We Love Maramures
Maramureş [Mahrahmuresh], a county in the north-west of Romania has often been mentioned as a time forgotten place, with wooden churches and long-lasting traditions. Tourists that have already been there ask no longer the question “Why Maramures?”. The memories and stories they remember, speak for themselves. For those of you who haven’t been there yet, we offer 12 reasons to visit and enjoy this “land of old” …
1. Amazing Sceneries
As soon as you pass through the “Maramures gate”, amazing landscapes enchant the eye: forest-covered mountains crossed by rivers and streams, green hills and pastures with interspersed hay stacks, serene lakes, springs and waterfalls, exceptional floral species; all waiting to be captured by your camera.
With 38 protected areas, the landscape of Maramures is wealthy: Creasta Cocoşului (Rooster’s Peak), Pietrosul Rodnei, Tăurile Chendroaiei, Iezerul Mare, Defileul Lăpuşului (Lăpuş Gorge) are just a few of these; a delight for the eye, pleading convincingly like the folk lyrics do, when people from Maramures try to describe their land: “Maramures land of flowers / In holy days you are full of wonders…” (“Maramures plai cu flori / Mândru eşti în sărbători…”
2. Hospitable people
With almost no exception, visitors to Maramures declare themselves in love with the locals. On a typical day, you can see joyful kids with red cheeks, and old people telling their stories in front of the gate. Others are busy working in the fields and doing the housework. But to truly come to know the people of Maramures , you have to meet them dressed up in their holiday outfits, when women take great pride with their flowery kerchiefs, white blouses with beautiful embroideries, and traditional striped aprons (“zadii”) that cover their skirts. Men are as picturesque as women, dressed up in white shirts and traditional trousers (“gatii”), wearing a straw hat (“clop”) as a mandatory accessory for summer days or a wool hat in cold winters. They are proud wearers of a thick belt around their waist and an embroidered leather doublet.
There is something in people’s simple, honest and straightforward behavior, in the way they welcome you in their houses, and the passion they show when dancing and singing, the pride they feel whenever they tell stories about their birth place that is just love at first sight.
3. Wooden Churches
A substitute name for Maramures is “The Country of Wooden Churches”. When you travel through small villages, you can easily observe that they all preserve their old wooden church, as a testament to local builders. Eight of these have been included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list: the wooden churches of Bârsana, Budeşti, Deseşti, Ieud, Plopiş, Poienile Izei, Rogoz and Surdeşti. The wooden churches are not only tourist attractions, but also place of worship for villagers that come every Sunday, dressed in their traditional clothes, to pray and pay respect.
With high steeples to be closer to God, hand-sculpted heavy fir tree or oak poles, shingle roofs, antiques paintings and frescoes, every church has its history and tales carved in wood.
4. Wooden Gates
Wood has always been in Maramures a resource used in multiple ways: from the plate from which people eat, to the shelter that protects them and the wooden churches in which they worship. Whenever people from Maramures smell wood, they feel at home.
The wooden gates were always they symbol of Maremures villages. The themes carved in the poles of the gates, show a symbolic territory between the outer world and the homestead, between the neutral and the sacred space, and they have the role to protect the house and the family: the twisted rope, the sun, the tree of life, they are all an expression of the great myths in the Romanian culture.
In Maramures, today, old wooden gates and houses are in evidence, especially in the villages of the Cosău and Mara Valleys , and in the Village Museum of Baia Mare and Sighetu Marmaţiei.
5. Customs and Celebrations
People from Maramures have known how to not forget their ancient traditions. Rural life in Maramures is timed according to the agricultural calendar and main Christian events. The year here begins with New Year and Epiphany rituals. Spring is dedicated to the celebration of the hardest working villager, the first who ploughs the field in the New Year and Holy Easter.
During summer days, people from Maramures have fun at haymaking parties, also celebrating “Sânziene” rituals (sânziene are fairies who live in the fields) and traditions they have for Virgin Mary’s Day and Saints days. In autumn, villagers celebrate the crop harvests; people gather at village dances and with fiddlers’ tunes, youngsters dance frenetically, while old people enjoy a glass filled with “horinca” (plum brandy). This lasts until Lăsata Secului, an occasion that marks the beginning of Christmas preparations, one of the most beautiful holidays of the year, when Maramures valleys reverberate with the voices of carollers. Christian holidays with fasting and prayers intermingle with folk rituals and beliefs such as finding the soul-mate, chasing bad spirits, harvesting crops, or rituals for a healthy marriage. All these create a fascinating and miraculous world. And when combined with joy, round dances and singing, the complete show for the overseas tourist becomes exquisite, regardless of the season in which he visits.
6. Traditional Handicrafts
If you come to visit Maramures, you will get the chance to see the lively process of hand-crafting, in the same way people used to, many years ago. Wood carving is among one of the traditional handicrafts: plates, forks, seal engravers, pieces of furniture and houses, gateways, wooden churches – they are all shaped by local artizans. Women from Maramures still maintain the secret of extracting natural colors from plants and bark. In every house you can find a pole with woolen, linen and hemp fabrics, woven with a “teara” (a cloth weaving loom) that are the dowry and pride of girls. Pottery centers, like the one in Săcel, extract the red clay from great depths and then elaborate it with ancient techniques. In Săcel, an artizan also makes traditional masks that enrich winter customs. In Sârbi, a village in the CosăuValley, you can still find the last Maramures hatmakers. Folk costumes, traditional jewellery, glass painting and other handicrafts, all preserved from one generation to another, bearing the seal of Maramures.
