MARAMURES travel guide


Romania is not only Bucharest, the little Paris of South Eastern Europe. If you want to avoid the traffic jam of the crowded capital and to find yourself in the middle of wild nature then take a train – or an airplane if you do not want to drive 600 km from Bucharest to Baia Mare, the capital of Maramures county, near the Hungarian and Ukrainian border.

Do you want to stay one night in the middle of the forest, amongst wild animals, lighting a real fire, experiencing true, virgin nature? Maramures is considered by many to be the heart and soul of rural Romania. With its picturesque countryside of small villages, rolling hills, pastures, and meadows full of wildflowers, Maramures epitomises all that the rural lifestyle encompasses. Visitors to Maramures have a unique opportunity to step back in time and bear witness to simpler times and simpler lives.

Maramures is a small and unique location in the geographical heartland of Europe that has carefully and distinctively preserved the culture, traditions and lifestyle of a mediaeval peasant past. The region stands as a testament to the traditional; to a romantic era of simplicity, pride and moral values that many of us can only now read about or hear from our grandparents. Little has changed in the centuries gone by. Families remain in the same villages as their ancestors. Villagers’ homes are still fronted with traditional giant, ornately-carved wooden gates, and ear-smoking, 100-proof palinca (plum brandy) stills percolate in the garden, tended by a rosy-cheeked patriarch. Discovering this part of the world is a time-travel adventure, often stunning Western visitors. Traditional hand-woven clothing continues to be made. The church continues to be the soul of the village. Neighbours know one another and continue to lend a helping hand.

Life in Maramures is like a mystery.  Visitors to Maramures drive through mountain passes and descend into the valleys of life where the mystery of rural traditions unfolds before the visitor as a living museum, that is at once within reach yet simultaneously beyond the grasp of the whimsical traveller. The last peasant culture in Europe is thriving here, with hand-built ancient wooden churches, traditional music, colourful costumes and festivals. The region was effectively cut off from Transylvania by a fortress of mountains and has remained largely untouched by the 20th century (and the 19th century, and the 18th century). Medieval Maramures exists in the Mara and Izei Valleys. Eight of the churches in the region – in the villages of Barsana, Budesti, Desesti, Ieud, Plopis, Poienile Izei, Rogoz and Surdesti – are on Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites.

Landscape: Morphologically varied, the land of Maramures ranges from 200 to 2,300 metres above sea level. There are several land regions in Maramures. It is in Maramures, where the Eastern Carpathians – the 300 km long natural divide between Moldavia and Transylvania – reach their highest altitude with Mount Pietrosu (2,303 m) in Rodna Mountains. The rainy climate feeds a dense river system that totals 3,000 km. Two river systems – the Tisa and the Somes – drain the country. The Tisa drains the rivers that flow down the surrounding mountains and across the Maramures basin: Viseu, Ruscova and Iza with their tributaries, such as the Mara and Cosau rivers. The Somes drains the rivers in the south-eastern part of the country: the Salaj river and Lapus with its main tributaries Cavnic and Sasar. Various natural lakes dot the landscape. The alpine lakes of Iezer and Buhaescu are of glacial origin. The beautiful Albastru Lake by Baia Sprie was formed when a mine pit caved in. A similar phenomenon – the collapse of a salt mine – gave birth to the lakes at Ocna Sugatag.

Monasteries:Perhaps you are looking for long sought-after spiritual peace. You can find it in the monasteries in Maramures.  You have seen high buildings like the Statue of Liberty and La Tour Eiffel, but you have not seen the highest wooden buildings in the world. Then come and see them. Those interested in religious life will discover here more than mere monuments. Certainly, Maramures is a county made up of dozens of wood churches, which do not stay locked as architecture monuments, but remain open to the parishioners that fill them every Sunday. Initially modelled on the peasant farmhouse, the tiny wooden churches of Maramures impress trough their harmonious architecture and monumental outlook. Inside, the icons and paintings – laid out according to rules specific to the rites of the Eastern Church – cover the iconostasis, a partition that separates the sacristy from the nave.

