The Muddy Volcanoes
The Muddy Volcanoes – or ‘the gates of hell’ as the locals call them – are one of Romania’s best known geological reserves, about 30km northwest of Buzau, near the tiny village of Berca. This is a great detour if you’re driving from Bucharest to Iasi, Suceava or even Tulcea (Danube Delta), if you don’t mind a bit of extra driving.
Instead of lava, mud spews here in much the same way as a normal volcano, through a less powerful geological reaction. Volcano cones up to 6m high dribble mud with surprising colors – grays, browns, ochre or simply shining black – while the chocolate borders of the craters are adorned with the white crust of crystallized salt and belts of yellow sulphur mud. While this may have been true at some point, and this is undeniably a constantly changing landscape, during both of my visits to the main site (March 2006 and June 2009) I was merely met with a ho-hum field of gray mud, dotted with a few tiny vent holes and one very large, low, broad cone, expelling admittedly captivating methane bubbles ranging in size from marbles to sandpits. (Oh yeah, no smoking out on the mud field.)
Local superstitions regarding the origin of this muddy curiosity are profuse. A mild stench of oil and the “bloop-bloop” noise of the gas bubbles coming up to the surface, create an eerie background as you observe mud eruptions ranging in size from marbles to pitcher’s mounds.
For hikers, there are two other zones, Beciu and Paclele Mari, both 4km walk from the main site, but in opposite directions. These areas are physically larger, but the mud fields are of about the same quality.
As advertised, the Muddy Volcanoes are quite muddy. Anything less than sturdy shoes or tightly fastened sport sandals are likely to be squelched in a mud embrace and snatch off your foot in mid-stride. There’s a footwear scrub-down station at the entrance for use upon your return from tramping. There’s also a visitor centre, restaurant and mini-motel.
Unfortunately, this area is a bit off the beaten path and reaching the site without private transport is difficult. Three maxitaxis, signed ‘Maxitaxi Vulcanii Noroiosi’, weave here from Buzau’s Autogara XXL, daily at 10am, 1.30pm & 5.30pm, returning to Bazau, inconveniently, at 6am, noon & 3pm (cost 8 lei, duration 1 hour). If driving your own vehicle, from Berca, follow the nervously sparse, but eventually timely signs (‘Vulcanii Noroiosi‘) 14km to the Muddy Volcano visitor center.
There’s a couple good side trips in the area: the Sculpture Camp in the village of Magura, where a large clearing has been filled with 256 stone sculptures, created by artists that used to meet here in the 70s and 80s. Yet further northwest are the Active Fires of Lopatari, blue flames that burn deep in the cracks of the soil at 700m above sea level. Lopatari is unmarked on all but the very best maps. Consider it a challege. Good luck!