Festival Fever -- Maramures villagers are known for their traditional weekly neighborhood parties, known as bauta. Of course, in the age of television, the party spirit is harder to sustain, but some traditional village festivals continue to hold out. In early May, Hoteni Village hosts the 2-week Tânjaua de pe Mara fertility festival to celebrate the completion of the spring plowing; folk music and dancing mark the occasion. In mid-July, Vadu Izea hosts the spectacular Maramizical Festival, a 4-day celebration of international folk music. In winter, it's Sighet that comes to life when the Winter Customs Festival hits town on December 27. The day is imbued with folkloric symbolism and good old-fashioned fun, and everyone dresses in traditional costumes and young men run through the streets wearing grotesque masks while cowbells dangle from their waists. For the when and where of Maramures festivals, contact DiscoveRomania.
Baia Mare & the Mara Valley
Tracing its history from the early 1300s, when it grew as a gold-mining center and became a prized possession of the Hungarian royal family, Baia Mare (which means "Big Mine") is today better known for a range of 20th-century industrial-chemical disasters. Most recently, in January 2000, the Maramures district capital was the site of the devastating Aurul Gold Mine cyanine-spill disaster, from which the greater European region is yet to recover. Baia Mare has for a long time had little to recommend it; there is a revolution afoot, however, and the town appears to be preparing for a revival. Keenest evidence of this is in and around its large cobblestone town center, Piata Libertatii, which is now a perfectly pleasant place from which to admire the surrounding medieval and classical architecture, some of which dates from the 14th and 15th centuries.
That said, it's only once you've left Baia Mare, and passed through the dying mining town of Baia Sprie, that you'll lose your heart to Maramures. Named for the Mara River, which runs from Baia Mare to Sighetu Marmatiei, the Mara Valley is dotted with villages that epitomize the tranquil spirit of Maramures, and where you'll discover many of the unique wooden churches that have brought architectural renown to the region. From Baia Sprie, the road forks; head south to reach the villages of Plopis and Surdesti, both with UNESCO-protected wooden churches. From Surdesti, the road continues north through Cavnic and over the Neteda Pass, affording terrific mountainous views from 1,040m (3,411 ft.). The next village, also with a famous church, is Budesti. From here, one of two northerly roads leads to Ocna Sugatag, a tiny former spa village, where salt was mined until 50 years ago. Most appealing of the villages in the vicinity is Hoteni, a total escape from the world and a perfectly positioned base from which to explore other parts of the Mara Valley. Be sure to visit Hoteni's wooden church and the nearby church at Desesti. It's also worth making the effort to visit the hillside church in the village of Calinesti.
The Wooden Churches of Maramures: A Field Guide
Traditional timber architecture defines the unique churches of Maramures; built on a pebble-filled stone block base, they are a peculiar evolution of the Gothic style, based on the Blockbau system, using traditional techniques developed over generations by the stone- and woodcutters of the region. Oak or pine beams are assembled using V-, U-, or T-shaped joints, allowing solid but flexible constructions, with a high, steep double-pitched roof. That's the technical detail, anyway. In truth, their beauty lies in the organic textures of their darkly weathered wood, which have an almost liquid appearance, a shock of finely crafted dark chocolate assuming the shape of a church amid overgrown cemeteries.
These churches are particularly loved for their soaring bell towers, one of which has long been recognized as the tallest wooden structure in Europe. The churches were built to replace earlier constructions destroyed in 1717 during the Tartar invasions; barred from building permanent churches, their architects decided on the wooden solutions seen today. They may not be ancient, but their survival over the last few centuries does make them special, since they are without any real fortification. Briefly described here are a handful of the 93 wooden churches in Maramures, each listed under the village in which it is found. All of these churches can be visited as excursions from accommodations recommended in either the Mara or Izei valleys. You'll more than likely find the churches locked; even if you are visiting without a guide, it should be quite easy to track down the key. Don't be afraid to approach one of the locals and then hint that you're looking for the key by saying "chiea?" (kay-yah) while indicating the church. You'll almost certainly receive a positive response.
