Alba Iulia, Romania: Six Centuries of History in one Hilltop Fortress

Alba Iulia, a city in Romania’s Transylvania region, has a hilltop citadel at its center where many diverse historical eras come to life. Particularly impressive are its two massive cathedrals, standing directly beside each other but with over 600 tumultuous years dividing them.

Alba Iulia Boulevard Transilvaniei

Known as Gyulafehervar in Hungarian, this city was the ruling seat of an independent Transylvania under Duke Gyula until his nephew, King Stephen of Hungary, defeated him in 1003 and included Transylvania in his kingdom. The Catholic cathedral in the middle of the citadel dates from that time, being erected in 1246-1291. The church is the home base for Romania’s only Catholic archbishop besides one in Bucharest.

Alba Iulia Catholic Cathedral

Built in a mixture of Romanic and Gothic styles, it has an appealing simplicity, with its tall, arch-shaped windows and square tower with a massive cross on top. The church contains the tomb of Transylvanian prince Janos Hunyadi. His burial here was part of the deal in which he provided funds for renovating and enlarging the building in the 15th century after Turkish invaders damaged it. Turks attacked it again in 1603, destroying one of its two towers, which accounts for its asymmetrical facade to this day.

Alba Iulia two Cathedrals

The city became the seat of a sovereign Transylvania again from 1541 to 1690, which included the reign of Gabor Bethlen (1613-1629). A warlord, arts patron, and strong booster of his principality’s power, Bethlen presided over a cultural and educational golden age in the city. Transylvania’s first institute of higher education was founded here in 1622 and was originally named the Collegium Academicum. Today, it is still in the same building, on the northeast corner of a little park within the citadel, but it’s now called the First of December 1918 university – for reasons that will become clear later.

Transylvania is not only dear to Hungarian speakers. In 1599, Mihai Viteazul (Michael the Brave) briefly conquered the region and, for about a year, united it with two other principalities – Moldavia and Wallachia. Those three regions have a large ethnic Romanian population, and Mihai Viteazul remains a national hero for Romanians. Beside the Catholic cathedral you can see a statue of him, mounted on a horse and brandishing a mace. It was carved from bronze by the Romanian artist Oscar Han in 1968. The statue stands in front of the palace which he used during his one-year reign.

Statue of Mihal Viteazul in Alba Iulia

Transylvania became part of the Habsburg empire in the early 18th century and this city became less politically significant, as the Habsburgs chose to rule the region from Sibiu. They did, however, devote a lot of effort to overhauling the walls of its citadel. Though some kind of fortification had stood here since the Roman Empire, the 12 kilometers of walls that still stand today, in the shape of a seven-pointed star, date from 1715-1738. A Habsburg military garrison was housed here, and in 1785 those soldiers put down a Romanian peasants’ revolt led by Horea, Closca and Crisan.

Obelisk in Alba Iulia

Visiting the fortress today, you can still see three of the original six highly ornamented, early Baroque gates. On the east side, the First Gate, a triple triumphal arch, features a two-headed Austrian eagle, as does the Third Gate, which is topped by a statue of Charles VI, the Habsburg emperor who ordered all this built. On the west side is the Fourth Gate, again with an Austrian eagle over its doorway, and carved with the banners of Charles VI.  Between the First and Third Gates stands a 1937 monument honouring the peasant revolt’s leaders, who are depicted in a relief at the base of a 22-meter obelisk. On the other side of the monument, a big winged figure of Victory looks out over the city. Horea was executed by being broken on the wheel near the citadel walls.

Alba Iulia Firstgate

The union of Transylvania with the rest of modern Romania, though finally ratified in the post-World War I treaties in 1920, was initially declared by Romanians themselves in 1918, right here in Alba Iulia. With the war turning against the Austro-Hungarian empire, thousands of ethnic Romanians gathered here and elected a unified assembly. So important was the union to Romanians that they gave their existing king a whole second coronation ceremony in the city, in 1922. Ferdinand had been Romania’s king since 1914.

Alba Iulia Fortress's Fourthgate

You can revisit the 1918 proclamation by entering the beautiful neo-classical building to the west of the park within the citadel. It was built in 1898 and served for 20 years as an entertainment venue for Austro-Hungarian troops, but its upper floor boasts the marbled hall in which the unification was declared. It is now adorned with Romanian tricolors, murals of Romanian heroes, and wall plaques bearing the wording of the declaration. The desk where the proclamation was signed is painstakingly preserved.

All of which leads us to the other huge church. Considerably taller than the Catholic cathedral, Alba Iulia’s Romanian Orthodox cathedral stands within its own colonnade. Built in 1921-1923, it is where Ferdinand was re-crowned, and features colorful icon-style frescos. They include a portrait of Mihai Viteazul in the vestibule alcove, and King Ferdinand and Queen Maria framing the doorway into the church’s main nave. Rousing services are held in this building at 6pm each day.

Alba Iulia Orthodox Cathedral

And now, some communist-era architecture. Look west from the Orthodox Cathedral and you will see a path leading through its graceful bell tower toward a grand concrete pavilion. This then flows naturally into a huge causeway named Bulevardul Transilvaniei that forms the spine of the western part of the city. Framed by high-rise concrete blocks, it extends all the way down to the western edge of the city.

But the real heart of urban Alba Iulia is the older area to the east of the citadel hill, centering around Strada Ardealului and Piata Iuliu Maniu. Stroll through the park here and stop at a cafe for a strong cup of black coffee. Stay at Hotel Parc or Hotel Transilvania and enjoy their comfortable accommodation and good restaurants, with traditional Romanian cuisine.

Written by David Hill for 

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