Sarah Shuckburgh travels through space and time to Maramures and an ancient Romanian way of life.
I wake to the sound of crowing, clanking and lowing. As chickens peck in the dust just beneath my window, a dozen cows are shuffling through the village, their bells a discordant jangle. At each house, another cow joins the throng. Like a dog-walker or childminder, one villager is taking his neighbours' cows off for a day's grazing.
This is the village of Hoteni in Maramures, one of the remotest corners of the European Union, where villagers have preserved a way of life which most of the continent cast off centuries ago. Too far from Bucharest for its identity to be crushed by Ceausescu, this isolated part of Romania has clung to its rural heritage and to its unspoilt pastures and forests. Visiting Maramures is an extraordinary experience, like walking into a fairy tale or stepping back into medieval Europe.
Hoteni sits among hillsides of poplar, beech and flowering ash. Beyond, lie snow-covered Carpathian peaks and spruce forests where bears and wolves still roam. Here, in the Land of Wood, traditional houses are made of timber, with steep shingled roofs, dovetail joints, wooden pegs and no nails. Gates are enormous, topped by a shingle roof, and with intricate woodcarvings of ropes, suns and wolves' teeth to protect the family from harm. Every household has its own well, neatly hoed rows of vegetables and colourful pots and pans dangling from a tree, a local custom which began as a practical way to store cooking utensils in a home with no cupboards.
I am staying in a traditional Maramures house. Although my hosts married decades ago, the wife's trousseau is prominently displayed – layers of hand-woven blankets and embroidered linen hang from the ceiling on wooden poles. Next to a ceramic stove, a bed is heaped with more blankets and cushions. Above the dining table, sacred icons are draped with white scarves.
Romanian villagers still use horse-drawn carts, coffin-shaped with rubber wheels. I watch as a husband and wife haul a wooden wagon into the road, harness their horse with a bridle hung with lucky red tassels, and then, perching on a plank balanced across the cart, bump off towards their field.
Following a stony track, I stroll to the neighbouring village of Breb. It is a magical walk, silent except for crickets chirruping, birds singing and hens clucking. Everywhere, wild flowers grow with irrepressible exuberance – a glorious, waist-high tangle, unchecked by chemical sprays, filling verges, meadows and orchards of plum, apple and morello cherry.
It is the haymaking season. In Maramures hay is still made by hand, cut with scythes, turned using home-made wooden pitchforks, draped over wooden railings to dry, and formed into lanky haystacks around timber posts. Whole families are at work – men scything with rhythmic swings, stopping to sharpen blades on a whetstone; women and children tossing hay. Several times, I have to step into the bank of cow-parsley and dog-roses as a cart passes, its sloping sides hidden by a tower of hay.
Breb is a maze of dirt tracks, with enormous carved gates leading to small wooden houses, two of them restored by the Mihai Eminescu Trust, which the Prince of Wales supports. As I walk through tall buttercups into a farmyard, a woman in gathered skirt and headscarf is preparing food above an open fire. Chickens peck and tethered dogs leap towards me. A young girl looks up from the well where she is drawing water. Her sister is washing clothes in a shallow bowl. They speak a few words of French.
In an open-sided barn sits their grandfather, an old woodcarver, surrounded by half-completed headstones, babies' cribs, decorated spoons, cups and crucifixes – all made from interlocking pieces of wood, with no nails. Pointing to some tattered diplomas, he sighs that in the good old days of Ceausescu, the state valued traditional crafts and woodcarvers were well paid, but no longer.
In nearby Sârbi, a gushing stream has been ingeniously channelled to provide a water-powered thresher, a washing machine which tumbles clothes in a churning pool, and a thumping device in which heavy wooden beams pummel hot, wet sheep's wool into felt for coats, waistcoats and blankets. Several men, dressed in thick felt trousers, wide belts and tiny funnel-shaped hats with ribbons, are sitting by the watermill drinking plum brandy.
This isn't the threshing season or the felt-pummelling season, but it is the distilling season. At the village still, a woman works on her crochet while her plums are turned into brandy. Three men tend the fire, turn a handle to stop the mixture sticking, and, most importantly, sample the juice dripping into a bucket. For stronger, purer horinca, the distilling process will be repeated. Another man is carving tiny plum-wood ladders to fit inside bottles. When brandy is added, the swollen wood turns the alcohol golden, and adds a plummy flavour.
Religion is hugely important here. There are nearly 100 wooden churches in Maramures, eight of them Unesco World Heritage Sites. The village of Ieud, in the beautiful Iza valley, has a 14th-century church made of fir wood, with a traditional spindly, shingled spire. Inside, the wooden walls are decorated with 17th-century paintings, a mix of Byzantine and folk art with biblical quotations in Cyrillic script. At the altar, villagers are praying, crossing themselves repeatedly, touching icons and kissing the carpet beneath them.
Nearby is a charming folk museum – an old house crammed with handmade wooden implements. The custodian is a gold-toothed woman in traditional gathered skirt, white blouse and headscarf. She shows me how hemp is harvested, soaked in the river, beaten with wood, carded, spun, washed, and wound on to spools for weaving. A photograph of her wedding in the winter of 1972 shows bride and groom in bulky felt and sheepskin clothes, home-made outfits which are now in the museum.
Returning to Hoteni, I watch the cows plodding back from their grazing. In June, they will move to mountain pastures for the summer, with a cowherd to make each day's milk into soft white cheese, and to guard the cattle from bears and wolves. But this evening, each cow turns into its own yard, as the villagers sit chatting on benches outside their high wooden gates.
