The northwestern Romanian region of Maramures is home to many villages where century-old traditions are still part of daily life. The inhabitants of this area have preserved, to an amazing extent, the rural culture and crafts of their Dacian ancestors.
Maramures villages are distinguished by their unique wooden churches with tall spires and shingled roofs. Woodlands still account for more than four-fifths of the land surface of Maramures. It is understandable, therefore, that wood has long been – and continues to be – the medium of expression for the region’s artisans. Elaborate woodcarvings decorate the eaves, entryways and windows of houses. The local handiwork is also seen in the hand-woven carpets and intricate embroidery that adorns folk dresses still worn by the locals.
Carved Wooden Gates
The local craftsmanship can be best observed in the monumental Maramures gates, guarding the entry to the houses. Supported by three columns, they feature traditional ornamental motifs, including the sun and the twisted rope – both symbols of life and continuity. Some of the most beautiful wooden gates are found in the villages of Vadu Izei, Desesti, Giulesti, Budesti, Sarbi, Barsana and Oncesti. The villages of Barsana and Oncesti have, perhaps, the greatest number of impressive gates.
The primary wood material used by the artisans who built them was local oak, which has survived the elements with sturdy elegance until today. The interior walls of the churches were painted by local artists, with biblical scenes often juxtaposed against the familiar landscape of the village.
As it has for hundreds of years, social life in Maramures continues to revolve around the village church.
The Wooden Churches of Maramures ) – in Surdesti, Plopis, Rogoz, Ieud, Poeinile Izei, Barsana, Budesti and Desesti – have been recognized by UNESCO as some of the most important sites of world heritage.
Unique in shape and ornamentation, they have characteristic high roofs and tall, narrow, pointed steeples, often collectively describer as ‘the Gothic style of Maramures.’
The spiritual philosophy of the people of Maramures is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Sapanta. The town folks’ ancestors considered death as a beginning, not the end, and this faith is reflected in the carvings in the town’s unique Merry Cemetery . Blue wooden crosses feature a carved scene and humorous verses that endeavor to capture essential elements – both the good and the imperfections – of the deceased’s life. Even without benefit of translation, visitors can appreciate the handiwork of sculptor Stan Ion Patras, who began carving these epitaphs in 1935, and his successors. Patras’ house in the village is now a fascinating museum. Sapanta is also home to several wooden gates and one of the region’s tallest wooden churches.
Sapanta is a 20-minute drive, to the west, from Sighetu Marmatiei, an important tourist and cultural center in the region. The outdoor village museum in Sighetu Marmatiei boasts dozens of homes and farm buildings assembled from around Maramures County. Other attractions include the 16th century Reform Church, the Elie Wiesel Memorial House, and the Victims of Communism Memorial (Museum of Arrested Thought), located in a former communist prison in the center of town.
Maramures is dominated by a landscape of mountains and rolling valleys. The Gutai, Lapus, Tibles Maramures and Rodnei Mountains are cut by passes named Huta, Gutai, Prislop, Setref, and Botiza. Three large valleys cross the region: Viseu, Iza and Mara. The Rodnei Mountains National Park, a natural reserve filled with a rich diversity of flora and fauna, has been awarded biosphere status by UNESCO. Here, chamois leap between rocks, the cry of eagles’ rings out overhead and as the snows recede in the spring, crocus and other flowers create swathes of dazzling colors.
For a one-of-a-kind experience, take the narrow-gauge steam train. Starting from the small logging town of Viseu de Sus, the steam railway runs along a scenic road for about 30 miles, chugging behind an old steam engine. The train provides the only access – other than walking – to settlements higher up in the valley. During stops, you can watch workers load firewood and take on water from clear mountain streams. On the trip back down in the evening, the engine driver whistles for brakemen to stop the train – sometimes to pick up or drop off passengers, sometimes to stop to pick wild mountain mushrooms