VADU IZEI, Romania—Forty miles from the shops selling cell phones and bikinis on Bucharesti Street in the mining town of Baia Mare, Maria Stan sits in front of her house on a dirt street in the village of Sapanta, twirling a spindle as if she were spinning cotton candy instead of wool from her newly sheared sheep.
Dumitru Pop, a woodcarver, chisels grave markers from blocks of oak, creating images of his deceased neighbors the way he remembers them—drinking, dancing or playing music.
Gheorghe Rednic, a shepherd, makes cheese by curdling milk over an open fire in the mountains where he spends his summers tending the village flock.
This is life in Maramures, a hidden corner of Northern Transylvania known for its abundance of timber and rural villages filled with medieval-style wooden churches and log houses decorated with hand-carved gates.
Romanians know the nearest city, Sighetu Maramatiei, as the border crossing to the Ukraine for half-price gas and cheap cigarettes. Travelers are more interested in the area for a glimpse of European peasant life, preserved not in folk villages set up for tourists, but in real towns where people depend on each other for most everything they eat, wear and use.
Isolated even today by mountains on three sides, the Maramures were insulated from invasions by the Romans and the Turks. Religious traditions, foods and dress that disappeared elsewhere survived. Even the Communists failed with a plan called “systematization” to raze villages and relocate people in “agro-industrial” centers.
Once banned by dictator Nicolae Ceausescu from housing foreigners in private homes, families now welcome visitors as part of an agritourism program aimed at preserving the local culture.
Guesthouses promise home-cooked meals, cozy rooms and bottomless glasses of homemade plum and apple brandy. All you have to do is get here, easier today than it was for the Romans and the Turks, but still enough of a challenge to deter the Dracula-themed bus tours.
With Nicolae Prisacaru, a local guide whom I hired for the first few days, it took two hours to drive the 40 miles from the train station in Baia Mare over a winding mountain pass that cut through pine forests. When we reached the other side, it was like walking onto a movie set where all the actors were dressed in period costumes—except this was real life.
Women in knee-length skirts, leggings, thick socks and felt boots with soles made of rubber tires hitchhiked along dirt roads. Men, wearing little straw hats called “clops” that look like upside-down soup bowls, passed by in horse-drawn wagons filled with logs or animals or people.
It was nearly 10 p.m. when Prisacaru dropped Tom, my husband, and me at our first guesthouse in Vadu Izei, a village of thatched-roofed houses in a valley a few miles from the Ukraine boarder. Our hosts, Ioan Borlean, an artist who paints religious icons on glass, and his wife, Ileana, had dinner waiting in the rambling, century-old wooden house they restored on their family compound near a river.
We chatted with the other guests, a family from Switzerland on vacation with their mother who was born in Romania.
First came the plum brandy, called tuica; then a light red wine and homemade vegetable soup. The main course was a steaming pot of bulz, a traditional polenta dish made with sheep’s cheese and sausage. Dessert was a dreamy Boston-meets-the-Balkans cream pie.
Like most everything in Romania, a homestay in Maramures is a bargain. We paid $34 each a night, including breakfast and dinner, for a second-floor room decorated with pine furniture. Wool blankets dyed in bright reds and greens covered the beds, and the bathrooms were new. I was skeptical of the heating system—a ceramic wood stove on the first floor—but helpers kept it stoked morning and evening and the rooms were toasty.
The Borleans didn’t speak much English, but we managed to communicate, using gestures, sounds and a little Italian and French.
Buses don’t run frequently between the villages, but hiring a local English-speaking guide with a car turned out to be an affordable luxury. Prisacaru is a furniture designer by trade who took up guiding after losing his job in a state-owned factory. He charged the equivalent of $34 a day, plus mileage—a total of $110 for two days, a bargain considering rental cars start at around $65 per day plus insurance and gas.
I told Prisacaru we were more interested in village life than churches and museums, so on our first morning we drove a half-hour or so to the one-time salt-mining center of Ocna Sugatag where we mingled with the locals at the weekly animal market.
Women in black or flowered headscarves arrived with husbands and sons in horse-drawn carts. Everyone set up shop in a clearing organized into sections set aside for sheep, pigs and horses, and items such as bedroom furniture and second-hand clothes. It wasn’t yet 10 a.m., but the air smelled of grilled sausages. Men sat at tables sharing beers and playing cards.
Spring is the time when shepherds move their flocks to the mountains, so when I said I’d like to see how cheese was made, Prisacaru led us along a path through a meadow dotted with haystacks shaped like giant mushrooms. We climbed a hill to where we spotted a wooden shack and a few pots and pans hanging on a tree limb. There we met Gheorghe Rednic, 57, a shepherd since he was 12.
He and his helpers spend summers tending a flock of 300 sheep that belong to several families. They milk three times a day by hand, then make cheese—88 pounds per day—by curdling the milk in an iron pot over a camp fire.
The cheese is hauled to town in a cart and sold by women in the markets for 80 cents a pound. Rednic divides the money according to the number of sheep each family owns and an estimate of how much milk he expects the sheep produce based on the amount measured during the first milking of the season in early spring.
A few miles away in the village of Sarbi, Gheorghe Opris owns a wooden watermill where villagers do their laundry, and Opris grinds corn, thrashes oats and distills plum brandy. Business isn’t as good as it once was, he says. More people have electric washing machines, and cheaper grain is coming in from China.
Opris supplements his income by making little ladders out of plum wood and inserting them, like model ships, into bottles of plum brandy which he sells to tourists. His wife spins wool for handmade vests and blankets.
