Maramures is the northernmost region of Romania and is home to many villages where centuries-old traditions are still part of daily life. The inhabitants of this area have preserved, to an amazing extent, the rural culture and crafts of their Dacian ancestors. Maramures villages are distinguished by their unique wooden churches with tall spires and shingled roofs. Woodland still accounts for more than four-fifths of the region, therefore, wood has long been the medium of expression for the region’s artisans. Elaborate woodcarvings decorate the eaves, entryways and windows of houses. The local handiwork is also seen in the hand-woven carpets and intricate embroidery that adorns folk dress still worn by the locals.
For other fine examples of the local craftsmanship pick out the monumental Maramures gates, guarding the entry to the houses; supported by three columns, they feature traditional ornamental motifs, including the sun and the twisted rope - both symbols of life and continuity. Some of the most beautiful wooden gates are found in the villages of Vadu Izei, Budesti, Barsana and Oncesti. As it has for hundreds of years, social life in Maramures continues to revolve around the village church; many of the Wooden Churches of Maramures, such as in Ieud and Barsana, have been recognized by UNESCO. Unique in shape and ornamentation, they have characteristic high roofs and tall, narrow, pointed steeples, often collectively described as ‘the Gothic style of Maramures.’ The primary wood used by the artisans who built them was local oak, which has survived the elements with sturdy elegance until today. The interior walls of the churches were painted by local artists, with biblical scenes often juxtaposed against the familiar landscape of the village.
The spiritual philosophy of the people of Maramures is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Sapanta. The town folks’ ancestors considered death as a beginning, not the end, and this faith is reflected in the carvings in the town’s unique Merry Cemetery. Blue wooden crosses feature a carved scene and humorous verses that endeavour to capture essential elements - both the good and the imperfections - of the deceased’s life. Even without benefit of translation, visitors can appreciate the handiwork of sculptor Stan Ion Patras, who began carving these epitaphs in 1935, and his successors. Patras’ house in the village is now a fascinating museum.
Maramures is dominated by a landscape of mountains and rolling valleys. Three large valleys cross the region: Viseu, Iza and Mara. The Rodnei Mountains National Park, a natural reserve filled with a rich diversity of flora and fauna, has been awarded biosphere status by UNESCO. Here, chamois leap between rocks, the cries of eagles ring out overhead and as the snows recede in the spring, crocus and other flowers create swathes of dazzling colours.
Steam Railway in the Forest:
For a unique experience, take the narrow-gauge steam train, which starts in the small logging town of Viseu de Sus; the steam railway runs along a scenic route for about 30 miles, chugging behind an old steam engine. The train provides the only access - other than walking - to settlements higher up in the valley. During stops, you can watch workers load firewood and take on water from clear mountain streams. On the trip back down in the afternoon, the engine driver whistles for brakemen to stop the train - sometimes to pick up or drop off passengers, sometimes to stop to pick wild mountain mushrooms. Since 2000 the railway logging is also supported from abroad by the Swiss. Since 2005 there have been proper visitor carriages hauled by steam locomotives and in 2007 the Vaser Valley became part of the Natural Park "Maramures Mountains" and is under European protection.
Food & Wine:
It is a Maramures custom to welcome travellers and guests with homemade breads and a small glass of horinca - a traditional double-distilled local plum or other fruit brandy. Other local specialities include smoked sausages, bacon and fresh ewes' milk cheese. A very tasty dish in this area is balmos, oven baked and mixed with ewes' milk cheese or cheese fermented in special wooden or clay pots and served alongside warm polenta. For Easter, baskets covered with towels adorned with flowers containing red painted eggs, ‘pasca’ (a sweet cheese cream cake), knot-shaped bread, pies and braised lamb - are brought to the local churches to be blessed before the traditional Easter lunch. On Christmas night and on New Year's Eve, all the members of the family must eat a slice of pork jelly (called piftie in Romanian).
We look forward to being of service.
Hotels to visit
The Casa Iurca guesthouse is located in Sighet, in the heart of Maramures Country; the guest house has a local restaurant with a traditional menu.
Located just a short walk from the old town square and the sights of this town, made famous by inclusion in Bram Stoker's book.
The Montana Hotel is located in the centre of the small town of Viseu de Sus, a perfect location for exploring Maramures' sights and for the fabulous Forest Railway.
Just 3 minutes from the centre of Viseu de Sus, La Cassa offers an oasis of greenery and tranquility.
The Gradina Morii Hotel is located in Mill Garden Park at the foot of Solovan Hill in Sighetu Marmetiei. A high quality place to stay in this rural region of Northern Romania.
R Moody, UK, Sept 2017
D Czaczkes, UK, June, 2017