To the south of the Gutâi and Igniş mountains, BAIA MARE, the largest town in Maramureş, makes a good base for forays into the surrounding countryside. Mining has been important here since the fourteenth century when, under its Magyar name of Nagybánya (“big mine”), it was the Hungarian monarchs’ chief source of gold, but it remained a small town until the communists turned it into a major nonferrous metals centre in the 1950s, diluting its largely Hungarian population to just fourteen percent of the total. The town has an attractive old core, now largely restored, and some worthwhile museums, in particular the Art Gallery and Village Museum.
The heart of Baia Mare’s old town is Piaţa Libertăţii, a beautifully restored square lined with sixteenth- to eighteenth-century houses; it is now pedestrianized, along with parts of the neighbouring streets, and there are plenty of bars along its south side. At no. 18, the thick-walled Casa Elisabeta was begun by Iancu de Hunedoara, fifteenth-century Regent of Hungary, for his wife, and completed by their son, Matei Corvin; next door is the house where the great Hungarian actor Lendvay Márton was born in 1807. On the west side of the square a lovely Secession hotel is now the newly refurbished Cinematograful Minerul. To the south of the square rises the 40m-high Stephen’s Tower, built in 1442–46 and all that remains of a Roman Catholic cathedral that burned down in 1769; the adjacent Baroque pile, built by the Jesuits in 1717–20, then became the city’s cathedral. Immediately north of Piaţa Libertăţii, at the junction of Strada Monetăriei and Strada Podul Viilor, is the landmark Reformat church, built in 1809 and topped by what seems to be a giant red diver’s helmet, which appears in many paintings by the Nagybánya School. Other than the museums listed in this account, the modern Muzeul de Mineralogie (Museum of Mineralogy; B-dul Traian 8; Tues–Sun 9am–5pm), towards the stations, is also worth a quick look.
The Chestnut Festival (Sărbătoarea Castanelor), held over the last weekend of September, celebrates – naturally – the chestnut season, with exhibitions, a riotous beer festival and traditional music on the Sunday.