Today’s journey is going to take us to Maramureş, one of Romania’s the most traditional regions. It is very well known, in particular because of the wood-culture and the many ethnic minorities living here for centuries. The dense forests – the Carpathian Mountains used to be called the Forest Mountains – have been the source of livelihood for many generations. Each and every house and church used to be built out of wood, as woodcarving is still one of the most popular occupations in this area. Almost each and every house has a wooden gate, a loom and a small bank, were people gather every evening to catch up with the latest gossip, play cards or weave.
After a couple of hours of driving from Cluj, we will reach Baia Mare, the capital of the region. It used to be one of the wealthiest cities in Romania. The many gold and iron mines in the region helped the city to develop and during socialist times it was massively industrialized. Leaving Baia Mare we reach our next destination of the day: the wooden church of Şurdeşti. For a long time this church was considered to be the religious building with the highest tower in the Maramureş. The interior of the church is of a rare simplicity and beauty: on the walls one can see many scenes from the Old and New Testament, such as the life and works of the Prophet Elias and the Judgment Day. Although the church is under UNESCO patronage, it is still being used each day by the local community, who has decorated it with several handmade carpets and towels.
Leaving Şurdeşti behind, we will cross the Gutin Pass and reach Sighetu Marmaţiei. The small city is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Romania, with Romanian, Hungarian, Jewish, German and Ukrainian communities living together for centuries. Before World War 2 the biggest community in Sighet was the Jewish one, having many synagogues, community houses and cemeteries. Most of them were destroyed, as vast parts of the Jewish community perished during the Holocaust. Sighet is also home to one of the country’s most interesting museums: after the Second World War the local prison was turned into one of the worst political prisons in Europe. Thousands among the regime’s adversaries/opponents have suffered terrible traumas in this establishment, which has now been turned into an interesting museum of the communist resistance. We will have the chance to discover this sad, but important part of the Romanian history.
Next on our list is one of the most interesting sights in the Maramureş: the merry cemetery of Săpânţa. An old tradition, dating back 2000 years ago, gives the locals the belief in life after death. This is the reason why death is seen as something normal, as a next step in life. This was the starting point of the cemetery 50 years ago, when a local artist decided to paint funny scenes on the cross of a deceased, something that would later on turn this cemetery into a unique resting place across the world. The tradition is still being continued today, as the cemetery is full of crosses telling funny, uncensored stories about boozers, Lovelace and communist party members.
From Săpânţa we will return to Cluj and if there is still enough time, we will visit the wooden church in Bogdan Vodă.