Surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains in the northwest of Romania, bordered by Hungary and Ukraine, Maramureș feels like a place that time forgot. Regarded as Romania’s most traditional region, visiting is like stepping into a fairy tale; all you need is your own colorful folk outfit. In fact, some regard it as one of the few remaining peasant cultures in Europe. It’s a journey like no other, so make plans to get here as soon as you can.

With a landscape of oak and fir forests, Maramureș is called “The Land of Wood.” In fact, 80 percent of the region is forest land. No wonder the area has been known for its carpentry skills for 900 years. Every village features wooden homes. Eight of the nearly one hundred wooden Medieval churches are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Even gateways to family homes are intricately carved, welcoming guests with beautiful art.

Maramureș has been considered to be part of Transylvania since the 14th century, but spent time under Hungarian lordship, then was divided following World War I. During Communist rule from 1965 to 1989, under the brutal rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, the remote position of Maramureș kept it relatively protected from harsh punishments suffered by other regions. The independent spirit of the people also allowed it to retain its time-honored culture.

It’s all about the villages

The villages are what make Maramureș special. Families still live in compounds, shared with their livestock. The calendar year is driven by agriculture, with the entire family working together to plant, tend, and harvest fânul (hay). Shepherds take the village’s sheep into mountain pastures from April until October, taking turns so that the sheep are never left alone. Women spin cotton, then sew and embroider the sleeves of the white cotton shirts that everyone wears, especially on Sundays and holidays. They also spin wool and weave it into aprons, called catrinita, with bold horizontal stripes that indicate where they are from. The aprons are worn over gathered skirts. Women and girls wear a colorful kerchief on their heads. Along with embroidered shirts, tied at the waist, men wear wide cotton pants (izmene) in the summer and wool pants (cioareci) in the winter. A small hat (clop) completes the summer outfilt; in winter, they don felt or lambskin hats. All Maramureș homes have a peg inside the door where men hang their hats when they come in. Both male and females wear colorful vests over their shirts, as well as traditional shoes, called opinci. Opinci resemble ballet slippers, with long laces that criss-cross the lower legs.  Get a warm welcome and delicious food in Maramureș!

When you visit Maramureș, you’ll discover authentic hospitality. It is tradition for men to offer palinca—brandy made from plums, pears, or apples–to visitors. (It is also called “horinca.”) Be sure to empty the glass or it can be bad luck, especially if the family has daughters. If a guest fails to finish the glass of palinca, then the daughters will not marry.

The men of Maramureș claim their brandy is the best in Romania. They will proudly prove this to you by putting a drop in the palm of your hand. Rub your hands together and you’ll smell honey, the indication of top quality. Also, when poured into a glass, it makes a rim or “collar” of small bubbles, which should last through the Lord’s Prayer.

Traditional dishes in the Maramureș region include:

  • Polenta, made of corn, is often served in place of bread. It’s eaten for breakfast and as part of many foods
  • Balmos is made of sheep cheese and polenta, baked in the oven
  • Pork meat, smoked pork. and pork sausages, made after the pig slaughter in December
  • Ttochitură maramureșeană, a mix of pork, chicken and beef meat with gravy, served with polenta
  • Pomana porcului, made with meat, sausages, liver, all fried together
  • Ciorbă maramureșeană, a soup containing sausages, bacon, pickled cabbage, rice, egg and sour cream
  • Papanași, a dessert made from sweet dough, either fried or boiled, and sprinkled with breadcrumbs.
  • Feeling brave? Try tobă, made from pig liver, kidneys, and fat, chopped and packed into the stomach of the pig.

It is considered rude not to finish all the food on your plate. And as soon as you do, be prepared to hear, “Would you like more?”

Exploring Maramureș: Start in Cluj

The best way to start your tour,is to take a flight to Cluj (the official name is Cluj-Napoca ). Is the fastest way to go on your way to Maramures, thus having the opportunity to discover the largest city in Transylvania.

