Many Romanians vacation in Maramureș, a county in Romania north of Transylviania and south of the Ukrainian border, for the same reasons foreigners do. They are curious to see life as it existed centuries ago.
Maramureș is like Pennsylvania Dutch country in the US: horse-drawn carriages, hand-embroidered clothing, rural crafts, and lifestyles based on agriculture. The crafts are best represented by wooden gates, ornaments, and churches with pointed spires and elaborate carvings so unique that they are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites. You will see cars and cellphones and jeans here, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
Introduction to Maramureș County
Your introduction to Maramureș begins before you arrive. As you drive north from Bucharest and through Transylvania, you see an increasing number of horses pulling carts loaded with logs, hay, or comestibles. They are present on all roads in Romania, but more so here.
You will also see hand-carved wooden gates in front of the nicer village homes. Ornate carvings were a status symbol for homeowners and special attention was paid to pillars and ledges. The same is true – only more so! – for the churches here. The traditional ornamental motifs feature the sun and the twisted rope as symbols of life and continuity.
A good starting point — for cultural perspective – is the outdoor Village Museum just outside of the town of Sighetu Marmatiei. Founded in 1981, this display of 30 different wooden structures reassembled from points all around the county is a shorthand introduction to Maramureș architecture. The homes, farmhouses, and churches illustrate Romanian, Slavic, German, Hungarian, and Jewish influences from the 17th and 18th centuries. The different buildings are linked by cobbled pathways as if this were a real village instead of a recreated one. Restoration has been done inside as well as out, so you can see how the peasants lived, including looms, farm tools, and the like.
If you want to understand HOW all these implements worked, continue seven kilometers south of Sighetu to the village of Vadu Izei and look for La Moara la Niculai, where an enterprising local has assembled a collection of machines that still do milling, distilling, rug cleaning, and rug beating in the traditional fashion. Example: the washing of heavy peasant rugs is accomplished with a system of water flow through wooden chutes and basins, more thorough and cost-effective than modern techniques, according to my guide. In short, this is not a place just for tourists, although a tourist pays a nominal admission fee. Locals pay for the services requested.
Back in Sighetu Marmatiei, two places worth visiting offer insights into 20th century Romania. One is the Memorial Museum to the Victims of Communism, also known as the Museum of Arrested Thought. A prison built in 1857 for common criminals became a maximum security facility under communism for intellectuals, priests, and anyone thought to be an opponent of the regime. Prisoners’ names may have little meaning for non-Romanians, but the bare cells and narratives of their truncated lives can be universally understood. The second is the Elie Weisel Memorial House. Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel was born here, and his ancestral home is now a museum focusing on Jewish life in the early 20th century as well as the Holocaust.
Before heading back south toward Transylvania – or east for the stunning wooden churches of Bucovina – a 50-minute detour to the northwest will bring you to the village of Huta Certez. It’s in Satu Mare county, adjacent to Maramureș, and you won’t find it on TripAdvisor. This place is known by locals as the village of smugglers. It was a formerly poor border town whose male residents emigrated to other parts of Europe to work, and then returned to spend their retirement years in the place of their birth. Between the outright crooks and the wealthy retirees (who may or may not have been crooks), there is a lot of Las Vegas-type wealth on display here. When I was taking pictures of some of the over-the-top mansions, my guide urged me to get in the car quickly. We sped away as some “guards” lumbered out to check our credentials.
About 12 miles southeast of Sighetu is the Barsana Monastery, a World Heritage-recognized church complex and convent. The buildings have elements of east and west (Gothic and Byzantine), brightened by flowered facades and set in green gardens through which nuns serenely glide. The church is notable for its indoor murals, which play an important role in orthodox churches (where statue are not allowed). Also impacting interior design: no organ or any other musical instrument is used during a service; all singing is a cappella.
Another 20 miles south brings you to one of the tallest (if not THE tallest) wooden churches in the world. The church of Surdesti, also a UNESCO site, stretches 235 feet from ground to steeple top, and every bit of the construction is oak. Not even a metal nail. It was completed in 1721 (or later: there are differences of opinion) and is still in use today by local Orthodox and Catholic communities. The impact is one of austere solidity. The higher the church, the more easily prayers could reach heaven, the faithful believed. There was also a tactical advantage to having an imposing structure in the center of town during the bellicose 18th century.
A more imposing structure, underground this time, awaits you 130 miles south of Sighetu. By now you are back in Transylvania, but there is nothing vampirish about the Turda Salina caves. The Turda Salt Mine is one of the most visited attractions in Romania. Some are drawn by the role of the mines in industrial history, some by the wow factor, and some by the pool, spa, and recreation facilities that have grown up around it. Try to avoid visiting during the weekend in the summer; you may not find a place to park.
Salt mining activity has been recorded here since the 11th century, but the heyday was in the 19th century. During the Industrial Revolution an entire complex was constructed underground, including an artificial lake for recreation and a Ferris wheel to amuse workers’ children. The longest tunnel stretches more than 3,000 feet, and is dotted with photos and diagrams explaining (in English and Romanian) the process of salt extraction and the equipment used. Since you are walking through well-trod tunnels and descending slippery steps, this is not an excursion for the physically disabled.
A tour of the Maramureș, on the other hand, is possible for anyone with curiosity, a car, and – if you are lucky — a good guide.
Written by and photos by Claudia Flisi for EuropeUpClose.com