For many reasons, Maramureş is widely regarded as Romania’s most traditional region. Take a trip there, and you will encounter a land of hills and patchwork fields, with villages centred around wooden churches that remain largely unchanged from centuries ago.
Horse-drawn carts rumble along village streets past farmhouses fronted with elaborately-carved wooden gateways, and there is something of a fairy-tale feel to the bucolic setting where many things are still done in the time-honoured way, just as they always have been.
There’s a strong connection with the past, and although the 21st Century is clearly encroaching on daily life, a deep-rooted respect for the old ways still prevails. Folklore is paramount, and a sense of the medieval still exists. Rural culture and crafts have been preserved; not as some living museum, but because they are still practiced to this day.
There are numerous wooden churches with their unique steep, shingled roofs and tall spires, recognised by UNESCO as World Heritage sites. Inside are beautiful wall paintings (some restored, some not) recounting the stories from the bible, offering pictorial guidance on how to live a good life – and graphically illustrating what may happen if you don’t!
At the heart of medieval Maramureş are the Vişeu, Mara and Iza valleys and the beautiful villages of Ieud, Botiza, Hoteni and Breb. Separating these are the mountains of Gutai, Lăpuş, Tibleş and Maramureş, cut by high passes and laced with hiking trails.
The Rodnei Mountains National Park has been awarded Biosphere status by UNESCO, and here chamois and eagle can be found, along with a proliferation of flowers in spring.
Over the course of four days, we walked barely-known paths between age-old villages dotted with wooden churches, met shepherds on hillsides tending their flocks and farmers scything in the fields, explored hamlets and houses, lodged and ate with local families and then viewed them all from the eyrie of Gutai Mountain.
In the end, we walked much of the length of Gutai, whose ridgeline dominates the surrounding landscape. After some initial easy going, the path leading up to the Rooster’s Crest became steeper and left us short of breath. But the really breath-taking aspect was the view, with all of the villages we had walked between laid out far below in a huge panorama.
Next morning, our last, we drove to the nearby village of Busteni to view the church. Wooden in construction and decorated as others have been, churches like this one are not museums or homages to the past but in regular use, and come Sunday, folks dress in their finest clothes and the church become a focus of village social life.
In the churchyard, an elderly lady stooped over a grave, muttering softly to herself. For an instant, we thought we had unwittingly intruded on an intimate moment – perhaps she was remembering a departed relative or passing on gossip to her late husband? But no: as she turned towards us, we caught a glimpse of the mobile phone tucked beneath her headscarf, and the illusion was shattered. Maramureş is full of such contradictions between old and new.
Later, as we crossed the fields towards Breb, the surrounding mountains glowed with an almost divine glory in the bright morning sunshine. William Blacker, author of Along the Enchanted Way, spent some time here, and it is easy to see the attraction. On rough roads, beneath heavily-laden fruit trees, chickens and children clucked contentedly between typical Maramureş wooden houses, whilst the men and women of the village tended livestock or gathered in the abundant crop from nearby fields and orchards.
Several of the traditional houses in the village are in the process being renovated, the old crafts being revived to restore them in proper fashion. This, along with the seemingly idyllic scene we encountered, might well be enough to tempt one to linger.
For a while, we too were tempted. But then reality bit: it’s a hard life, make no mistake, and without the collective memory of the locals and the knowledge and skills accrued over centuries at our disposal, a potentially dangerous one too.
So, perhaps it’s best to visit for a while instead, to take time to wander through the landscape and soak up some of that timeless tradition for yourself. Because in all likelihood Maramureş will weave its magic on you and draw you in with its siren call, just as it did for William Blacker.
And just as it did for us, too!