Maramureş – Wooden Paradise in the Carpathians

Some say that Europe’s biggest problem is that it has lost its values and principles in a world of uncontrolled globalization and modernism… Well, this journey is going to take you to one of last regions where people are still living as they used to hundreds of years ago, where self-sufficient farmers respect the same rules their ancestors did and where the forests and nature receive the respect they deserve since the beginning of mankind…

Day One

We will depart from Cluj in the afternoon and drive North, towards the province of Maramureş. Crossing through a natural variety of hills and small mountains, we will reach one of Romania’s most popular and traditional regions. The locals here are proud to have been living as free people ever since the beginning of history and their main occupation is agriculture. Most of them are self-sufficient and still follow the same archaic rules, their ancestors have been for hundreds and hundreds of years. After driving for a couple of hours, we will reach the small village of Poienile Izei. It is one of the few places, where the wild modernism of the last 25 years hasn’t made such a big impact as in many other villages in the region. Our hosts for the next couple of days are going to be a lovely local family, who are both going to spoil us with the local products (all of them home grown and –made), as well as entertain us with their fascinating life stories and traditions.

Day Two

In the morning, after some lovely breakfast with fresh milk, cheese, eggs and homemade jam, we will depart quite early and leave towards the small city of Vişeu de Sus. Here, we will get the chance to visit and ride one of Europe’s oldest industrial trains, the last one still working. The story of this valuable industrial artifact is amazing and it all began with the ruling of the Austrian Empire, centuries ago: Maria Theresa settled here Slovak and German workers from up North, who later built the longest forest railway line in the region: Mocăniţa. Thanks to private initiatives and investments, it was saved from ruin after the fall of communism and it is still functioning today. It brings wood from the most isolated areas of Maramureş, but it also operates for tourists. Prepare yourself for an encounter with the nature in the most traditional way. Streets or villages can’t be seen in this region, only bears, wolfs or flocks of sheep…
An old steam locomotive is going to take you along the water valley. Untouched nature, wonderful photo opportunities, but also your fascinating transportation are going to accompany you throughout the day. At the destination, we will enjoy a picnic and in the afternoon, we will return to Vişeu and continue our journey.

Our next destination is going to be the old village of Ieud. Here we’ll find, in a remote cemetery, Romania’s oldest wooden church (13th century), with its beautiful murals. These wooden churches are the symbols of the region and exist in each and every village. Most of them date back to the 18th century, after the last Mongol invasions, but the one in Ieud had managed to survive all of these rough times. The newly restored paintings show scenes out of the Old and New Testament, mixed with local history and traditions.
In the evening we are going to return to Poienile Izei and get the chance to discover this gem. We will first go to the wooden church, which is the heart and soul of the local community. It is situated in the middle of the cemetery and is totally made out of wood. The chairs, the banks and the icons are decorated with traditional blankets and towels, all of them made by the local women. The murals are also charming and were painted by locals who remained anonymous. After visiting the church, we will continue our walk through the village. Almost each house has a small bench in front of it and you will often see people setting on them, men playing cards and women weaving. We can go to a local family and the lady of the house is going to show us her loom and make a demonstration. We will return for dinner to our B&B and enjoy the local dishes, together with a proper glass of home-made horincă (plumb brandy).

Day Three

After breakfast we will say goodbye to our hosts and drive through the Iza Valley. Despite the modernization of the past decade, almost every house still has its wooden gate, a loom and a bench outside: the fence where people gather in the evening to chat or to play cards. The transportation ways here are also “traditional”. You can often see horses, but also oxen or water buffalo pulled carts, which transport hay and people, grain or fruit. The many carvings on the houses and churches, all designed by local folk artists are beautiful. The way in which they combine tradition with geometry, superstition and religion is also quite unique… We will find out more about these symbols in Bârsana, where we will get the chance to visit a local craftsman, who is famous all over the region for his wood carvings. Right next to his workshop, we will make a short visit to the a new orthodox complex, that was built only a couple of years ago, but following the old traditional rules. The setup is absolutely charming…

At lunch we will reach Sighetu Marmaţiei. The small city is one of the most cosmopolite 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. The city 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 of regime opposant suffered terrible traumas in this establishment, which is now 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 turn this cemetery into a unique place all over 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.
In the evening we will drive back to Cluj.