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In the north-west of Romania lays a region where centuries-old traditions and customs are part of everyday life, where there’s nothing odd about seeing a horse-drawn cart filled with hay or people dressed in folk clothes or wearing bear and goat costumes while parading on the streets. That region is Maramureș, a place where technology hasn’t yet replaced the ancestral practices, boasting a civilisation that today proudly displays a bucolic countryside carved in wood.
An old mining centre, Baia Mare is today a beautiful city placed at the foot of the Gutâi Mountains, revealing picturesque sceneries mixing a rich nature. The Old Centre is filled with Classic and Renaissance buildings, while the Saint Stephen Tower and the Butchers Tower stand as proof of the medieval citadel that once protected the city. The history of Baia Mare is related to the Hunyadi family, who owned the city for centuries. Today, the house that John Hunyadi erected for his wife, the Elisabeta House, stands as a witness of the old glorious times. The mining history of the city is revealed in the Mineralogy Museum, where 1,600 mineral samples are displayed in the only museum of its kind in Romania and the biggest in Europe. For a wonderful view over the city, ascend in the Stephen Tower.
Placed at the border with Ukraine, Sighetu Marmatiei is a place where Communism meets the peasant life. While the city centre displays beautifully coloured houses, majestic buildings like the Palace of Culture and an array of churches unveiling the different cults existing in the city, Sighetu Marmației houses also one of the dreadful Communist prisons. Today a museum, the Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance presents a reconstruction of the Communist past, from the personality cult of Ceaușescu to the Romanians’ daily life to the personalities held and tortured in the prisons. If you prefer more serene places, the Museum of the Maramureș Village will reveal the construction techniques of the peasant houses, gates, fences, workshops and churches, all made of wood.
In winter, the Festival of Winter Traditions and Customs ‘Marmația’, organized around December 27, gets the locals on the streets, dressed in folklore costumes or carrying masks representing characters of the local beliefs. Traditional music and dances are not missing from the feast.
Maramureș is brimming with small villages featuring wooden churches, traditional houses and magnificent wooden gates, scattered mainly along the Mara, Cosau, Iza and Vaser Valleys. Some of the wooden churches of Maramureș are part of the UNESCO World Heritage list as ‘they are a particular vernacular expression of the cultural landscape of this mountainous area of northern Romania’, with an outstanding architecture revealing the craftsmanship of the area, boasting narrow timber churches adorned with tall and slim towers. The UNESCO churches are located in the villages of Bârsana, Budești, Desești, Ieud, Plopiș, Șurdești, Poienile Izei and Rogoz.
Scattered on the Mara and Cosay Valleys, are secular houses and small bucolic villages featuring vâltori, the ancestors of the whirlpools, used to wash clothes or thicken wool tissues. You can find the vâltori in villages like Ferești, Sârbi, Călinești. Usually, near the vâltoare, there is also a distilerie, a copper still for distilling the local plum brandy, horincă, a drink that you will surely taste in the region.
On the Iza Valley, Bârsana village is home not only to a UNESCO heritage church but also to a spectacular wooden monastery built in the local style. Barsana is also home to a gifted artisan, Teodor Bârsan, who carves exceptional wooden objects and gates, carrying on the local artistry. In Vadu Izei, traditional mastery like painting icons on glass, weaving blankets and carpets with dyed vegetable wool or making handmade knotted baskets are still practised by the locals. But if you want to find all these in one place, then visit the Romanian Peasant Museum, located in an 18th-century traditional house in the village of Dragomirești.
In July, the Festival of the Marriage takes place in Vadu Izei, a whole ceremony filled with dances, local music and customs, an extraordinary celebration of the marriage ritual.
Brimming with outstanding places and secular practices, the region could not miss some unique wonders. One of them is the Merry Cemetery, located in Săpânța, a creation of local folk artist Stan Ioan Pătraș, a former sculptor, painter and poet. Nowadays, his heritage is carried on by his apprentice, Dumitru Pop. Crosses painted in vivid colours with satirical epitaphs carved on them adorn the cemetery, revealing messages from the dead to the living world. This unusual joyful attitude towards death comes from the Dacians, Romanian’s ancestors, who believed that death was only a passage to a better life. Another marvel of the local architecture is the wooden church in Săpânța-Peri, a 78-meter (255-ft) high church, allegedly the tallest wooden church in Europe.
In July, the Long Way to the Merry Cemetery Festival is organized and during two weeks, aims to promote the traditional village.
The nature lovers will be thrilled by the beauty of the Maramureș Mountains and the Rodna Mountains, that bound the region. Spread on Romania and Ukraine’s territories, the Maramureș Mountains are crossed by plenty of rivers and valleys, feature two glacial lakes, Vinderel and Băița and the Ruscova village where the majority of the population is formed of Ukrainians and Russians. A not-to-be-missed attraction is the Mocănița, a steam train that transports logs from the mountains, following the last of the Carpathian forestry railways. The train takes tourists from Vișeu to Paltin, following the Vaser Valley, revealing beautiful clearings, precipitous cliffs and dense forests.
For those who like hiking, climbing and capturing some spectacular views, the Rodna Mountains are a perfect destination. With several peaks more than 2,000 meters high (6,560 ft), the Rodna Mountains are featuring a glacial relief with alpine tops, wild and craggy valleys, glacial lakes like Iezer, Ineu-Lala, Negoiescu, natural wonders like the Horses Waterfall. A good starting point for hiking in Rodnei Mountains is Borșa, a winter resort.
Other winter resorts are to be found in Gutâi Mountains, as Mogoșa, Cavnic and Șuior, that in the cold season become whimsical destinations for winter sports lovers.
The local cuisine is mainly based on pork meat and cheese made from sheep-milk or cow-milk, typical for the pastoral way of life of the region. Some of the specialities are bulz, polenta balls stuffed with brânză de burduf, a sheep-milk cheese with a strong flavour, homemade pork sausages, made just after the pig-slaughter around Christmas by filling gut casings with ground pork meat. Other local dishes prepared around this time of the year are tobă, made from pig offal like liver, kidneys and fat, cut into pieces and packed in the stomach of the pig and caltaboș, a boiled sausage containing meat, rice, pork ears, tongue and other types of offal.
Each meal starts with a glass of horincă and if you are invited to a local’s house, remember that they consider it impolite to leave food on the plate. However, once they see that you have finished, you will start hearing ‘Do you want some more? What can I serve you with?’.
While these are hard to find in the restaurants as are homemade specialities, there are also dishes you can try, like tochitură maramureșeană, a mix of pork, chicken and beef meat with brown sauce, served usually with polenta, pomana porcului, made with meat, sausages, liver, all fried in a big pan, different types of cauldron-cooked goulash, the ciorbă maramureșeană, a soup containing sausages, bacon, pickled cabbage, rice, egg and sour cream. For dessert, try some papanași, made from sweet dough, either fried, or boiled and sprinkled with breadcrumbs.