Although a land of natural beauty, Romania wasn’t exactly the ideal tourist destination until after the fall of Communism in 1989. The country was struggling with poverty and the tourism industry was almost inexistent. The historic sites were badly neglected, the roads poorly maintained, food was scarce and lodging was primitive. So in spite of its great history and beautiful scenery, Romania remained in the often overlooked group of Eastern European countries.
Although things have improved considerably lately, Romania is still largely unknown to the western traveler. Such is the case of the beautiful Citadel of Alba Iulia (also known as Alba Carolina), one of the biggest fortresses in Eastern Europe.
Alba Iulia has an old and rich history that dates back to the Roman period. The initial settlement called Apulum was the oldest and largest castrum on Romania’s territory, built by the Romans in the 2nd century A.D. The Slavic name of the town was Bălgrad (“The White Fortress”), which was later Latinized into Alba Iulia.
In the Middle Ages Alba Iulia, also known as Gyulafehérvár in Hungarian, became an Episcopal citadel serving as the capital of the independent Principality of Transylvania and the residence of the Transylvanian princes. In 1599 Mihai Viteazul (Michael the Brave) proclaimed himself prince of Walachia, Transylvania, and Moldavia at Alba Iulia — uniting for the first time the three provinces of Romania. His bronze statue stands beside the Catholic Cathedral, in front of the palace that he used during his one-year reign.
The Catholic Cathedral in the middle of the citadel was erected in the 11th century on the ruins of a Romanesque church. The church is one of the best-preserved medieval cathedrals in Central Europe and it contains the tombs of Transylvanian prince Janos Hunyadi and other princes of the Rakoczy and Bethlen families.
In 1918 Alba Iulia was the site of the proclamation of Transylvania’s unification with Romania and in 1922 was the coronation place of Ferdinand I of Hohenzollern, King of Romania.
The fortress of Alba Iulia as seen today was built in the 18th century by the order of the Habsburg emperor Charles VI. The Austrians even used blocks of stone from the old Roman defense walls in the construction. The citadel was a major military structure with nine huge bastions made into a star-shaped, Vauban-style fortress. In the second part of the19th century most of the walls and bastions were demolished to make room for the modern city. During the communist era, the fortress fell into complete neglect because of the lack of funds for repairs. Some of the local citizens even stole brick and stone from the old structure to use in their own constructions.
In recent years Alba Iulia citadel was fully restored, with beautiful walls and gates, nice statues and great restaurants and cafés. The place is sparkling clean, well kept and really pleasant for a stroll, taking pictures or visiting the exhibitions. During the day there are some live shows, like battlefield scenes and the changing of the guard at noon. You can also rent a bike to tour the citadel.
When visiting the fortress today, you can still see three of the original six highly ornamented, early Baroque gates. On the east side is the First Gate that features a triple triumphal arch and a two-headed Austrian eagle.
The Third Gate, which is topped by a statue of Charles VI, also features the Austrian eagle.
On the west side is the Fourth Gate, again with an Austrian eagle over its doorway, and carved with the banners of Charles VI.
On of the attractions in the citadel is the Orthodox Cathedral of the Reunification that was built to celebrate Transylvania’s reunification with Romania. Although relatively new (1920s) the imposing complex of buildings and gardens is stunningly beautiful. The cathedral is also called The Coronation Cathedral because it was the place where King Ferdinand I and Queen Maria were crowned in 1922.
You should allow at least one full day to visit the Citadel. Besides the two cathedrals, you can also visit the beautifully restored Princely Palace, the former residence of Mihai Viteazul, the Batthyaneum Library hosted in a former Baroque style church and famous for its collection of rare books, and the Babylon Building, home to the National Museum of Unification.
There are several excellent hotels and restaurants in the Citadel where you can enjoy a good bite, ranging from moderate to high end.
And if after visiting the fortress you want to spoil yourself, you can have a lavish lunch at Hotel Medieval within the citadel walls, one of the most upscale hotel/restaurants in Alba Iulia. Just be warned, the prices are unusually high even for the international standards (around $100 for a 3-course meal, with wine). However, the food, ambiance and service are absolutely outstanding.