Are you, or someone you know, one of those medieval society nuts? You know, those people that get dressed up in period costumes, converge on some field for a week of ‘vacation’, where they live in tents, cook out, stage ‘battles’ with styrofoam weapons, bathe in the river and poop in the woods? Whether you’re one of those people or you just want to make one of those people insanely jealous, Maramures is the place to go (minus the battles). This is one of the last thriving peasant colonies in Europe, where people live off the land as countless generations did before them. The region is strewn with tiny villages, steeped in local customs and history, sitting among rolling hills and dreamy landscapes. Even Romanians joke that nothing has changed here for 100 years, which is really saying something.
Disregard my attempt at humorous sarcasm above, this is truly a special place, complete with hand-built ancient wooden churches, traditional music, colourful costumes and festivals. Homes (real ones, not tents) are still fronted with traditional giant, ornately carved wooden gates and tongue-inferno 100 proof, plumb brandy (tuica) stills bubble in the garden. If you thought the other parts of Romania were something of a throw-back, this place will stun you stupid, while you’re led around by some of the most genuine, hospitable people in Romania. Briefcases are replaced by pitchforks and traditional gender roles hold fast – even now divorce and abortion are virtually unheard of.
Part of the reason this region has survived as such is the natural defense provided by the fortress of mountains between here and Transylvania. Maramures escaped collectivisation in the 1940s, systemisation in the 80s and Westernisation in the 90s. They continue to happily move forward, unscathed and unaffected by the notion they’re providing the rest of us with a bit of living history. Well, they are sort of aware of it, as the growing agro-tourism schemes in the area can attest, but they sure aren’t self-conscious about it.
Maramures sits quietly in the Mara and Izei Valleys. Eight of its churches – in the villages of Bârsana, Budesti, Desesti, Ieud, Plopis, Poienile Izei, Rogoz and Surdesti – were added to Unesco’s list of World Heritage Sites in 1999.
Getting into Maramures can be a bit of a struggle if you’re on any kind of schedule at all. Train entry usually requires tourist-challenging, unannounced transfers in small, lazily marked stations and maxitaxis are, well, maxitaxis. Getting around is no easier, though the upshot is you’ll rarely enjoy more genial hitchhiking conditions in Europe. As much as I normally discourage tourists driving in Romania, car hire in Maramures is probably the best way to go. Your best bet is to pick up a car in Suceava or Cluj. Once you’re commanding your own transport, your only dilemma is the deficient countryside signage. It goes without saying that a detailed map of the region is essential. Alternatively, an organized tour will alleviate virtually all of the above.
My Top Five for Maramures are:
• Face your demons and the fiery visions of hell painted within the church in Poienile Izei
• Shiver your timbers inside the wooden churches of Budesti, Surdesti and Ieud
• Enjoy the beauty and humour of death through the painted wooden crosses in Sapânta’s Merry Cemetery
• Get your medieval on at homestays in the Izei and Mara Valleys
• Steam up through the Vaser Valley on the narrow-gauge railway from Viseu de Sus