Although nobody will say anything, it's only reasonable to leave a small donation at each church you visit. Try to see at least two of the churches in the following villages, but bear in mind that once you've visited two or three -- unless you're a particularly big fan of church architecture -- you'll have reached saturation point. Each village is also worth a look in its own right, so don't miss the chance to seek out the local watering holes and exchange a few words (or smiles) with people you might meet.
1. Smaller than most, the church at Bârsana (Izei Valley, 19km/12 miles from Sighet) was built in 1720 and was transferred to the present hilltop site in 1806, when a two-level portico was constructed and the painter Hodor Toader added the original interior frescoes; you'll notice the distinctive baroque and rococo influences on his work. Just outside the village are the salubrious grounds of the Bârsana Monastery, easily mistaken for Maramures's very own Orthodox Disneyland. If you're curious, take a few minutes to wander around the manicured gardens and take a peek at the 16th-century church; most of the other monastic buildings were constructed after the fall of Communism.
2. The village of Budesti (Mara Valley) is delightful; children charge around on bicycles, while grown-ups in traditional attire make conversation in the streets. Track down the local priest who has the key to the Church of St. Nicholas and ask him to show you the frescoed interior. This is one of the most celebrated examples of the Maramures style, built of oak in 1643; it is considered large -- 18m (59 ft.) long and 8m (26 ft.) wide. The earliest paintings date from 1762 by an artist named Alexandru Ponehalski, whose style you may recognize from one or two of the other churches.
3. While the church in Calinesti (Mara Valley) is not part of the World Heritage List consignment, and it's fairly well off the beaten track, it's well known to -- and loved by -- locals. The 14th-century church was apparently relocated to this site in 1665 because of a legend involving a girl named Calina; whenever she passed this spot her candle would start burning spontaneously -- evidence that this is a place of miracles. Getting to the church involves a fairly stiff walk, possibly escorted by one of the ancient villagers. Once you're admitted to the church and the wooden shutters are opened, look out for the "Road to Heaven" fresco, represented by a ladder on which souls descend in order to be reunited with their bodies before the final judgment. Also look above the iconostasis for the slightly personified images of the sun and moon watching over Christ on the cross; the frescoes are the work of muralist Alexandru Ponehalski executed almost a decade before the frescoes you may have seen at Budesti.
4. In Desesti (Mara Valley), decorative motifs are cut into the wood of the exterior of the Church of the Holy Paraskeva, somehow transforming the entire construction into a sculptural artwork. The interior walls and curved ceiling are covered in frescoes executed in 1780 by the celebrated artist Radu Munteanu, then considered a leader in religious painting. For a better view at the paintings, climb the stairs to the balcony from where you can study the particularly splendid crucifixion scene at the front of the church. Built in 1770, the church -- like most of the wooden churches -- is now surrounded by tombstones in an overgrown graveyard.
5. Atop a hill in Ieud Deal (Izei Valley), the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin contains what are believed to be the best frescoes in all of Maramures. Again, the artist is Alexandru Ponehalski, his technique having reached its apotheosis in 1782 when he embellished these walls with their rich iconography. Uniquely, this church is complemented by a free-standing bell tower.
6. Constructed in 1604, the church in Poienile Izei (Izei Valley) is one of the oldest. It's a firm favorite thanks to its late-18th-century interior frescoes, alive with fantastic cautionary images of bizarre, cruel tortures being carried out in hell. Look to the wall immediately on your left as you enter: Amongst other now-comical scenarios, you'll see a woman being punished for abortion (she has to eat her own offspring), and a man being tortured for falling asleep during a sermon.
7. Built at the pinnacle of the Maramures architectural evolution (in 1767), the Church of the Holy Archangels in Surdesti (between Cavnic and Plopis) is a must-see because of its exemplary synthesis of all the elements associated with the wooden churches; the interior was decorated by a team of three skilled painters. To get here, you need to cross the dramatic Neteda Pass (which reaches 1,040m/3,411 ft.) south of Budesti, passing through the town of Cavnic along the way.
