Natural heritage

on the ways to Csíksomlyó

Natural heritage sites along pilgrimage routes offer ideal possibilities for inward-looking yet studying the earth of prehistoric times, its current flora and fauna and activities of preserving it. These characteristics fit well also into the concept of “slow tourism” getting away from the fast pace of everyday life. The rurAllure pilot will focus on the Mária Út (also known as the Way of Holy Mary, or Via Mariae), a spiritual way used since the Middle Ages. The “Pannonian landscape” presents a holistic view of life and nature. At a typical site in Hungary and in Transylvania, one can just experience a peaceful feeling of contemplation. Along Mária Út, though, the pilgrims may visit numerous sites of built cultural heritage. Accordingly, the focus on natural heritage seeks to offer pilgrims a new perspective, integrating these smaller, relatively unknown rural sites into the cultural network along the European pilgrimage routes, increasing the numbers of visitors and contributing to the general prosperity of the affected regions. The aim is to build up a unified pilgrim’s way among the different religious traditions of Central Europe, and to create a network between these places.

Table of Contents

Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019


Csíksomlyó became a pilgrimage site in 1567, when Hungarian king John II Sigismund Zápolya wanted to convert the Székely population of the upper Csík to Protestantism. The Székelys refused to abandon the Catholic faith and resisted. A battle took place on a nearby field, on Saturday before Pentecost 1567, from which the Székelys emerged victorious. The monks saw this as a sign of the care of Virgin Mary, and since then, this event has been commemorated by a pilgrimage when the believers gather on Pentecost every year. Beside its religious importance, the pilgrimage has also become a community event demonstrating spiritual unity of Hungarian people living in and outside the historical region of Transylvania.

Key Stakeholders

The Way of Mary Association (Mária Út Közhasznú Egyesület, MUTKE, a rurAllure partner) was founded in 2006 in Hungary. They have organised the ways in Hungary and have coordinated them in other countries as well, with the goal of connecting the most important Mary shrines in Central and Eastern Europe: Mariazell, Șumuleu Ciuc, Częstochowa and Međugorje; along with other smaller pilgrimage locations (Máriapócs, Máriaremete). These holy places have been attracting worldwide visitors for centuries. Among the members there are several municipalities along the routes, so the project counts on their continuous involvement. The implementation of the way in Transylvania is coordinated by the Transylvanian Way of Mary Association (an associate partner), which was founded in 2012, together with other partner-organisations, with the Caritas Alba Iulia and the Transylvanian Carpathians Association. The organisation manages a network of churches, authorities and local governments, SMEs, associations, local communities, and volunteers, as well as fundraising activities.

Geographical coverage


The Mária Út covers 9 countries: Austria, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Poland, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Central-European sites are connected by walking, bike and horse trails and have a strong influence of Mary homage through local and regional pilgrimages. The first main route goes West-East from the German Altötting district through the Austrian Mariazell all the way to the Romanian city of Șumuleu Ciuc; the second stretches North-South from the Polish city of Częstochowa to the Bosnian Međugorje through three main routes, all connected into a network. The way thus draws a large cross upon the map of Central Europe.

Relationship with other routes

The Hungarian organisation has formal cooperation agreements with other pilgrimage associations: the Transylvanian Association of The Way of Mary, the Slovak Association of The Way of Mary, the Way of Saint Elizabeth, the Hungarian Association of the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James), the Way of Pearls and Pauline 70 Association (pilgrimage of the Pauline Order). The Transylvanian association has a good relationship with the Association of Friends of Camino de Santiago and in some areas (Cluj, Praid and Dealu) one can see the sign of both routes as a testimony of cooperation.

Key locations and cultural assets

Mariazell has been attracting pilgrims since the 12th century and it is therefore one of the most important shrines in Central Europe. Approximately 1 million pilgrims visit it annually. Șumuleu Ciuc, in Romania, has been a popular destination for pilgrims since the 15th century. Even today hundreds of thousands of people visit it annually for this reason, the main pilgrimage event takes place at Pentecost. Częstochowa is one of the most popular shrines in Poland. According to the legend, Luke the Evangelist painted the portrait of Black Madonna, which to this day attracts millions. Međugorje is located in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the appearances which began in 1981 attracted more than one million pilgrims each year.

