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The million-year-old Polovragi Cave hides in its depths secretes of all those who lived here, inviting visitors to a spectacular excursion among special formations and water drops, closely watched over by God Zamolxis, about whose presence people say is still felt in these ancient places.

Photo credit: (c) Alex TUDOR / AGERPRES ARCHIVE

They say the name of the cave comes from an extinct herb called ‘polovraga’ that ancient healers would process and use as a remedy for various illnesses, but the cave’s guide, Felicia Bantea, begs to differ.

‘I would rather say the name Polovragi comes from vraci, healers. The vraci, those healers from the ancient times of Dacians were skilled in using herbs. All is inspired by nature and the shapes in this cave, man’s first habitat and home, have inspired architects and painters alike. There are many shapes found in buildings that now, unfortunately are only moments, because durable structures are no longer built. Coming back to the word vraci: it has a c and the name Polovraci means a hub, a town, a settlement for the healers first of all, because it was in the cave that they would find the raw materials,’ Bantea explains.

The cave is million years old, a fossil meander of Oltet River, the work of the Oltet in a lime patch, with the lime dating back to the Jurassic and the lime in which the cave was carved dating back later. The cave is continually forming, besides the third floor that is open to visitors. Underneath, the river excavates the last floor, the active floor as speleologists have named it. It is 25 m deep.

‘According to the latest measurements by speleologists, the cave is 10,593 m long, but we should not picture it as some boulevard. It is a 1.5-km labyrinth, the distance between the upstream and downstream gates. Inside, the cave is a continual labyrinth with an entrance and exit way. The portion open to visitors covers the downstream artery. That is why it is high and broad. It is 600 m long, plus collateral paths,’ Bantea explains.


Photo credit: (c) Nicolae BADEA / AGERPRES ARCHIVE

The downstream entrance has been functional since the Eneolithic, when the upstream entrance was not in existence. In the absence of a forest path, the first of which was created in the 1950s, people would not know there were entrance and exit ways, and hence the interpretations that the cave would lead farther into Sibiu, Transylvania, or Sarmisegetuza, or that the cave would hide Dacian treasures. These are mere speculations and now people know there is an entrance and an exit way. The exit way was in fact the original entrance way and so the first portion of the cave was the most often used.

Inside, there is a lot of free carbon black on the walls that has not been covered yet, because it takes time for the lime walls to get covered in clay by the infiltrating water. The first portion, the one open to the public, is less interesting in terms of speleological formations. The speleological area is open upon request, and it is dotted with stalactites, stalagmites, deep basins where water is over 1 m deep, coral like stalagmites resulting from the trickling of multiple drops. Upstream, there are candle-shaped stalagmites with a central dripping that create a real guardian, which part is to support the natural structure.

‘Cave was man’s first home and here more than anywhere else because entrance used to be difficult, which would keep the cave bear away and allowed humans to live inside continually. There is evidence going back to the Dacian forerunners. In the 1970s-1980s, diggings were performed uphill, in the Dacian settlement located on a mountain peak. Dacian ceramic shards were uncovered in the cave. The cave was clearly a hiding place, a shelter, a winter home, a healthcare facility, if the name of the place is anything to go by. In time, it would be a perfect hiding place because in the 1950s-1960s, when the forest path was crated, nobody outside the area would know there was a cave here. The first descriptions of the cave date back to the second half of the 19th century,’ Bantea explains.


Photo credit: (c) Oana POPESCU / AGERPRES ARCHIVE

Zamolxis has been seen by many Romanian authors as the supreme god in the Gaeto-Dacian Pantheon. Some would say he facilitated the conversion to Christianity of the Gaeto-Dacians, considered the forerunners of today’s Romanians. The cave’s guide says the god’s energy can be felt, as time stands still and metabolism completely changes inside the cave.