The cultural and economic capital of Transylvania has an international airport, as well as an interesting history of its own. Founded by Germans in the 12th century, it was built on top of a Roman settlement. The Hungarians made it into an important city until the mid-20th century, calling it Kolozsvár. With six state and several private universities, it became the most literary of all the Balkan cities, and has the highest percentage of students in Romania.

Instead of being destroyed and replaced with cold steel and glass structures during the Communist era, Cluj retained its beautiful architecture. Union Square (Piaţa Unirii) provides an easy landmark to see the main attractions of this vibrant city:

  • Michael Church (Biserica Sfântul Mihail) is a Roman Catholic cathedral, sits directly on the square. Built between 1349 and 1487. It’s a classic Saxon Gothic structure, the second largest in Romania. Inside, huge pillars separate the three vast naves with soaring rib vaults. Notice the 80 m clock tower, added in 1895; it’s the highest in Romania.
  • The statue of Matei Corvin on his horse dominates the square. Corvin was born in Cluj in 1443 and became Hungary’s greatest king. He was the son of Iancu de Hunedoara, so he also had Romanian roots. His birthplace (now an art school) is a few blocks north of the square, on Strada Matei Corvin. Visitors can see the grand entrance hall and inner courtyard.
  • The Cluj National Museum of Art (Muzeul National de Arta Cluj) has been housed since 1951 in Bánffy Castle (Palatul Banffy). The palace is the grandest Baroque-style building in Transylvania. It was built between 1774 and 1775 for an Austro-Hungarian governor. The museum holds some of the most important Romanian art by its most important painter, Nicolae Grigorescu, as well as the region’s largest collection of fine and decorative art from the 15th to the 20th Enjoy the café bar in the courtyard.
  • The National History Museum of Transylvania (Muzeul National de Istorie al Transilvaniei) was founded in 1859. It traces the region’s history from Paleolithic times to the present. The museum has over 400,000 artifacts, including skulls and mammoth tusks. Arrows and spearheads illustrate the progress from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages to the rise of the Dacian civilization, which reached its peak between the second century B.C. and the first century A.D.

Next: Sighetu Marmatiei

 Known as “Sighet,” this is the historic capital of Maramureș, located just 1 km from the Ukranian border. Known since 1334, it was a multi-ethnic town and important Jewish settlement—about 40% of Sighet’s population–until the town’s Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. During the Communist regime, it was the site of a horrible prison for intellectuals, protestors, or anyone suspected of working in resistance.

Sighet is a small town of 40,000, worth visiting for several attractions:

  • Places of worship: Ukranian Orthodox Church, Hungarian Reformed Church, Roman Catholic Church, and a Sephardic Synagogue.
  • The Village Museum (Muzeul Satului) is an open-air museum laid out like a typical Maramureș village, with houses, churches, and farm buildings. The oldest is a 16th century church.
  • Elie Weisel Memorial House and Museum of Jewish Culture (Muzeu al Culturii şi Civilizaţiei Evreieşti din Maramureş) Elie Weisel, Holocaust survivor and 1989 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, lived in Sighet until he was 16. The modest family home where he lived until age 16, when he and his family were sent to Auschwitz, is now a museum with donations of furniture, books, and religious items from local Jewish families. There is also a Jewish cemetery nearby.
  • Memorial Museum of the Victims of Communism and the Resistance (Memorialul Victimelor Comunismului şi al Rezistenţei) Is the former prison where cells have been converted into exhibits showing the torture and starvation of the journalists, priests, and others who were condemned without trial. An underground memorial lists the 8,000 people who were imprisoned.

Merry Cemetery (Cimitirul Vesel): About 18 km northwest of Sighet is the little village of Săpânța, world-famous for its “Merry Cemetery,” a graveyard filled with vividly-painted and carved wooden tombstones. A particularly bright blue, called “Sapanta blue” is predominant. The large crosses feature whimsical portraits of the deceased, with humorous poetic epitaphs by the artist, Stan Ion Patras.

