15th to 20th November 2010
Entering Romania we passed the first manned border since Sweden, but after a brief passport check we were through – luckily you no longer have to drive through the disinfectant trough! €7 then went on a ‘viniete’, or our slice of Romanian road tax for a month, and we were on the road to Satu Mare.
Satu Mare lies only about 10km from the Hungarian border, and is in reality a Hungarian city located in the wrong country. The language on the streets is Hungarian (although the signs are mostly Romanian), and the buildings include some wonderful art nouveau specimens from the last years of the Habsburg empire. Despite this, the years in communist Romania with its crackpot economy have taken their toll, and the level of disrepair is subtly greater than it would have been in Hungary. The city’s central square is laid out as a leafy park, and people were sitting out on the benches enjoying the warm late autumn sun, as the thermometer touched 20°C.
Satu Mare cathedral and detail on Hotel Dacia
Our next destination in Romania was the region of Maramureş. To get there we headed east from Satu Mare, which took us first through the Oaş area, where the plain gives way to the first wrinkles of the Carpathian mountains. Around sundown we arrived at Călineşti-Oaş, where a quiet carpark by a dam, popular with fishermen in the daytime, gave us a place to stop for the night. The morning revealed wonderful views across the water to Călineşti-Oaş itself, which looked magnificent with its tall Orthodox church, but turned out to be far less from up close - more a long straggle of village houses than the town we had imagined.
We visited the hilltop monastery at nearby Bixad – a surprisingly new affair, given the 1770 vintage of its little church. The village was busy, with a lot of bustle on the streets, but we had to go on to the town of Negreşti-Oaş to find a decent range of shops.
There were a quite astonishing number of new houses in these villages and towns though, and often huge three-storey affairs had gone or were in the process of going up, occupying the whole width of the old housing plots. Sometimes there was even a second new building glimpsed through an archway, built in the yard behind. This construction work is transforming whole villages from one-storey rustic and we concluded that this must be linked to money sent back by family members working abroad. Judging by the many foreign-registered cars we saw in these villages, they are largely working in the UK and France. Indeed, we did not feel that odd at all driving round with our UK plates – and our panel van cannot have looked that unusual, for many times people attempted to flag us down, thinking we were a local minibus-taxi.
New houses springing up everywhere
We crossed into Maramureş at the Sâmbra Oilor pass, and were immediately aware of the difference. Suddenly there were no more large new houses, and the initial impression was poorer and less developed. Maramureş is indeed one of Romania’s most rural and isolated regions. Many villages retain a very rustic and unmodernised appearance, and local customs are still maintained, in for example the wearing of some features of traditional dress, and in the observance of seasonal festivals. Agriculture remains in many places unmechanised, and draft animals are extensively used. The area is also known for its craftsmanship in wood, especially in its many traditional churches. These are the aspects that have attracted a certain kind of visitor for many years, but in small numbers, for it was tourism for the hardy. These days, rural tourism is being actively promoted, but it has made as yet only limited inroads into the remoter parts.
‘Welcome to Maramureş’ – Charlie at Sâmbra Oilor pass and us following a horse cart
One place that has been on the tourist map for many years is Săpânţa, a large village by the Ukrainian border, where we arrived late on Tuesday afternoon. Its claim to fame is its ‘Merry Cemetery’ around the village church, where the graves are almost all decorated with brightly-painted wooden crosses that feature cartoon-like images of the deceased in their prime, and humorous rhymes that relate something about them, including sometimes how they met their end. There were many women spinning and preparing food, or men with sheep, horses or tractors, the people overwhelmingly wearing the traditional costumes of the area. In more contemporary dress were the teacher, the doctor, the soldiers, or the young man on the Paris metro – did he come to grief there? This tradition however only goes back to 1935, and appears to be the work of only two men. Local carpenter Stan Ioan Pătraş fashioned the first grave marker in the style in that year, and enthusiasm for his work just grew and grew. It was carried on by his assistant after Pătraş’s death, until now the village seems to live off the fame of its cemetery, sporting several souvenir shops, pensions and restaurants. It is a large village, with a maze of very rural unpaved back lanes, but also some large new houses along the main roads, and foreign-registered cars in the drives.