7. The Merry Cemetery
In Săpânţa you will discover an unusual graveyard, which intrigues and impresses everyone with its originality. It is called The Merry Cemetery (Cimitirul Vesel), named this way due to the lively colors painted on its funeral crosses, particularly the striking blue that bears the name of the place: Săpânţa Blue.
The founder of the Merry Cemetery was Stan Ioan Pătraş who started in 1935 to make crosses differently than those of regular graveyards. The images carved in wood render, naively, an important aspect in the life of the person buried there and the epitaphs are short meaningful poems written in dialects, as a confession of the deceased. The Merry Cemetery is, without doubt, attractive, for it offers a unique perspective over death and a solely outlook on the villagers’ mentality. It is a famous attraction in the region and one of the top 10 most visited funeral destinations in the world.
8. Unique Museums
In Maramures there are a variety of museums, which are mainly focused around the two main towns of the region: Baia Mare and Sighetu Marmaţiei. The Mineralogy Museum of Baia Mare hosts a spectacular collection of minerals, some of them unique in the world.
In Baia Mare, as well as in Sighet there are museums dedicated to traditional architecture. If you wish to enlarge your knowledge in Maramures traditions, old furniture, traditional costumes, pottery and many others, visit the Museum of Ethnography in both towns.
The History and Archaeological Museum in Baia Mare will tell you about past days of the region, and the Art Museum will help you find out more about the cultural heritage of the county. In Sighetu Marmaţiei a famous political prison has been transformed into the Memorial of the Victims of Communism and Resistance.
In Sighet can also be found the house in which the Nobel Peace Laureate, Elie Wiesel was born, a house that is now a memorial to him and a museum of Jewish culture.
Do not expect to find museums only in large towns: in Dragomireşti there is, for example, a museum dedicated to the Romanian peasant woman, and in Ieud, a museum dedicated to hemp. You will also find memorial houses as well as other places of culture.
9. Rural Life
It has been said that the villages of Maramures represent the soul of rural life in Romania and a spot of tranquility for the tourist tired of urban agglomeration and noise.
Visiting Maramures provides the opportunity of leaping back in time; to a time of simplicity and archaic. Activities that are part of a daily routine for the Maramures villager, have a certain charm for the tourist that comes to visit from away places. The first thing that enchants the exhausted tourist is the friendly host, welcoming him with a warm and hearty traditional meal. The combination of observing work in the fields, the smell of fresh cut grass, wood fragrances, taste of fresh milk, carriage or sledge rides, and a relaxing sleep are just a few of the region’s ingredients the tourist falls in love with. And since guesthouses are all over the region, all that is left for you to do is to decide where you would like to stay.
10. Horinca – the regional beverage
The horinca (plum brandy) is not only a traditional drink, but also the pride of every villager; the liquor that opens every part, relaxes, and makes friendships, a kind of elixir that has the healing powers. “Better drink a shot of it / Than take a drug from pharmacy” say the folk lyrics. Or “If I drink a shot of plum brandy / I feel healthy inside my body”. People that keep the secrets of “horinca” know how to test its quality: they rub a drop in their hands and it it smells like honey, the drink has passed the test.
Then a real “horinca” has to make beads (bubbles) if you shake it; the more beads it makes, the better it is. Courtesy suggests that when you enter a house in Maramures and the host welcomes you with this plum brandy, you have to drink it all straight down; otherwise it brings bad luck to the host. As concerned as you may feel for the welfare of your host, keep in mind that “horinca” is “fire water” and after a shot or two, you may not fell your legs anymore!
11. Outdoor Activities
After your hosts have fed you, you will undoubtedly need some exercise. The region of Maramures will be delighted to reveal its hiking trails, lakes and rivers that are perfect for summer bathing, and ski slopes in winter time (Borşa, Şuior, Mogoşsa, Cavnic, Izvoare).
Ocna Şugatag, the spa resort with salted lakes is the starting point of Maramures Greenway, route that include both natural and cultural attractions. In Maramures, fishermen will find out that they have reached the right destination. In Vişeu de Sus, the old steam train, called “Mocăniţa”, awaits the tourist for a ride through the picturesque Vaser Valley.
Cyclists can enjoy tours away from crowded towns, on village trails that offer beautiful landscapes. If you still have some energy left and you crave for a dose of adrenaline, get your karabiners and ropes for a spot of rock climbing at Cock’s Peak (Creasta Cocoşului) or try a session of Paragliding. You will feel that Maramures has indeed great air.
12. Traditional Music
Born in the heart of nature, Maramures traditional music is filled with passion. Whether it is about longing, or love, drinking or twisting in a dance, songs from Maramures are filled with joy and vitality. In the beginning, there were the songs of the shepherds singing with a leaf while longing for their homes. Then they made a whistle and the musical repertoire became more complex. It all ended when the fiddle became the main instrument through which the most intense feelings are revealed. The sound of the fiddle carries you all the way to the top of mountain and then down to the valleys and meadows of Maramures. Besides the fiddle, people from Maramures are experts in playing the instrument called the “zongoră”, a kind of guitar or viola, with fewer strings, and of a type of drum (“dobă”). And if you consider singing with its unforgettable “strigături” (a yelling that accompanies a song) you will notice that the whole land vibrates, as well as the listeners’ soul. The music is not so exuberant all over Maramures. In Ţara Lăpuşului you can listen to the famous knobby song (horea cu noduri), that is softer, but vibrating of emotion and rendered with a unique technique.
So, come and listen to this wonderful music capable to make you weep but also to blow away your troubles and sorrow. Come visit Maramures and discover its charming story!
pictures by Daniel Gheorghita