The next day is Sunday, a day of rest from haymaking. As I leave, the road fills with villagers, many in traditional costume, walking to church. Friendly voices call "Drum bun" – good journey. A young man waves to me as he polishes his shiny Chrysler. He tells me that he spent $4,000 shipping the car from the United States for just three weeks, to show his family. He hopes soon, as further proof of his success abroad, to be able to demolish his parents' old wooden house and carved gates, and replace them with plastic and concrete.
Many younger villagers are keen to escape what they feel is a backward rural life. Many older ones mourn the loss of collective farms and guaranteed wages. Twenty-three years after the overthrow of Ceausescu's regime, Romanians still have a corrupt, inefficient government. Health care, sanitation and education are chronically underfunded. Thousands of jobs vanished after the revolution, and the unemployed now eke out a subsistence living from strips of land, unable to sell produce because of exacting EU laws.
But despite poverty and physical hardship, this remarkable region has maintained qualities that have been lost forever elsewhere in Europe. Maramures was too remote to be invaded by the Romans, who gave Romania its name, and since antiquity it has proudly maintained its unique culture. I shall never forget my visit – the wild flowers and birdsong, haymaking and horses and carts, festivals and faith, woodcarving and other crafts, evoking a time when life was hard, but also calmer, simpler, slower, richer.
British Airways (ba.com) flies from Heathrow to Bucharest from £196 return. Wizz Air (wizzair.com) flies from Luton to Cluj-Napoca in Maramures, from £50 return.
The Ultimate Travel Company (020 3051 8098; theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) can arrange an eight-day stay in Romania from £1,703 per person. The price includes a night in Bucharest at the Hotel Residence Domenii Plaza, a short flight to Baia Mare and private transfer to Hoteni, then a five-night stay at Popica’s Guesthouse with an English-speaking guide and private car and driver throughout. The final night is spent travelling first class on the overnight train from Baia Mare to Bucharest. The price also includes a return flight from Heathrow to Bucharest, most meals and private sightseeing.
THE INSIDE TRACK
The best time to travel is May to the end of October, especially spring and autumn.
If you are staying with a local family, you might like to give a small present – a British delicacy, say: chocolates, biscuits or something that the host can use or display in her kitchen. In Ceausescu’s time, the best presents were a good bar of soap or coffee, and these are still appreciated.
Locals enjoy being photographed, and will hope to be sent the picture. Be sure to write down names and addresses and remember to post photographs when you get home.
Books to read when you’re there include William Blacker’s Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania; and for less up-to-date accounts: Dervla Murphy’s Transylvania and Beyond; Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water.
This is not the place to hire a car or to drive you own car. Roads are notoriously dangerous, directions are difficult, and maps are few.
THINGS TO SEE IN MARAMURES
Go to a service in one of the beautiful wooden churches, to see locals in their Sunday best – many women wear traditional costumes of embroidered blouses and skirts and felt aprons. The Orthodox service lasts about two hours, but it isn’t rude to pop in for a few minutes. Your presence will be appreciated, and the congregation will feel proud and pleased that a Western traveller is interested in their traditions.
Visit a peasant market to see the local trade in grain, chickens and pigs. The Thursday market at Ocna Sugatag was where William Blacker describes buying a scythe.
Listen to live Maramures folk music, which is different from that in the rest of Romania.
Pipas Museum near Sighetu Marmatiei. A fascinating private collection of icons, furniture, lace and textiles. You will need a guide who can translate.
The Ethnographic Museum in Cluj has an excellent collection of Transylvanian rural tools and artefacts.
The Merry Cemetery, in the village of Sapanta, has colourful headstones on which the deceased’s lives are painted in naive style.
The painted churches of Bucovina (a six-hour drive from Maramures) with 15th and 16th-century Byzantine frescoes. Not to be missed.
The Museum of Arrested Thought, in Sighetu Marmatiei near the border with Ukraine. In communist times, this was a prison where many dissidents died. Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was born here, and the museum commemorates his life.
WHAT TO BRING HOME
Anything made of wood, such as spoons, a cross-shaped stamp for holy bread, plum brandy (horinca), handmade rugs, traditional hats, red tassels and bells for your horse’s reins, honey, painted eggs from Bucovina.
THE BEST HOTELS
In Maramures, the best places to stay are in private homes. If you don’t want to stay with local families, try the inexpensive three-star Hotel Marmatia (0040 372 721210; hotelmarmatia.ro; doubles from £44).
Hotel Victoria, Cluj
There are no outstanding hotels in Cluj, but this three-star is the best, and very central. The traffic can be noisy, so ask for a room at the back, not on the street (264 597963; hotelvictoriacluj.ro; doubles from £40).
Hotel Opera, Bucharest
This three-star is a good little budget choice in Brezoianu Street in the main “Sector 1” part of the city (213 124855; hotelopera.ro; doubles from £55).
Grand Hotel Continental, Bucharest £££
This five-star is one of the city’s standout hotels, in a good location on Victoriei Avenue (372 010300; grandhotelcontinental.ro; doubles from £94).
THE BEST RESTAURANTS
In Maramures, the best idea is to eat with local hosts in private houses. Your guide can fix lunches with different people in different villages: “restaurants” are few and far between, but in Sighetu Marmatiei try Casa Iurca (14 Dragos-Voda Street; 262 318882; casaiurca.ro), and Restaurant Roata (264 592022; restaurant-roata.ro) in Cluj.
You may have a meal or two to find in Bucharest, in which case try the traditional food in Terasa Doamnei (9, Str Doamnei; 213 146481; terasadoamnei.ro).