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.
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.
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 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.
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 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 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 Mountains, 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.
- Elie Wiesel Memorial House in Sighetu Marmatiei
- Maramures Entographic Museum and Maramures Village Museum in Sighetu Marmatiei
- Museum of Arrested Thought in Sighetu Marmatiei
Food & Wine
It is a Maramures custom to welcome travelers and guests with homemade breads and a small glass of horinca – a traditional double-distilled local plum or other fruit brandy. Other local specialties include smoked sausages, bacon and fresh ewe’s milk cheese.
A very tasty dish in this area is balmos, oven baked and mixed with ewe’s milk cheese or cheese fermented in special wooden or clay pots and served alongside warm polenta.
For Easter, baskets covered with towels adorned with flowers containing red painted eggs, ‘pasca’ (a sweet cheese cream cake), knot-shaped bread, pies, and braised lamb – are brought to the local churches to be blessed before the traditional Easter lunch.
On Christmas night and on New Year”s Eve, all the members of the family must eat a slice of pork jelly (called piftie in Romanian).