Patras (1908-1977) wanted to poke fun of death, and is wildly successful. He created the first cross in 1935, and his work is now carried on by his apprentices. The barn he used as his workshop is nearby, and full of more of his fanciful artwork.

 Breb: The most beautiful village in Romania

Lucky visitors will stop at Breb, a small, isolated town in the Maramureș region that many consider to be the most beautiful village in Romania. Founded in 1531, the settlement still follows traditional customs. You’ll see farmers cutting hay with scythes and the famous woodcarver, Patru Pop, at work.

Cows live in the barn, but pigs and chickens live under the home, taking a ramp to come and go from the crawl space. Fruits and vegetables are picked by hand, and women carry them in baskets that are strapped to their backs.

There are very few autos, so people walk or use horse-drawn wagons. Electricity and flush toilets are common in Breb, but many women still wash laundry in the streams. During winter, wood-burning stoves provide heat for the buildings.

Giant wooden vats are in every yard, ready to ferment the family’s apples into brandy. The charming cottages, huge vegetable gardens, and deep wells show how life was lived in the past…and still is! Two wooden farmhouses and several homes from other villages have been reconstructed here, contributing to Breb’s reputation as “a museum village.”

 The highlight of the region: The wooden churches of Maramureș

In 1278, Catholic Hungarian rulers decided that Orthodox Romanian churches could not be built of stone. Clever Romanians copied the Gothic cathedrals with oak wood, creating elegant structures with high roofs and tall steeples. Wooden churches are found from northern Russia to the Adriatic Sea, but the most beautiful and abundant are in Maramureș. Each of the eight UNESCO churches is unique in its shape and decoration. The interiors were painted by local artists, showing biblical scenes in the village’s setting and landscape.

The traditional way of life continues today in Historic Maramureș, revolving around the church and religious holidays. Choose a good tour company to help you reach—and then appreciate—these marvelous masterpieces. The UNESCO churches are in the villages of Bârsana, Budești, Desești, Ieud, Plopiș, Poienile Izei, Rogoz, and Șurdești.

Bârsana: Named after bârsani, the local breeders of long-haired sheep, the town proudly shows off its 1720 wooden church, called “Holy Mother’s Entrance.” It was moved closer to the village, on Jbar Hill, after the monastery closed in 1791, possibly because Jbar Hill was where plague victims had been quickly buried—without a religious service—and the town wanted to compensate for the lack of a proper respect for the dead. The folk paintings, done in 1720 and 1807, have Baroque and Rococo influences and are considered among the best in Maramureș . A unique double-tiered porch was added in 1900.

Budești: Located in the Cosau Valley, the town is named after a 14th century landowner. The UNESCO church, Budești Josani, sits in the lower part of the village. It was built entirely of oak in 1643 and dedicated to Saint Nicholas. The unique feature of the church is its main tower, surrounded by four smaller towers. Inside, glass and wood icons are beautiful. The altar has paintings in the style of 13th and 14th century Catalonian artists. A wooden sounding board (toâca) is near the entrance; when pounded with a hammer, parishioners knew it was time to come to church.

Desești: A small village in beautiful Mara Valley is home to the “Pious Paraschiva” church built in 1770. After a previous wooden church burned down in 1717 during a Tartar invasion, the people decided that the new church would be built where its altar stone remained upright. Four times, the stone was placed in the village and four times it fell over. On the fifth attempt, it stayed erect and the church was constructed on that site. The church is both beautiful and sturdy, built with a tall spire, a steep roof, and a watch tower, used to warn the village of more attacks from the Tartars. The beautiful frescoes were done in 1780 by master painter Radu Munteanu from the village Ungureni in the Land of Lăpuș.  Outside, a cemetery has many Celtic crosses.