Current status of development and promotion

The networks for the main routes of Częstochowa-Međugorje and Altötting-Șumuleu Ciuc have entirely been identified and recorded almost a third part of the entire route (5.00km) has been marked. In three of the countries, NGOs have been created to develop the routes. A network between the settlements and their offered services is currently in formation. This topic is appearing in other events as well, such as the 40-day pilgrimage; the 3-5 day pilgrimages. The unorganised pilgrimages for close acquaintances have all become more popular. The maps, guidebooks, and GPS applications have all been completed for the main sights of the important route between Mariazell and Șumuleu Ciuc. Pilgrim counts are estimated around 20.000 pilgrims per year on the whole section of the route, which results in approximately 30.000 guest nights/year. Although Șumuleu Ciuc is the final destination of the route, the estimated number of pedestrian pilgrims on the Transylvanian section is 2.000 people per year. The majority of them are from Hungary, but the number of visitors from different European countries has a growing tendency. 

In relation to accommodation, pensions are available in the more developed sections, but an important part of development is to organize accomodation and disseminate it. While in Hungary one can choose from several officially listed ‘pilgrim accommodation’ places, this category still needs to be legalized and developed in the Transylvanian section of the route. The current alternatives are parishes, parochial places or family houses. As for catering, pilgrims value local products and cuisine. The Way of Mary gives the opportunity to promote the local products from the small farmers or from the small restaurants and groceries as well. Information on natural water sources is yet essential. Information and resting points: Non-stop receptions function at already established touristic points but there is a need to build some orientation points tailored to the needs of pilgrims. New resting places have to be constructed, old ones repaired, and they should be provided with adequate infrastructure. Pilgrims information still not available in important venues (first-aid centres, pharmacies, transportation, cash points, etc).

The tradition of pilgrimage and Mary homage has been on the Hungarian List of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2016. Although not an official recognition, the Transylvanian Association is proud of the fact that in 2019 a Slovenian and an Austrian delegation paid them a visit, to study the Transylvanian route and use it as a role model. The association’s initiatives are welcomed by the Ministry of Tourism of Romania. The construction and continuation of The Way of Mary in Iași and Suceava county started in March 2019.

Rural surroundings

The Hungarian section of the Way of Maria crosses 5 EU NUTS2 Regions of different economic and demographic characteristics; the rurAllure pilot will cover 4 of those: Nyugat-Dunántúl (HU22), Közép-Dunántúl (HU21), Közép-Magyarország (HU12) and Észak-Magyarország” (HU31). In Romania the Way crosses the RO11 “Nord-Vest” and the RO12 “Centru” NUTS2 regions; the latter will be covered in rurAllure too, more precisely in Harghita and Mureș counties. The areas of interest in Slovakia fall under NUTS2 SK03 “Central Slovakia”.

Hungary, Slovakia and Romania are characterised by large rural areas. The pilgrimage route traverses mainly these parts of the countries. The age of population in 2018 was not far from the EU 28 median age of 43,1 years, although statistics are “distorted” by the presence of larger cities in all regions where the median age is lower than in the rural areas. According to 2017 data the per capita GDP in the HU31 Észak-Magyarország region was among the lowest, only 46% of EU28 measured in PPS (purchasing power standard). GDP in SK03 Central Slovakia is the lowest of all Slovak regions. In general all the regions of our focus have per capita GDP data below 75%. of EU28 average. The following table summarizes the per capita GDP data of all examined regions for 2017. The most rapid growth rate in wealth generation during the period of 2008-2017 was among regions that had lower GDP per inhabitant than the EU 28 average. Romania’s Centru Region is one of them with more than 4% yearly growth rate starting from a very low base in 2008. Unemployment in these regions is low on average, less than 5% of the labour force aged 15-74 Years. These data are distorted by the vicinity of cities and industrial activity in the area. Where the routes cross, the rural areas show more modest dimensions.

Nearby heritage missed by (most) pilgrims

Current descriptions of the Mária Út have a stronger emphasis on constructed cultural heritage while natural focus is often missed, especially as the route does not go in the vicinity of a well-known national park. Nevertheless, the route boasts a relevant natural heritage: caves and cave systems, waterfalls, gorges, creeks, cenic observation points, birdwatching areas, traditional pastures and livestock, etc. There are also botanical gardens, protected plants areas and (natural) herb gardens. During the first stage of the pilot, rurAllure will examine 2 smaller parts of the route within Hungary with a natural heritage focus. Later on, the plan is to complete the route up to 500 km. In Transylvania (Romania) the plan is to develop one larger section of about 200 kms and in Slovakia the whole northern-southern section of 216 km.