The couple has two sons who live in Spain and the United States, so chances are the watermill will close once Opris retires.
Business was once so brisk, “this used to be like a second America,” he told us over glasses of brandy and homemade apricot cake.
But like everywhere, things are changing, even here in Maramures.
Teodosia Stan, right, and her neighbor Maria Stan hand-spin wool from newly sheared sheep. They live in the Maramures village of Sapanta in Romania. (Carol Pucci/Seattle Times/MCT)
The tradition of building with wood grew into an art form in the mid-14th century when Hungarian rulers banned Romanian Orthodox Christians from constructing churches in long-lasting stone. Carpenters instead used oak to build tall, slim structures with wooden spires and interiors painted with religious scenes. Eight of the old churches are UNESCO sites. Most can be visited by finding the keeper of the keys in each town, often the priest’s wife or a church helper.
As congregations grew, villagers went back to building in stone, and most anyone who builds a new house today uses modern materials.
“Step-by-step, the old wooden houses are disappearing,” Prisacaru told us. Some have been sold for the price of the oak. A few have been moved to France and restored as country homes.
The changes were striking in the village of Botiza where we spent the next two days in the home of George Iurca, a local guide who specializes in mountain hikes, and his wife, Mirela, the village doctor.
Eighteen years ago, there were just two cars (one owned by the priest) and one color TV (also owned by the priest) in Botiza, a village of about 3,000 known for its Ukraine mountain views and hilltop wooden church. Botiza doesn’t yet have a high school, but horse carts share the roads with plenty of cars. It seems most everyone has a satellite dish and cell phone. New home construction is booming as locals find work in Western Europe, and return to invest what they earn in new homes or guesthouses.
“Soon,” predicts Iurca, the land of wood “will become known as the land of concrete and asbestos.”
For now, though, life remains simple, and the villagers friendly to outsiders. Social life centers on church, and everyone turns out Sunday for a service that can last two hours or more. The older villagers arrive first, the men wearing nubby wool vests and felt hats; the women in black knee-length skirts, dark scarves and vests of wool or leather. Literally fashionably late are the younger women in short pleated floral-print skirts, heels, fitted jackets and flowered scarves.
We stood watching one afternoon as 100 or so turned out for a funeral that began with a procession through the streets, and ended with a feast in the town hall.
Women left their houses carrying dozens of knot-shaped round loaves of bread. Three priests led a graveside service that was brief and filled with chanting. Then everyone walked down the hill to the hall where long tables were set with cakes and plastic bottles of orange drink.
“Familia,” one woman said to me, putting her hand to her mouth in a gesture inviting us to share in the meal.
Men and women sat separately, as they do in church. Everyone stood while the trio of priests blessed the bread, and each man put his hand on the shoulder of one in front of him.
It wasn’t the first time I didn’t understand all that was going on. That’s the mystery of Maramures. For a traveler who’s content just to be included, it doesn’t get much better.
IF YOU GO:
WHERE: Maramures (meaning “Big River,” for the Tisa River which flows through the area) is in northern Transylvania near the Ukraine border. Major cities are Baia Mare, the county seat; Satu Mare and Sighetu Marmatiei, the town closest to the Mara and Izei river valleys and the most interesting villages and historic churches.
GETTING THERE: Trains run between Bucharest and Baia Mare (11 hours), Sighet (14 hours). Satu Mare (13 hours) and other cities. Romania’s Air Tarom flies between Bucharest and Baia Mare (one hour). Tickets can be booked online.
Buses go to the outlying villages, but schedules are limited. Hitchhiking is safe and many people do it. The best idea is to rent a car, hire a guide with a car or arrange transportation through a guesthouse.
LODGING: There are hotels and hostels in each of the cities. Lodging in the villages is in private homes. The biggest concentration of guesthouses—more than 100—is in Vadu Izei and Botiza, each with a population of around 3,000. Rates run $27-$34 per person per night for a double room with breakfast and dinner. Book through Foundation OVR (Operation Villages Romania) Agro-Tur-Art at www.vaduizei.ovr.ro or see www.pensiuni.info.ro and www.ruraltourism.ro.
Many of the old wooden homes have been restored with modern bathrooms and showers (most are shared). Others are more rustic, and some are new houses built of brick and concrete. We paid $34 per night with meals at Casa Borlean where we had one of seven rooms in two newly restored wooden houses. See www.pensiuni.info.ro or call 011-40-262-330228 (little English spoken). In Botiza, we paid $27 for one of two rooms in a more modern home owned by George and Mirela Iurca. Both speak English. Phone 011-40-262-334110 or e-mail email@example.com.
TRAVELER’S TIPS: Many visitors like to spend their time getting to know one village, taking walks and chatting with the locals. Distances between the villages are short, and many are connected with walking paths. For in-depth exploring, it’s helpful to have an English-speaking guide with a car. Contact Nicolae Prisacaru, firstname.lastname@example.org or 011-40 -721- 046730 in Vadu Izei or George Iurca, email@example.com or 011-40-262-334110 in Botiza. Each charges about $27 per day plus mileage. Iurca also leads mountain hikes and walks.
MORE INFORMATION: See www.romaniatourism.com or call 212-545-8484. See also www.vaduizei.ovr.ro, the Web site for Foundation OVR Agro-Tur-Art. Its office in Vadu Izei can arrange homestays, guides and tours. The best guidebooks are the “Rough Guide to Romania” and the Lonely Planet guide to Romania and Moldova.