We never found Săpânţa’s campsite, for the village street was closed for resurfacing and we couldn’t find the diversion, but tried instead at a large pension on the main road who let us park up with electricity for €10. We suspected that this was quite dear for Romania but were pleased to have a place to stay.
Some Romanian foods just didn’t sound tempting!
Moving on from Săpânţa was like stepping out of the 21st century into a Breugel painting. Layer upon layer of fields stretched over the hill sides, dotted with haystacks. Oxen pulled carts. Shepherds tended mixed flocks of sheep and goats, accompanied by large shaggy dogs. Women sat outside their houses on little benches spinning wool from spindles made of long sticks. Little old ladies trudged up the dusty earth streets with large cloth bags over their backs, wearing knee length skirts in a full gather, over thick tan tights and slightly incongruous stripy socks. Some men had little straw hats, some had more boxy astrakhan affairs. I (Lesley) felt a bit out of place, as well as out of time, and Charlie got lots of attention – a dog in a van, on his own seat, walking out on a lead – whoever’s heard of such a thing!
Săpânţa – traditional Romania is hanging in there - haystacks with roofs that can be raised and attractive tiled villages houses
Being at the Thursday morning market at Ocna Şugatag was like actually taking part in a Breugels painting. Hundreds of people milled around, browsing at stalls, queuing for beer or langos (those big flat wedges of fried batter topped with cheese that you get in Hungary), or checking out the animals on sale. Most of the people wore some kind of headgear – bright headscarves for the women, different hats for the men – cylindrical căciule in black astrakhan wool, little straw clopuri that sit high on the head, long felt hats or modern woolly hats in the same shape. Piglets were being sold from crates and carried away in sacks, and elsewhere horse carts stood around, with a fat sow or four small sheep waiting in the back while their human owners negotiated with potential buyers. Clothing stalls sold the necessities of rural Maramureş, the soft boots and headscarves, and căciula hats at 150 lei (£30) each.
Ocna Şugatag market and căciula hat stall (lucky we’re not buying Christmas pressies this year!)
The regional town of Maramureş is Sighetul Marmaţiei, or just plain Sighet for short, which lies right on the Ukrainian border. In some ways it feels a world away from the villages, in other ways the villages come right to its heart. It is a not unattractive place, with its elongated main square, 18th century buildings, and a vague Austro-Hungarian feel that reminded us of places in Slovakia, and life there seemed positively cosmopolitan after a day or two in the Maramureş hinterland. The market though is an abundantly rural affair, with a marvellous selection of fresh wares. We came away carrying old plastic drinks bottles refilled with home-made cherry ţuica and 2 litres of the creamiest milk we’ve had for a long time, as well as fresh white cheeses and a huge bag of red peppers.
You might think we’d been partaking of too much of the ţuica, which is basically a home distilled moonshine of fruit brandy, when we say we saw two elephants walking down the main street of Sighet – but they were. We have the photos to prove it. The circus was in town and everyone had a smile on their face as the animals progressed along the road.
The circus comes to Sighet
Some of the old wooden churches contain impressive wall-paintings and icons, but getting to see them is not always straightforward. We spent half a day in the Cosău valley villages of Budeşti and Călineşti, which have some of the biggest areas of traditional wooden architecture, but finding someone to open their reputedly stunning old churches defeated us. These wooden churches are in any case little used these days, made redundant by the new churches that their congregations have competed to construct in recent years, ploughing no end of money into the enormous concrete basilicas.