‘There is some measure of truth in the legend of God Zamolxis. As I was saying, the cave does not lead to Transylvania and there are no precious metals in the area, but there is a measure of truth about the story of Zamolxis. Just think about those healers. Where did their knowledge come from if there had been no predecessors to educate them? I believe some predecessors helped the creation of a functional system in the area that is functional even today. I believe that in places where there were such small Dacian settlements on Carpathian peaks, where raw materials were abundant, there were some teachers who would stay for some years to teach locals how to help themselves. We now can say, using measurements from devices attesting to the special energy of the place, that the place is out of the real realm. Inside the cave, as you travel down the moulds of sediments, there is another time dimension; there are no changing seasons and people are totally cut away from the real world outside. There is also a change in metabolism, which is necessary,’ the guide explains.

On the tourist track, there are various formations that where christened in time. On one of the walls there is a painting of Death scribbled in carbon black.


Photo credit: (c) Oana POPESCU / AGERPRES ARCHIVE

‘Scaunul lui Zamolxe, Zamolxis’ stool, is a natural stool-shaped piece of lime from the time the Oltet would flow here at this level. This was surely used as a stool, because from the entrance to this point there are 200 m and there is nowhere else to sit. It is in this place that the healers would treat the people in need. The same as Zamolxis’ Stool, the Dacian Oven here is the place most covered in carbon black, which means it was used until recently. There is also a mural painting depicting Death, which origin is unknown, that warns the visitors of the many lateral dangers, as there was no lighting and no way out of thecae,’ the guide explains.

A bat colony was and still is a main attraction of the cave. Bats appeared 60-70 million years ago, at the same time with the lime and before the formation of the cave floor open to visitors. They are even today the cave’s guides, they were the predecessors and guides for the cavemen, who could not have managed otherwise in the cave.

‘Cavemen would hide in the cave mainly from wild animals. Bats in Romania are not big, they all belong to the Microchiroptera suborder. Because mining, forest activities and tourism have dwindled the bat population by 70 per cent, once in the European Union Romania took over bat protection legislation, and I am convinced the bats will survive because they also feed on our attention,’ the guide says.

The cave is home to a colony of nearly 300 cave bats of the Microchiroptera Suborder, of which the Rhinolophus Genus is abundant , popularly known as the horseshoe bats because of the horseshoe shape of the skin surrounding their nose. The guide says she has trained them to listen to commands. The bat leaders are called Soni, for sonar. They are the ones protecting the colony and warning about any danger.


Photo credit: (c) Oana POPESCU / AGERPRES ARCHIVE

‘There are some 5-6 species divided in three colonies. I have noticed that during hibernation time, three months when the cave closes and electrification is down, they migrate upstream, to the tourist area, where there are better conditions, with constant temperature and the highest gallery. They can be trained and I managed to say some words and they execute the commands by association. The horseshoe bats are dominant. They are very smart because, besides their echolocation powers, they have a haired skin around their nose that enhance sounds. When they talk with each other, we do not hear them, but when we do hear them, it means they want us to hear them. Bats on the tourist trail have some clear roles. Leaders come first and leave last, staying in fixed places. When they do not hibernate, they leave the cave but stay in the area. They migrate to all the small grottos on the slopes to be close to the river, where they hunt each evening. Tourists come scared to meet them, but leave excited. There are some leaders that I call Soni, for sonar, that warn me when there is any danger,’ the guide says.

The Oltet Gorges are said to be the steepest in Europe. Their beauty takes your breath away from the very entrance to this special place, and with some luck you can admire chamois, deer, boars and other animals that live here.


Photo credit: (c) Nicolae BADEA / AGERPRES ARCHIVE

‘The gorges cannot be planned because the distance from the peak to the river is some 400 m vertically. There is only 60 cm separating Mt. Parang from Mt. Capatanii. The gorges are nearly 2.1 km long,’ says Bantea.

The cave closes December, January and February, while in March and November it is open on weekends only. Open hours: 10:00—18:00, Tuesday-Sunday. The number of visitors exceeds 30,000 a year.

Chei and the Polovragi Cave is accessible via national road DN 67 linking Ramnicu-Valcea to Targu-Jiu. Polovragi Commune is right on the border between Valcea County and Gorj County, 54 km away from Targu-Jiu, the capital city of Gorj County.


Photo credit: (c) Nicolae BADEA / AGERPRES ARCHIVE

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