A land of wood, pointy haystacks and stork nests, Maramureș is scattered with old peasant customs and crafts, waist tall grass, hard working men and spontaneously growing poppies. Here each day ends with a blissful smile. Dear home to many Romanians, this enclosed valley in the mountains once belonged to the mighty Dacian Kingdom only to be separated, like fellow Bucovina, from its northern historical half right after the Second World War. It remains a serene place surrounded by stormy rivers where the sun cozily sets amid the sound of wind bells.
Oftentimes men and women live to see many generations of grandchildren with 90-year-old patriarchs, a pretty common sight around the gravel road villages. Perhaps the air or the warm, foamy milk drank right after the cow is milked does the magic trick. Perhaps it is all about their extraordinary generosity and innocent shyness. Locals always invite their houseguests for a meal and a traditional glass of horincă, happily sharing the drinks but politely refusing the food as a way of paying respect to the guests. Who knows, maybe Maramureș is charmed. It’s definitely charming.
THE LITTLE WONDERS OF MARAMUREȘ
Merry life & death
Wandering the land of Maramureș, a traveller will find no less than the sheer joy of life’s small things. Every Sunday, without exception, young and old attend the church service wearing peasant trousers and blouses, women displaying their black and red fotă – a hand woven apron worn wrap-around the waist. The elaborate garments aren’t only for locals as each guesthouse proudly lends all size costumes to their guests.
Much to the delight of children and adults, the artisan clothes are a must during the National Folklore Festival “Nights of Sânziene” in Borșa (June 24) and the giant Hora la Prislop, a circle spin folk dance which gathers people from three counties in Prislop village (August).
As life here is woven out of humorous storytelling, music and dances, death is never frowned upon but lightheartedly accepted. What image could better describe this constant anticipation of a better afterlife than the sight of the Merry Cemetery of Săpânța? The tombstones are hand carved oak crosses, painted in a lively shade of blue and covered on both sides with naive paintings and carved poetic epitaphs depicting, in the most comical way, the life of the deceased and the cause of death.
Close to Săpânța is the town of Sighetu Marmației, home of the Memorial Museum of the Victims of Communism, the Elie Wiesel Memorial House and the Ethnographic Museum of Maramureș.
Wooden gates & churches
Timeworn guardians of the village’s greatest assets – the churches and houses – the monumental gates of Maramureș rest firm on their three massive pillars. These oak wood giants were, and still are, meticulously carved by craftsmen faithful to ancestral rituals and symbols: the sun and the twisted rope mark life and endlessness, the tree of life depicts eternal youth while the Christian fish and the protective figures of the forefathers also appear among the carvings.
The more intricate the gate is, the simpler the home and church are. Churches are a truthful expression of how people cherish the wood, using it to erect time proof houses of worship. Built exclusively out of well-sealed logs, they are usually double-roofed, covered with wood shingles and have one tall, narrow steeple placed above the entrance, which is always faced to the west. The finest and best-preserved churches can be found in Bârsana, Ieud-Deal, Joseni and Poienile Izei, while the tallest wooden church in Europe was erected in Săpânța-Peri.
The wizardly road of Cavnic
On the way to Ocna Șugatag, the village famous for its salt water, and north of Cavnic, the little town that prevailed against the last Tatar invasion in 1717, the most unusual thing happens. There are about 20 meters of road where each car, regardless the size, drives uphill without its engine running.
The experience is both spectacular and intriguing as there are a few legends and lots of assumptions regarding the mysterious cause, yet no scientific explanation. Nevertheless, if you’re interested in solving this mystery yourself, make sure you let us know as we can provide thorough information how to get there.
Fiery water & food for the soul
Every autumn the wine press treads the grapes while the juicy plums, ripe apples and pears ferment, giving birth to the star of the season: the fiery Romanian water, known locally as horincă, pălincă or turț. As the story goes, this strong plum brandy is double-distilled in large grounded alembics to reach around 50% alcohol by volume then aged in oak or mulberry barrels. You may easily recognize it by its intense fruit flavor, the small, perfectly arranged beads when shaken and the alcohol warming your heart and spirit. It usually lacks color, but if you’re ever invited to drink horincă with a yellowish tint, you are being greatly honored by the head of the household as the shade represents undeniable proof of the age. The families living in Maramureș are, by definition, the perfect hosts. Once you’ve crossed their threshold, they shall welcome you with a glass of homemade horincă and the most appetizing three-course meal.
The most difficult task will be to pick your favorite when it comes to tasty creamy soups, shepherd’s balmoș (milk and cream boiled polenta with pot cheese and a buttery finishing touch), sour cream omelets or the heavenly pancove, a flat pastry filled with jar preserved salted pot cheese, fresh dill and shallots. However, we kindly advise you to leave room for dessert as there is no other place in the entire country where you can eat homemade cakes with such a delight. They’re indescribably good and there’s no need to blush at the thought of asking for more, as the lady of the house will be highly appreciative.
Mocănița, the chirping steam train
How would you like to touch, on the fly, the mountain and dwarf fir trees while traveling on a tiny steam powered train? The Vaser Valley Forestry Railway, fondly nicknamed Mocănița and built in 1932, is the last operating forestry railway in Europe. Although present in Bucovina and other regions of Romania, this Mocănița travels the longest track, which is 43km long (26.7mi), however only 21km (13mi) is operated for tourists, using an Austro-Hungarian standard gauge of 760 mm (30in).
A round trip journey from Vișeu de Sus is quite an exciting experience as the scenery changes from sunny villages to cool wild forests. You’ll see colorful butterflies and ladybugs while smelling fresh cut lumber and burned wood from the locomotive. The train is usually followed by a converted minivan on rails. Although there’s a fair chance you’ll get a bit of soot on your face and clothes, you can always wash up in Vaser’s clear water during the halts.
At Paltin turning point, passengers are offered catering services in covered and open-air seating. Each car has a multiple language tour guide. July 1 through September 15, Mocănița travels daily, but it is better to check the website for the complete timetable and special events with scheduled trains.
For more adrenaline rush, the Borșa area is suitable for mountain climbing (Pietrosul Peak), off road, hiking and mountain biking to Știol Lake and Horses Waterfall. Local guesthouses can provide tour and logistical assistance.
By Alexandra Duță
Alexandra Duță is the co-founder of 5 Senses Romania, that provides premium customized tourist services, bringing a new concept to the Romanian tourist market, the 5 senses vacation not for tourists but travelers in search of a multi-sensory adventure. 5SR offers them the choice of the finest ingredients for a true feast of thrills, thus having the possibility to select and combine those which best create the complete holiday experience. More details at 5sensesromania.com