The bottle is only a quarter empty, but the tone is already descending. “Think of it as ‘Get Drunk with the Amish,’” says Duncan Ridgeley, suddenly animated by the shot he’s just knocked back. “No, wait, ‘Get Annihilated with the Amish.’ Well, that would be the headline if it ran in The Sun.’”
Sitting in his kitchen in the rural heartlands of northern Romania, this is guesthouse owner Duncan’s attempt to explain what I can expect from Maramures, Romania’s northernmost province. Often described as ‘the last peasant society of the EU’, Maramures could have been lifted from the pages of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Modernity, where it exists, is restricted to the towns. In the rural villages that dot its landscape of wooden homesteads and small-scale agriculture, life goes on much as it has for the past five centuries. So much so, according to Duncan, that it bears comparison with the ultra-traditional communities of America’s Anabaptists — forerunners of the Amish. Except with booze.
“The tourists who come here have already seen half the planet,” local guide Cornelia Lupsa had told me earlier, as we’d set out for the countryside from the industrial town of Baia Mare, whose station my overnight train from Bucharest had trundled into just after dawn. “They’re sick of big squares, hundreds of tourists taking photos. They want something simpler.” Maramures, then, is a refuge for travellers seeking a break from the modern world.
My base for exploring the region is Breb, a chocolate-box village surrounded by forested hills, 17 miles shy of the Ukrainian border, where Englishman Duncan and wife Penny opened The Village Hotel in 2014. When we arrive, a dozen clucking hens scramble from our path as Cornelia’s car jolts over the ruts in the road.
“And look out for people making this stuff,” Duncan says, pointing at the depleted bottle of horinca (the local plum brandy) on the kitchen table. I promise I will.
In the event, it takes just three hours of exploring the next day to be offered alcohol, but by then I’m already intoxicated on the rolling countryside and languid pace of things. A bike borrowed from The Village Hotel carries me out of Breb, up and over Maramures’ patchwork hills of woodland, field and furrowed plots, then down into the Cosau Valley, where I’ve been told some of the region’s prettiest villages are to be found at two-mile intervals.
The first, Budesti, is a picture of rural calm when I freewheel in; its courtyards piled high with pumpkins and firewood. The only activity comes from a roadside wood shop where three men have formed a carpentry production line: one splitting the wood with a hatchet, another shaving the pieces into oblong shards, the last cutting in the ornamental taper at the tip and chucking them onto a pile at his feet. The resulting ‘shingles’ are the roofing material that gives Maramures’ wooden homes their special character.
The apotheosis of this style was just around the corner. Budesti’s wooden church sits on forested hill within a cemetery of metal crosses, the most recent piled high with garlands of plastic flowers. Although most local services now take place in more modern churches, these timber chapels remain at the spiritual and geographical heart of the Maramures village.
This one in Budesti — among eight designated World Heritage Sites by UNESCO — has stood since the mid-17th century; sturdy yet delicate, with oak-beam walls and thousands of shingles covering the double eaves and spire, greyed and frayed by age. Typically, for the benefit of curious visitors, a sheet of A4 is tacked near the door with the phone number of a key-holder. Today, I’m in luck — she’s already here.
The door swings open onto a dark room lit by small windows and a single chandelier. The floor is piled with gaudy woollen carpets, and on the wall, above the modest altar, is a pantheon of flaking haloed icons. By the door, a frame contains a helmet and chainmail vest that once belonged to the beloved outlaw Pintea the Brave, Maramures’ own Robin Hood — a legendary hero for a fairytale building.
Over the next two days there are more villages, more exquisite wooden churches, and no end of colourful characters to bring it all to life. In Barsana, a master craftsman shows me around his workshop. The gateway arches — status symbols in these parts — he creates are ornately carved with rustic motifs. A farmer with hands like ham hocks and a beaming smile takes a break from baling hay to pose for photos with his pitchfork; in Sarbi, the smell of alcohol drifting across the road lures me into a distillery, where a horinca-maker plies me with so much of his product that I have to be careful not to wobble headlong into a ditch when I return to the saddle.
History of hardship
It’s tempting, of course, for an urbanite to over-romanticise such rustic places, but on one morning excursion with Cornelia I get a poignant reminder that behind this folksy, preindustrial Eden lurks a long history of hardship. Sighetu Marmatiei (or ‘Sighet’) is a town of 40,000 tucked up against the Ukraine border. Down a pedestrianised road, where fountains chuckle outside quiet coffee shops, we enter a building with a sinister past.
The Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance was once a prison. It was here that many of the country’s intellectual elite were jailed and exterminated during ‘Romania’s 45 years of darkness, 1945-1989’, as a banner on a wall display puts it. Over two floors, the story of decades of communist repression is retold in the former cells. We learn of Nicolae Ceausescu’s villainous cult of personality, and the Danube-Black Sea Canal, known as the ‘graveyard of the Romanian bourgeoisie’ — a reference to the over 200,000 regime opponents who perished while being used as forced labour during its construction. Only the windowless punishment cells required no description, containing nothing but a single manacle spot-lit on the floor.
It says much for the resilience of Maramures’ singular culture that its way of life survived the communist era, during which the land was collectivised and the pervasive brand of Christianity practised in its wooden churches suppressed.
Ten miles west of Sighet, the uniqueness of Sapanta’s ‘Merry Cemetery’ seems a poetic two-fingered salute to Ceausescu’s ambition to create a culturally homogenous ‘Greater Romania’. What began 80 years ago as a solitary headstone-maker’s act of eccentricity has evolved into this region’s most celebrated tourist attraction — two coachloads of Italian tourists are here when we arrive, weaving through the 600 or so blue oak crosses with their cartoonish depictions of the deceased as they were in life — holding a scythe, down a mine, in nurse’s garb — together with a few lines of doggerel on how they lived, how they shuffled off this mortal coil, and who they left behind.
Yet for all the wry humour and defiant, peasant’s fatalism expressed on the crosses there’s also much melancholy. “Please cry for me mother as long as you shall live,” translates Cornelia, reading the heart-wrenching inscription beneath the image of a child falling beneath the wheels of a train waggon. Another shows a hapless man being decapitated by some ‘bad Hungarians’.
On the way back to Breb, it’s tempting to see echoes of the hardships portrayed in those naïve drawings in the scenes we pass at the roadside. Most of the people toiling in the fields are old — too old, surely, for such unforgiving labour. On one hilltop, the sight of a disabled farmer struggling to wield a 20ft stick as he scrumps apples is a sobering symbol of rural tribulation.
Outside many of the houses stand ‘pot trees’, their trunks stripped of bark and their bare branches hung with brightly coloured pots and pans. According to local custom, such a display serves to give notice that a girl of marriageable age resides in the house. But most are merely ornamental now — memorials to a time before the exodus of many of the youngsters to the towns. Successful émigrés who return often proclaim their newfound wealth by building large holiday homes in their hometown, many of them out of keeping with the region’s traditional architecture.
“Look at this one,” groans Cornelia, nodding towards a particularly incongruous, three-floored concrete monolith towering above its medieval neighbours. “It’s killing my eyes!”
It’s against this backdrop — of a throwback lifestyle hemmed in by the encroaching 21st century — that tourism can seem a valuable diversification. The outsider’s appetite for old Maramures has incentivised its preservation, encouraging small, family-run guesthouses to spring up in almost every village.
It’s impossible to know how long this process might endure. But as the road coils back down into Breb the fairytale is restored. Cornelia’s eyes are safe — for now.
Wizz Air flies from Luton to Cluj-Napoca — the closest airport to Maramures. From Cluj, regular buses run to Sighet and Baia Mare. Alternatively, British Airways flies from Heathrow to Bucharest, and Ryanair from Stansted to Bucharest. If travelling up from Bucharest, several trains, including sleepers, travel daily to Baia Mare.
Average flight time: 2h50m.
Maramures is served by cheap, but irregular, local buses. But most visitors hire a car. The villages of the Cosau Valley, meanwhile, can be easily explored by bicycle.
When to go
The best time is spring (late March-early June) and autumn (late September-early November) with temperatures around 15C. Avoid visiting in winter.
Need to know
Currency: Romanian new leu (RON). £1 = 6.24RON.
International dialling code: 00 40.
Time difference: GMT +3.
How to do it
Advisio Turism offers a four-day, all-inclusive tour of Maramures from €225 (£159) per person.
Romania Travel Centre creates bespoke trips to Maramures, which can include drivers and guides as well as accommodation.
Published in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)