The Apuseni mountains lie largely between the Crişul Repede and the Arieş valleys, enabling easy access by public transport. The DN75 follows the Arieş west from Turda to Bihor county via Câmpeni, where the DN74 turns south to Alba, Brad and Deva. Câmpeni is the capital of the Moţi highlanders, who repelled the Roman invaders, then moved into the hills in the eighteenth century when the Habsburgs attempted to conscript them into the army; their settlements are some of the highest in Romania, scattered groups of high-roofed, thatched cottages at up to 1400m.
Despite opposition from the forestry and other industries – although the uranium and gold mines are now closed – the Apuseni Nature Park was established in 2004, alongside the revival of an excellent network of hiking trails. The Cluj-based Johan’s Green Mountain tour operator organizes a range of activities (hiking, cycling, kayaking and horseriding) mainly in the Apuseni mountains; they can also provide information and arrange homestays throughout the Apuseni.
The area just west of Cluj is known to Hungarians as Kalotaszeg, and, since the great Hungarian Millennium Exhibition of 1896, they have revered it as the region where authentic Magyar culture has survived uncorrupted. It’s common to see local people selling handicrafts by the roadside – particularly to Hungarian tourists on pilgrimages to the wellsprings of their culture.
The local embroidery is particularly famous, usually consisting of stylized leaves and flowers, in one bold colour (usually bright red) on a white background; the style is known as írásos, meaning “drawn” or “written”, because the designs are marked on the cloth (traditionally with mixed milk and soot) before being stitched. The Calvinist churches are noted for their coffered ceilings, with square panels (known as “cassettes”) beautifully painted in the eighteenth century, along with the pews and galleries, in a naïf style similar to the embroidery.
The composers Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály collected Transylvanian crafts, and Bartók’s assortment of carved furniture from Izvoru Crişului (Körösfó) can be seen in his home in Budapest. Their main project, however, was to collect folk music. Starting in 1907, they managed to record and catalogue thousands of melodies, despite local suspicion of the “monster” (the apparatus for recording onto phonograph cylinders). They also discovered a rich vein of inspiration for their own compositions; Bartók declared that a genuine peasant melody was “quite as much a masterpiece in miniature as a Bach fugue or a Mozart sonata”.
The practice of shepherds spending summer in the high pastures protecting the flocks from bears and wolves while making cheese gave rise to Measurement of the Milk Festivals (Măşurisul Laptelui), the best known of which are held in the villages around Ciucea on the slopes of Măgura Priei, the highest ridge in the Meseş range. At dawn on the first or second Sunday in May, the flocks are brought to a glade outside the village, where the “measurement” takes place. The nanny goats are milked by women and the ewes by shepherds – the yield of each family’s animals is measured to determine the share of cheese that they will receive that season. The ritual is followed by much feasting and dancing. Măgura Priei is just 10km or so north of Ciucea, and the festival is reached by buses from Huedin.
West of Turda, the main DN75 follows the River Arieş through a succession of small villages. A poor road leads 8km south from Buru to RIMETEA (Torockó; five buses daily from Aiud, one/two at weekends), which is famed, at least in Hungary, as one of the loveliest and most authentic of Romania’s Hungarian villages – although it was in fact inhabited by Saxons until most were killed by the Tatars. The village, prosperous due to iron mining, was rebuilt in Saxon style after a major fire in 1870, and even now furniture is painted in the Sighişoara style. The centre of the village is now a conservation area, where almost every home has rooms to let, while big modern pensions (and two new monasteries) stand on the outskirts. Traditional dress is worn for festivals on February 22 and the first Sunday of March, and can also be seen in the Ethnographic Museum, upstairs in the Primaria, along with mining tools, locks and keys, women’s red boots and an elaborate bridal headdress.
The Girl Fair (Târgul de Fete) of Muntele Găina takes place on the closest Sunday to July 20 on the flat top of Mount Găina (Hen Mountain), roughly 33km west of Câmpeni, near the village of Avram Iancu, named after the leader of the 1848 revolt against the Hungarians who was born here in 1824. The region’s largest festival, it was originally a means for young men who were away shepherding for two-thirds of the year to meet young women from other communities and to pursue matrimony. Prospective spouses made every effort to enhance their appeal, the girls being displayed in their finest attire, surrounded by linen, pottery and other dowry items – even carting along rented furniture. This aspect of the fair has all but disappeared, but thousands still come for the music and spectacle.
Buses bring visitors from Câmpeni to the fair, which is a large and lively event, but the real action is on the hill top, and you should really camp there the night before to catch the dawn chorus on tulnics (alphorns). A rough forestry road takes an 8km loop to reach the hill top, but you can find more direct routes on foot. The biggest names in popular traditional Romanian music appear here, with local dance ensembles, and there’s plenty of food and drink, but little drunkenness.
The Padiş plateau (Plateul Padiş) is at the heart of a classic karst area, with streams vanishing underground and reappearing unexpectedly, and dips and hollows everywhere, all promising access to the huge cave and river systems that lie beneath. The road from Sudrigiu (to the west in Bihor county) has now been paved, and the north–south route between Huedin and Albac via Padiş and Horea is largely paved; the plateau is at risk of uncontrolled development but there is still plenty of enjoyable hiking here on easy woodland trails that drop suddenly into gigantic sinkholes.