ANDREI GRUBER-BIZZY is the proprietor of La Gruber, the only hostel in Roşia Montană in western Transylvania, Romania. Twenty-six, wearing shades and a black beret, a fresh pack of Lucky Strikes always stuck in the breast pocket of his blue overalls, he is heir to one of the oldest and most eminent mining families in the region. The Grubers, originally German, moved here centuries ago, in search of gold and a bit of happiness. They seemed to have found it, at least for a while. Andrei’s grandfather, Alexandru Gruber, was a wealthy prospector, owning a number of cuxe (mining concessions), a supply store and a small advertising business. At some point in the 1930s, he bought the first car in this part of Transylvania, a humongous Ford. In the creased black-and-white photographs Andrei shows me, all the men are wearing tuxedos while the women are wrapped in white furs against the winter cold. They are on their way to the restaurant, perhaps, or the local casino, to spend the money they had just exchanged in the bank for the weekly crop of gold.
“The luckiest miners would binge and gamble all night,” Andrei explains, flipping slowly, reverently, through the pages of ancestral albums. “Some of them would go home in the morning in three carriages: the first one for the prospector himself, the second for his cane and the third for his top hat.”
At the time, Roşia Montană was still a booming mining town, as it had been for almost two millennia. The Romans founded Alburnus Maior (the Roman name for Roşia Montană) in the 1st century AD and kicked off the first real gold rush, with engineers, miners and artisans from all over the Roman Empire flocking here, to the Dawson City of the ancient world. They constructed elaborate trapezoidal galleries in the hard rock of the Carpathians, hundreds of metres underground, following, like junkies, the bulge of the gold-bearing veins. When the Roman Empire finally fell apart—for even the fabulous wealth of Alburnus Maior couldn’t sustain its profligacy—the clinking of pickaxes in the dark never really ceased. The feudal lords of the Middle Ages took their share of the pie, and so did the Austro-Hungarians, who ruled these lands for several hundred years. By the mid-20th century, there were more than 140 km of galleries and mineshafts in the surrounding mountains, a whole separate labyrinthine world, where movement in space also meant movement across time, where one step could equal several weeks of someone’s life.
In 1948, the newly-installed communist government, not immune to the gold fever itself, decided to nationalise the Roşia Montană mines. That is how the Grubers lost their stake and property. Many locals, including Alexandru Gruber, were rounded up and tortured by the police, who hoped to extract information about some purportedly buried treasures. Unbending, Alexandru was later convicted on trumped-up charges of stealing firewood and was thrown in jail, where he died in the 1950s. His son, Andrei’s father, became a regular miner in the service of the Romanian state, though he never forgot his origins and kept the family history alive.
That history is evident everywhere in La Gruber, the old family house that Andrei converted into a hostel about three years ago with the help of a small grant from friends. There are mining helmets hanging on the walls in one of the bedrooms, old gas lamps, paintings of miners and mining machinery. In the small courtyard, under the apple and pear trees, next to the crossed pickaxe-and-hammer (the mining coat of arms), there is a Roman mortar for crushing ore, ancient millstones and the foundations of what had been, before it was destroyed by the communists, a California stamp mill.
Andrei dreams of rebuilding the stamp mill one day, as a showpiece for the guests of his hostel. This is all he wants: to keep his home, to preserve the rich mining history of the region for future generations, to take tourists on long hiking trips around the stunning Apuseni Mountains and for mining archaeology inside the network of ancient and modern tunnels, to show the curious the basics of gold panning and artisanal mining.
“I believe in the future of tourism,” he says. “But others need to believe in it as well. You need to want something for it to happen.” To illustrate his point, Andrei takes out a wooden trough and scoops some earth and gravel from the yard with it, then pours in a bit of water. After a couple of minutes of panning back and forth, most of the dirt is gone and some minuscule gold dust particles flicker at the bottom. Voila!
Yet, this is precisely the problem of Roşia Montană. Though the main gold-bearing veins have been exhausted and underground mining is not commercially viable any longer, there is just enough gold in the soil for profitable large-scale open-pit mining. The Roşia Montană Gold Corporation (80 percent of which is owned by the Canadian company Gabriel Resources) plans to create four giant open pits in place of the surrounding mountains and then leach the ore with cyanide. It’s a project that could indeed squeeze out the last drops of gold from this historic region, but it would also mean the destruction of everything that is valuable about it: nature, the old mining galleries, the beautiful village of Roşia Montană with its traditional community and unique architectural heritage, which was recently proposed for inclusion on Romania’s tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The company will not hear of it, however, and bitterly opposes tourist enterprises like Andrei’s which are at odds with the plans for large-scale mining development. Claiming that environmental and archeological tourism cannot be a viable alternative in the region, company managers have gone so far as to suggest that their mining operations will actually draw tourists later—people who will want to see how mountains are destroyed for the extraction of gold.
Andrei Gruber-Bizzy, the heir of generations of miners, is far from opposing mining per se, but he knows that large-scale industrial projects, launched by corporations based on the other side of the world, have very little to do with the actual business of mining as it was once known, for mining is not simply about the brute extraction of minerals from the bosom of the earth and the payment of salaries to workers and dividends to shareholders. It is also about human communities and the sense of place and identity, about stories passed down from one generation to the next. The real gold of Roşia Montană is not buried deep in the earth—it is out in the open for everyone to see and hear. In Roşia Montană, the veins of history are rich and could be mined for profit without hurting the environment. Even today, if you listen carefully enough, you can still hear the clatter of hooves and the song of the drunk miner coming back home in three carriages.
This article was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.