can visit the “Csángó” Open-Air Ethnographic Museum, the only one in Romania and a very unique one, indeed. Situated along the banks of the Boros Stream, the museum occupies an area of 2.3ha (5.7 acre) and consists of eleven authentic farmhouses that, otherwise, would have been left to decay at their original places. What the creators of this fascinating place did was incredible. They pulled down ancient, decayed, abandoned houses from nearby villages, took the broken building materials to the site of the museum and with the help of old photographs, they re-built the houses to look exactly the same way they did in their heydays by using the very same building methods and materials their ancestors did. The interiors are fitted with old traditional, authentic furniture as well. What even more incredible is that these houses also function as guesthouses, so you can actually stay in them, step back in time and soak in this special atmosphere around you. Gyimesközéplok is also the scene of the Ghimes Dance Festival held in every July.
There is a great number of accommodation available in and around all of the above villages, mainly guesthouses, which are a great base when discovering the valley. If you’d rather stay in town, opt for Csíkszereda/Miercurea Ciuc situated just a half an hour drive from the valley and the villages.
What to do
There are several nature trails here to choose from perfect for hiking, ranging from light, one-hour walks to more difficult several-hour/day-hikes starting from one of the villages or Csíkszereda. The trails are leading through breath-taking scenery, but are poorly marked, though. You can ask for information about them in any of the guesthouses or the Tourist Information Office in Gyimesközéplok, they also organise guided hiking and biking tours as well (bicycle hire available). If you’d rather explore the area on your own, GPS co-ordinates for the trails and the natural attractions are available as well.
There are also different activities on offer here to choose from such as – food tasting of local specialities – you can try your hands on traditional “Csángó” crafts such as woodcarving or horseshoe-making etc – if not into hiking that much, you can go on a horse-carriage tour around the valley or dip in one of the crystal-clear streams, surely an experience you will never forget. There are also opportunities for paragliding, hot-air balloon flying etc, and skiing and snow-mobiling in winter as the area offers some great skiing slopes as well.