Romania has been described as a country with one foot in the industrial future and the other in the Middle Ages – that’s still true enough of Maramureş, crammed up against the borders with Hungary and Ukraine and little changed since Dacian times. Within 30km of industrial Baia Mare, forested mountains and rough roads maintain scores of villages in almost medieval isolation, amid rolling hills with clumps of oak and beech and scattered flocks of sheep.
The county’s main attraction is its villages, with their superb wooden houses and churches, and traditional way of life. Every family occupies a compound with its livestock, fenced with timber, brush or latticework, and entered via a beamed gateway (poarta), the size of which indicates the family’s status and prosperity. Nowhere else in Europe do folk costumes persist so strongly, men wearing tiny clop straw hats and medieval rawhide galoshes (opinchi) or archaic felt boots bound with thongs, and women weaving boldly striped catriniţa aprons of cloth from the water-powered fulling mills. It is the women who embroider the wide-sleeved cotton blouses worn by both sexes – most conspicuously during markets and festivals. Villagers have retained their traditional religion (Orthodox rites alloyed with pagan beliefs), myths and codes of behaviour.
Most interesting of all is the marvellous woodwork of Maramureş: the gateways, many elaborately carved with symbols such as the Tree of Life, sun, rope and snake, continue to be produced today, and are rivalled only by the biserici de lemn or wooden churches, mostly built during the eighteenth century when this Gothic-inspired architecture reached its height – Maramureş has the finest examples in all of Eastern Europe, their fairy-tale spires soaring from humpbacked roofs. While some wooden churches are in a poor state, around twenty of the most valuable have been restored in recent years, and eight are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. In recent years many new monasteries have also been constructed, in a modern version of the traditional style. Wooden houses, on the other hand, are vanishing from Maramureş villages, as modern homes are built and old timbers sold off to panel bars across Western Europe.
It’s particularly worth making the effort to see the towering wooden church at Şurdeşti, the beautiful church paintings at Bârsana, Rogoz and Deseşti, the frescoes and icons of Călineşti and Budeşti, the superb prison museum in Sighet and the quirky “Merry Cemetery” at Săpânţa. Further afield in the Iza valley, the visions of hell painted inside the church at Poienile Izei are the most striking images you’ll see in Maramureş, while the frescoes at Ieud are the most famous. There’s also good hiking in the peaceful Rodna and Maramureş mountains on the borders with Bucovina and Ukraine.