Ieud: Located in the same valley as Bârsana, Ieud has a magnificent wooden church made of fir. “The Hill Church” was first built in 1364, with revisions in 1620 and the 1700s. The attic of the church held the “Ieud Codex,” a document dating from 1391, considered to be the oldest example of written Romanian. The church has the most renowned paintings of the wooden churches: Alexandru Ponehalski did them in 1792. Murals cover every inch of the interior and are considered his best work, including a powerful and dramatic Last Judgment scene.

Plopis:  In the small commune of Șișești, you will find “The Church of Archangels Michael and Gabriel.” It’s located the village of Plopis, a 1583 settlement of the Chioar Fortress. Known for their superb carpentry skills, the craftsmen of 49 families started the church in 1798 and completed it in 1811. Each family contributed a coin that was part of the abutment of the altar. Stefan the Painter did the interior painting in 1811. The church is not large, only 17 m long, 7 m wide, and 47 m tall. However, the construction is so well-balanced and sturdy, it deserves its UNESCO recognition.

Poienile Izei: This beautiful wooden church was built on a gently sloping hill between 1604 and 1632. Located in the same valley as Bârsana and Ieud, the entry doors are painted with figures of Peter and Paul. The frescoes inside are magnificent, painted in 1794 with graphic scenes from The Last Judgment on the pranaos (walls). Worshippers were reminded of possible punishments for sins and lack of faith: a liar is hanged by his tongue; a witch gored by cows after casting a spell on them; a farmer gets plowed by two devils for stealing his neighbor’s land; a mother is forced to swallow her aborted baby. Even a sleepy parishioner who dozes during the priest’s sermon must lie on a burning bed and endure the devil’s violin.

Rogoz: One of the finest churches in the Lăpuș area is one dedicated to the archangels, Michael and Gabriel. Built of elm in 1663, tradition says that it was built from two huge trees brought from The Priest’s Hill. The church survived the Tartar invasion of 1717, because of its safe location in the Land of Lăpuş. The overhang on the roof is supported by carvings of horse heads at the wall joints, a carry-over from pagan times when people believed that horses kept evil spirits away. The main entrance to the church is low and shaped like an open mouth, to make worshippers bow their heads in order to enter.  The murals were done in 1785 by Radu Munteanu, the same artist who painted the interior of Desești.

Șurdești: Another town in Șișești, this Greek-Catholic church is also dedicated to Archangels Michael and Gabriel. Built in 1721, its steeple is among the tallest wooden structures in the world. People believed that the taller the steeple, the easier it was to get prayers to God. So, the carpenters made it 72 m high! Besides the steeple, the church has a rare double-eaved roof. The interior frescoes were painted on canvas strips in 1783, then applied to the walls to cover gaps between the wooden beams.

All aboard! Ride the last forestry railway in the world

Mocăniţa is the word for steam train in Romanian. The trains run on narrow-gauge tracks in the mountainous regions of the country, for practical purposes and for tourists who want to see spectacular scenery.

The most famous steam train in Romania is the Mocăniţa in the beautiful Vaserului Valley of Maramureș. From March to November, it travels along a breath-taking 21 km route, from Vișeul de Sus, in northern Maramureș county to Paltin, transporting both passengers and freshly-cut wood. The train ride takes two hours each way, making several stops for water and to pick up people who are traveling to get supplies.

For more train-theme fun, spend the night at the train-hotel, next to the CFF railway station in Vișeul de Sus. A total of 20 sleeper compartments can be reserved, each with two beds, with a total space for 40 guests .

What else can you do in Maramureș?

Your trip to the Maramureș region provides many opportunities for activities you won’t find anywhere else! Your tour guides will gladly help you, because they know where the best places are. Here are some ideas for activities and shopping:

  • Horse-drawn carriage rides
  • Wash your clothes in a river
  • Purchase wood crafts and carvings
  • Buy authentic clothing and “opinci” shoes

This special area of Romania is getting ready to attract tourists. Already, things are changing in this region, so don’t pass up the chance to experience authentic Maramureș!

Article written by travel blogger – Suzanne Ball

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