Merry Cemetery: Have you ever met people laughing and kidding about death? If you have not, then a visit to the Merry Cemetery is a must, the second funeral monument in the world. In Sapanta, the traveller receives one of the most beautiful lessons of life from the people here. Their ancestors considered death as a beginning, and not the end and this faith is still present today. “The happy cemetery” here is proof of this faith. People welcome death more with joy, rather than sorrow which is why the inscriptions of the dead person’s life  contain satirical verses, describing the main events of their life. The life philosophy of the Maramures area is “to laugh about sorrow”. Here, the traveller can also find the fine “carpets of Sapanta”. The threads are spun with a big spindle, and then woven manually on a loam.

Wildlife: The enthusiasts of hunting and fishing will not fail to discover Maramures’ profusion of game and fish. Hunters may go on deer, chamois, wild boar, deer, hare, black grouse, woodcock and pheasant hunts or shoots. The trophies captured can be preserved by the local Forest Authority. Anglers may choose among fishing in either mountains or plain watercourses as well as in ponds. Carp, pike and sander may be captured against a day fee in the dam lake of Firiza and the ponds of Remetea Chioarului and Doua Veverite – Lapusel. According to regulations, the trout may be captured in the Vaser valley only between the 1st of May and the 15th of September.

Sports and traveling by Mocanita:At Mogosa, the height difference of about 400 metres, the air currents and a ski lift provide ideal conditions for hang-gliding and paragliding. In the rainy season, when the water level is high enough, Lapus Gorges, with its small rapid lining from Razoare to Remecioara, is a strong temptation for canoers and rafters. Similar attempts of rafting were made along the Vaser valley. Here, the presence of the narrow-gauge train may help you to carry the equipment.At Firiza lake there is a sport canoeing club which has arranged a buoyed route. When travelling on the Mocanita, a narrow-gauge steam train, the only means of transportation in the valley, one should keep in mind that this is like a journey back in time: after leaving Viseu station there is no cell phone signal, and any contact with modern times is lost.

The access point to Vaser Valley is the town of Viseu de Sus. The railway runs along Vaser River and is one of the last remaining steam rails still in active use in Europe, and the only one in Romania still used for hauling logs down from the mountains. Built after the First World War for the express task of transporting wood, it is still – surprisingly – used for its original purpose. Nowadays, in spite of its old age, the steam locomotives have been given one more task: that of transporting tourists. Here is one of the few places where one can ride along in a wagon pulled by steam power, every year the old Mocanita attracts thousands of tourists from all over the world, and offers them unforgettable railway trips.

Travellers can go by train all the way up to the end of the valley and back, enjoying the beauty  of the surrounding countryside. It is also possible to stop on the way, get off at one of the several halts – “halte” – and start a hiking trip to the mountains. Very early in the morning the Mocanita is made ready for the day’s trip. Both the tourist wagons and the forestry wagons are attached to the steam locomotive, wood and water provisions are loaded – they are the fuel of the steam engine – and the mechanic starts the engine. After some time, off the train goes with a long whistle, puffing all along the way. Following the cascading river, the train first passes among the houses of Viseu de Sus. Then, after about seven kilometers, the tracks start to go deep into the wild forest, passing through the steep cliffs of the gorge, and penetrating the mountains through dark tunnels. The silence of nature is broken not only by the tumultuous river which rushes by and the puffs and hisses of the train, but from time to time also by the sharp whistles of the locomotive.

Get around - Highlights: The wooden churches protected by UNESCO (Poienile Izei, Ieud-Deal, Budesti-Josani, Desesti and Barsana-Jbar). The tallest wooden church in the world (78 m high, erected at Sapanta, between 1995-2003). Pietrosu Rodnei Natural Reserve, UNESCO listed since 1979, established in 1932, part of the “Rodna Mountains National Park”, protecting edelweiss, gentians, marmots, chamois, etc. Maramures Mountains Natural Park, the largest and wildest in Romania, covering 1480 sq km, protecting 1260 plant species, bears, wolves, lynxes, etc. Breb Village adopted by the HMS Prince of Wales (he bought three old wooden houses there). Sarbi Village, group of water powered machines (watermills, thresher, alcohol distilleries, whirlpools). Budesti Village, the best-preserved traditional Maramures settlement.

Thanks to Radu Fifes for this beautiful article about Maramures

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