Visiting The Ialomitei Cave – Jewel of the Carpathians
Any traveler can tell you; when you make plans, god laughs. Friday morning I got up extra early and began the 2.5 hour drive to a major Romanian landmark; the Sphinx. Well, I got to the area right on time and found that the snow was still blocking the pass and the road was not-yet-driveable. That’s what happens when you try to visit a mountaintop in April! Fortunately, the area had many signs for local curiosities you can also visit. That’s how I decided I’d be visiting the Ialomitei Cave. While I am more than determined to see the Sphinx (maybe in May?) I am so happy I wound up visiting this hidden curiosity. Here’s why:
First, the History:
Very little information was actually available when I visited the caves, so I was on a Google mission when I got home. The Ialomitei Cave (pronounced Yah-lo-mee-tsa) has a very sordid and interesting past. It was initially formed in the Late Jurassic period by a tributary of the Ialomita River (which translates roughly to ‘Tears River”). Carved from mostly limestone, this cave is found in the Bucagi Mountains (Boo-chech) with the nearest town being Moroieni (last pronunciation: Moro-yen). The peak which hosts the Sphinx, another of Romania’s natural tourist sites, can be seen in the distance as you hike up the mountain pass to reach the cave.
The first mention of the cave is in 1793, but only in 1953 was an actual exploration and mapping project completed. Deep underground, what is believed to be some of the last fossils of Cave Bears were found in a gallery now called “Bears’ Hall”. The Dacian’s, an ancient civilization which lived in what is now Romania, believed that their sun-god, Zamolxe, inhabited this space and gifted the water in the cave to the Dacians. Other notables who used the cave for shelter was Wallachia Mihnea Voda the Evil, monks who built a monastery to Saint Apostles Peter and Paul, Archbishop Vasile Costin of Targoviste, and Saint Andrew. So, this was a happening place throughout most of history.
The water found at the end of the cave is scientifically proven to be amazingly clear of bacteria and nitrates. The theories behind why ranges from underground silver deposits the water flows over before coming to the surface, to the water being a gift from the Dacian god, to the water being at the center of a spiritual ‘hot spot’ so it is cleansed of evils. No matter which belief you hold, it’s a pretty neat place to explore.
This information was found mostly from Agentia Nationala de Presa Agerpress, which publishes informational topics over Romania.
On the hike up I was saying, “This is a terrible idea.” Ankle deep in mud and snow will make you think these kinds of thoughts. Fortunately the cave more than made up for it, and I was glad I made the trip.
The cave is about a two and a half hour drive from Brasov, sometimes over quite rough road. I had a tiny Fiat, which technically made it, but I wouldn’t recommend someone going who didn’t have 4-wheel drive. I also wound up parking and hiking from the wrong spot. Apparently leaving your car in a mud-pile and hiking through a road under construction isn’t normally recommended, so there is an easier road to approach the hiking trail (which is somewhat paved). What I’m trying to say: the road was rough and I feared for the life of my car more than once, so drive carefully.
Approaching the cave entrance was a fantastic monastery entrance, with the graves of several past monks being visible on the hike. Some sources say one of these graves is unnaturally hot, but I didn’t find anything abnormal. The entrance overlooks a fantastic waterfall and canyon system where the cave is located, and would be the perfect place for a picnic. Apparently, this monastery has burned down four times, and has been rebuilt each time, so this work is not original.
Inside is a smaller worship place with a small spring of the pure water of the Ialomitei River. The entrance fee is 10 lei per person, which includes a hard hat, brochure (in English and Romanian) and full run of the cave. There is no ATM nearby, so be sure to bring lei with you if you’d like to get in.
The cave requires lots of climbing, stairs, tight spaces, slippery surfaces, and often walking while bent down. If you have claustrophobia or do not have excellent mobility, I would not recommend going on this trip. It is also extremely wet in the cave and you may have your equipment damaged by water falling from the ceiling, if not from the humidity. Please wear the hard hats provided.
Walking into the Ialomitei cave, I was immediately greeted with water falling steadily from the cave ceiling. This continued throughout my visit, and definitely made photo-taking difficult. Past the first gallery, where the majority of people who lived in the cave stayed, the tunnel widens and closes in unexpectedly. I had a hard time imagining how the people who initially explored it managed to stay safe in the Ialomitei’s twists and turns. Away from the mouth of the cave the tunnels must stay in complete darkness, the people who first found the Cave Bear skulls must have been terrified.
Walking through the sturdy plastic platforms and stairs, it often is necessary to bend down completely to make it through the low ceilings. In some places the rising water levels overwhelm the platforms so extra wooden planks are strategically placed. Throughout all of this, the steady drip of water is constant but otherwise silent. Frequently having to duck below low ceilings or protect my camera from the constant water, it felt like I turned a corner and suddenly found myself in an enormous cavern.
This is the Bears’ Hall, where they found the fossils of the now-extinct Cave Bear. This cavern is free from water and has a gravely floor that would have made it better for living in. Following this cavern to its end, I found the source of the spring in the cave, which had become a sort of shrine.
While Christian Orthodox symbols now decorate this area, in the Dacian times it would have been a shrine to Zamolxe. Nonetheless, with the low ceiling, Christian icons, and constant flow of the spring (which disappears into the underground tunnels of the cave) all make it an intimidating and memorable experience. For anyone who has watched 13th Warrior (1999), I’m pretty sure this cave featured in the story creation.
Backtracking from the spring source, I went back through the Bears’ Hall and took the opposite fork, which leads to another outlet of the spring. This one is not the placid waterfall of the Shrine, but is a raging waterfall which looks like it will burst through the boulders and crash through the cave. To be honest, I was a little afraid to fully approach it, since the force of the water looked barely in check. This is where people used to go to collect the pure water which the Ialomitei cave is known for.
Once again, I head back towards the entrance, every inch of the cave searched. In all, it took about one hour but the cave can be thoroughly enjoyed within two hours for even the slowest movers. The hike back down is about another forty minutes, and should be done before dark. There are still bears in Romania’s forests that sometimes like meeting people.
While I did not expect to go underground, I’m so glad that I was forced to go exploring off the beaten path. I doubt many people would mention this landmark when making Romanian bucket list, but it should definitely be on yours.