| By Nick Thorpe |
BBC News, Romania
We were expecting gold, at least in the autumn leaves.
But when we arrived in the Apuseni Mountains the first snow of winter dusted the hilltops, and the beech woods on the steep slopes gave only a dull, red, distant glow.
Catalin Hosu and his team from the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation sweep us up a muddy track in their four-wheel drive.
They are young and enthusiastic about the mine development, and they describe it as the best chance to tidy up the mess left by the past 2,000 years of mining here, and to bring prosperity to these valleys.
"This project is definitely the only hope for this region," says Catalin's colleague, Horea Avram.
In the failing grey afternoon light, we stand over a great brown-black pit. A few fir trees and an abandoned bulldozer perch forlornly around the fringes.
On the other side of the mountain, beneath an outcrop called the Raven's Beak, a dog barks somewhere near the church in the valley below.
All 380 homes and two churches in Corna village have to go, to make way for a tailings (residue) pond where waste from the mine, in a cyanide solution, will be stored.
Heavy metal rivers
The first shock for any visitor here is the extent of the existing damage.
The rivers run red with heavy metals: cadmium, zinc and iron already unlocked from these hills by the mines of the past.
The corporation has even bottled some of it for their publicity campaign. Rosia Red they call it.
"What keeps Rosia Red?" asks the label on the back.
"Anti-mining activists who want to stop a new, modern mine designed to strict EU standards, that would actually clean up the rivers of Rosia!"
The second shock is the sheer extent of the Gold Corporation's plans to change the landscape.
Cetate Hill will disappear altogether, like a bad tooth plucked from the mouth of the Carpathians, to be pulverised along with three of its neighbours.
In exchange, Romania has been promised more than £1bn ($2bn) in economic benefits.
Ancient conquerors spoke of enough gold here to pave a road all the way to Rome. You can still find it in faraway museums, punched with Caesar's proud head.
Gold Corporation geologists admit that the main seams have already been carted away, but say 300 tonnes are left in low concentrations.
That is why they need to grind up whole hills - 13 million tonnes of rock a year - to make the operation worthwhile.
Homes belonging to opponents of the project are easily identifiable by their yellow "This property is NOT for sale" signs, among the green, more frequent plaques on homes already bought by the company: "Property of Rosia Montana Gold Corporation."
Project master plan
Remus Cernus is hammering and sandpapering a window-frame in his carpenter's workshop when we arrive.
| || I don't want... the very mountains which God created to disappear |
There is a picture of the Madonna and Child on the wall, and his home - like the Orthodox Church in the village - is panelled with cherry, pine and beech woods from his hard-working hands.
According to the project master plan, his house and workshop will disappear under the deep base of the tailings pond.
"I do not want everything I've done here, the traces of my parents, my forefathers on this earth, the very mountains which God created to disappear," he says slowly.
And he speaks sadly of close relatives who were persuaded by the company to sell.
It is a common theme among opponents of the mine: the divisive effect the corporation's activities have had on local communities, with offers of money or re-housing... and the freeze placed on any plans to improve local facilities on the grounds that the company will do everything in the future.
On the slopes of Orla Hill, where his frozen land too should be ground up for gold, Eugen David is defiant.
"There are thousands of villages in Romania which are developing without gold," says the leading light of Alburnus Maior, the main opposition group. "Why should this one be different?"
And anyway: "It's the Romanian state's responsibility to rehabilitate the landscape, not some Barbados company listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange!" he mocks the corporation.
Later we sit in his kitchen, tasting his cheese, washed down with fiery plum spirit.
Diana, his nine-year-old daughter, describes debates in school between "the Greenpeacers" - as some children call themselves - and the "Goldists".
And who is in the majority? "The Greenpeacers!" Diana says loyally, as her grandmother brings another pancake from the top of the wood-burning stove, and spreads it thickly with homemade rosehip jam.
Leaving Rosia Montana, we get our gold at last: a sudden flicker in the sky, where we were least expecting it, after sunset.
It is -4C (25F) in the mountain pass above Ariesen. The snow is waist-deep among the fir trees at the roadside.
And there is proof of some non-mining investment in the area. The ski slope is preparing for its first visitors of the season.