Old and new church in Budeşti
The next day at Ieud in the neighbouring Iza valley we had more luck, and saw two particularly impressive interiors. In the main street, the Biserica din Şes, or Church in the Valley, contained a large collection of icons painted on glass, which had been collected from the area and particularly a nearby part of today’s Ukraine. The styles were very naïve, reflecting the home-made and popular nature of this devotional art of the villages. Not far away, the Biserica din Deal, or Church on the Hill, was in a different league. Its every interior surface depicted a religious scene, in brightly-coloured images painted directly onto the wooden walls and ceiling in the 1790s, culminating in a day of judgement tableau all around the door as you turn to leave, heaven to the left and some imaginative torments of hell to the right. This church is on the UNESCO world heritage list.
I (Rob) came this way in 1995, and stayed a night in Ieud. This village brought home the rapid changes occurring in this region. In 1995 Ieud’s main street was unpaved, and a walk (or splash) up it led past countless tall wooden gates standing in front of well-maintained wooden houses, with logpiles and outhouses and mini-farmyards behind the tall wooden fences. There were few cars, and only a few breezeblock houses intruded on this scene that felt age-old. Today the same walk is made on tarmac, past the same elaborate wooden gates, but the buildings behind are increasingly of concrete or breezeblock. Plot-by-plot this village is leaving wood behind, relegating it to sheds and the less-developed backstreets.
Maramureş gates – size matters if you’re status conscious
One area where wood is not on the retreat is church-building. Church building has been BIG here, since the revolution of 1989 removed official constraints. At first they were all built in the new materials, and this continues, but a counter-trend has seen the construction of ever bigger and ornate churches that mix traditional Maramureş styles with a hint of Disneyland. At Bârsana a new monastery sets a double-tier wooden church with a towering needle-like spire opposite a sort of vast wooden-tiled bandstand for outdoor masses, and beside accommodation complexes that appear to be modelled on Dracula’s castle. There is a lot of kitsch and parody in it, but kitsch can be good – think of St. Pancras station. We decided finally that it was actually a very attractive place.
Wood is still being used for “traditional” new churches - Săpânţa and Bârsana monasteries
Another place where I noticed the changes was at the town of Vişeu de Sus. I spent a whole day here in 1995, held as a sort of hostage of hospitality (it’s a long story), and remember it as a grim, muddy town with poor shops and few facilities, full of rotting communist-era housing and enlivened only by the horses that trotted down its streets. Now, well it’s not quite Milan or Paris but the centre has had a facelift, the shops are busy and plentiful, there are cafés you’d want to go in without being an alcoholic, and the clothing styles, especially of the young, could be anywhere in Europe. It felt like a different place.
Maramureş pot tree at Dragomiresti peasant women's museum – the number of pots indicates your wealth and a red pot is put at the top if there’s a girl of marriageable age in the home. This tiny museum is well worth a visit if you’re in the area.
We stopped over at Vişeu de Sus to have a look at the narrow-gauge logging railway, or ‘mocaniţa’, that still transports logs down from the hills on long trains that clank and rattle down the lightweight track. In 1995 it was fully steam-operated, but steam is now limited to summer tourist runs (there were none of them in those days!). Nonetheless, we spent the night in the garden of a pension right by the track, and saw the weirdest trains pass, such as a Ford high-top minibus converted to trundle along on train wheels, and a lone workman returning from the lumber camps on a little 4-wheel rail trolley, controlled only by gravity and a big brake-lever.
This is what everyone comes to Vişeu de Sus to see - mocaniţa
Strange as it might seem in such a rural country, we have done proportionately less wild camping here than anywhere else so far. This is because there are few places to pull safely off the road that are not in use as tracks or private access, and the muddy November weather is making us think twice anyway about putting our 3.5 ton van on any unstabilised surface. In part too, it is because it has proved quite easy to find pensions or motels that will happily let us stay and hook up to the mains for a few – sometimes very few – Euros. Unfortunately the pensions are not evenly spread, and it has sometimes taken a while to find where they cluster, but so far it has worked fairly well for us. Just don’t expect any restaurants to serve food in the evenings – stock up on the markets and you can’t go wrong.
Early morning in the village of Rozavlea.
Our last view of Maramureş from the pass between Sacel and Romuli.