The unifying feature of the route is the adoration of Virgin Mary. The routes have evolved over the centuries carrying also our natural history and, similar with other pilgrim’s ways, bring pilgrims closer to nature. It shows not just the beautiful part, but also the scarring characteristics of the landscape, the garbage that cannot be seen from the car. Owing to the fact that these pilgrimages are far away from the traffic, the tourists are invited to experience small treasures or interesting, small happiness and beauties of nature. In this sense, the Way of Mary is special because it is mainly traced through nature: pilgrims do not only look for the religious experience; but also for the spirituality in people and places. The route crosses some regions with important regional-touristic facilities, promoting especially constructed heritage. Natural heritage is much less known in the international touristic market. In Romania, due to the larger country size the knowledge about the sites along the route has to be improved on national level, too.

Current needs and opportunities in cultural and touristic promotion

The attractiveness of the territory is defined by the mix of several factors. They can be grouped in various ways, like destination attractions (e.g. variety of attractions, uniqueness, climate), the quality of support facilities and services (e.g. accommodation, shopping, tours, info points, safety, security) and the people-related factors (quality of supporting personal, level of knowledge of foreign languages). The profile of pilgrims has also changed considerably in recent years:

  • Due to demographic changes, an increasing number of pilgrims are getting “older”, seeking increasing quality, comfort, and eventually therapy. The development of health-consciousness has reached this segment, too.
  • The pilgrims tend to be better informed through the Internet and social media.
  • By the time they reach the destination they have known more than 4-5, but sometimes even more than 10 touristic places have a good referential point.
  • The trend of slow tourism contributes to the growth of this segment, going on foot and using simple and traditional services is more attractive than a decade ago.

A shared digital exhibition showcasing  the main categories of “natural heritage” will take priority. The pilot plans to create virtual countryside and forest discovery paths presenting various sections of the natural heritage along the selected routes. IT experts and natural scientists will be involved in the design, along with the Mária Út Association and local organisations in order to reflect the region’s development aim’s. It is envisaged to design a virtual nature trail of a gorge along the route showing its surroundings, panoramic points, special flora. On another virtual trail one will be able to examine the interior of a cave including its geological characteristics and the life of bats living there. The pilot plans to dedicate a trail also to the cultivation and processing of aromatic and medicinal plants. An interesting virtual nature trail can be dedicated to bird-watching, as well. During the first years of the project, it is planned to prepare a shorter version of this information for the pilgrims, in order to raise their curiosity and attract them to the natural heritage sites. In the dissemination phase all this information can be shared online: at web-sites of touristic points, or dedicated touristic platforms such as in Transylvania the Visit Harghita and Visit Mureș. There may be opportunities to enrich the digital trails involving the pilgrims themselves (crowdsourcing) by offering them the opportunity to share their photos and comments.

Strengths & opportunities

  • All the territories are attractive destinations to the pilgrims mainly due to their built religious heritage.

  • Other cultural heritage sites are also relatively well represented.

  • The quality of support facilities is increasing, even if there is a big difference among the regions, especially between Hungary and Transylvania.Relationships with “religious” tour operators and travel agencies have multiplied.Multiple audiences have been identified for communication and new channels have been created to reach them.People-related factors have improved significantly.Mária Út Association and Asociatia Via Mariae have achieved solid involvement of local governments, key stakeholders and volunteers.

  • Relationships with “religious” tour operators and travel agencies have multiplied.

  • Multiple audiences have been identified for communication and new channels have been created to reach them.

  • People-related factors have improved significantly.

  • Mária Út Association and Asociatia Via Mariae have achieved solid involvement of local governments, key stakeholders and volunteers.

Weaknesses & threats

  • The natural aspects have been developed in depth only in some segments of the route.

  • The individual cultural heritage institutions could share more of their experience related to the pilgrims by establishing and developing a network.

  • International communication, publications in various languages need refining.

  • The international relations among the various pilgrimage ways need to become stronger. One of the main values of this proposal is seen in this field.

  • Although the segment of children has already been targeted, there has not been a unique proposition to raise the interest of this age group, neither that of the parents.