Sighetu Marmatiei & Sapânta
Sighet: 67km (42 miles) N of Baia Mare. Sapânta: 12km (7 1/2 miles) NW of Sighet
Close to the Ukraine border, Sighetu Marmatiei (usually referred to as Sighet) is a relatively quiet market town, and the cultural center of Maramures. Sighet is also home to one of the world's finest anti-Communism museums, also referred to as the Prison Museum; if you see only one thing here, make this it. Parts of the midtown Ethnographic Museum, Piata Libertatii 15, pertain to the local way of life in a vaguely informative manner; included is a cornucopia of traditional costumes, exhibited alongside scarecrowlike effigies (one of which even has an erect corn cob phallus). Sighet is also remembered as the birthplace of Elie Wiesel, the Jewish writer who coined the termed "Holocaust" and won the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. Wiesel himself now lives in Boston, but the house where he lived before the war has been converted into a museum, Casa Elie Wiesel, at the corner of Str. Dragos Voda and Str. Tudor Vladimirescu. Only one of the town's eight original synagogues still exists, serving the tiny Jewish population of 30; it's at Str. Bessarabia 10. For more information about the synagogue and other aspects of Maramures's Jewish history, visit the adjacent Jewish Community Center (tel. 0262/31-1652; Tues-Sun 10am-4pm). Just outside of town, Sighet's Village Museum is another of Romania's many open-air exhibitions curating compendium-size collections of traditional homesteads; you'll get far more pleasure out of experiencing the villages firsthand.
Sighet is also very convenient for the nearby village of Sapânta, where one of the country's most imaginative and unlikely attractions -- a colorful cemetery -- is located.
Gorgeous Valea Izei is a hypnotically bucolic world between Sighet and the village of Moisei, farther east. Starting with Vadu Izei, 5km (3 miles) southeast of Sighet, an exploration of this lovely valley will transport you back in time where horse carts outnumber cars, traditional dress is more pervasive than modern attire, and the roads are lined with beautiful houses with thatched roofs and fantastic carved wooden gates, filled with elegant folkloric details. Practically every village also has its own exquisite wooden church worthy of exploration (although hunting down the key is often an adventure on its own). Beyond Vadu Izei are the villages of Oncesti and then Bârsana, site of a popular monastery and fabulous wooden church . Farther south and east, the valley road passes through Roza Vlea and then splits; head southwest to the sprawling village of Botiza, where you can stay in the home of the local priest , and hike (or drive) to the church of Poienile Izei, painted with horrific images of damnation and punishment. Back along the main road, it's a short journey to Ieud, known for the famous Church on the Hill, originally established in 1364, but rebuilt in the mid-18th century after destruction at the hands of the Tartars. Ieud's other, "lower" church is also worth a visit.
Each village usually has a dedicated market day, when everyone heads for the center to buy necessities and exchange gossip. You'll probably also encounter villagers practicing traditional crafts; here the age-old pastime of sitting on a bench in front of the house watching the world go by while spinning wool or simply waiting for the daily gossip is still in evidence. Of course, things are changing; satellite dishes signal a time when simple entertainments are being replaced by the tedium of television, and younger generations who set off to earn their fortunes in other parts of Europe are returning to build ugly concrete houses that will, if unchecked, blight this idyllic world forever.
Pottery from an Ancient Recipe -- The tiny village of Sacel in the southeast of the Izei Valley shelters one of the world's most unique teams of ceramicists. Working out of the same workshop that has been in his family for generations, Tanase Burnar, Str. Valea Bistritei 297A, Sacel (tel. 0262/33-9438), his wife, and two young sons make gorgeously simple red clay bowls, pots, and jugs using the same techniques that were developed in this region by the ancient Dacians. With clay dug out of the ground (from down to 17m/56 ft. beneath the surface) and then hand-cured, each piece is turned on a foot-powered wheel and, after drying, painted with the same ancient, organic zig-zag design -- the special paint is also homemade from crushed stones. Later, each piece is polished by hand using smooth river stones and fired in a Roman-style kiln.
Remarkably, these traditional artisans use the same kiln -- made of river rocks and built right into the ground beneath their house -- that has served their ancestors for at least 500 years. Seeing the family in action is likely to be a highlight of your trip; these people keep the art alive purely for the love of it (although you can, of course, buy here, too). The best way to arrange a visit to the workshop is to call Tanase's son, who speaks lovely English, and will also talk you through the intriguing production process (tel. 0747-900-352). Alternatively, contact MaramuresInfoTurism (tel. 0262/20-6113) and ask for assistance visiting to the workshop.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.