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 RodnaandMaramureş mountains on the borders with Bucovina and Ukraine.
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.
The Nagybánya School (using the Hungarian version of Baia Mare’s name) was responsible for transforming Hungarian art at the close of the nineteenth century. Its founder was Simon Hollósy (1857–1918), born of Armenian stock in Sighet and trained in Munich, where he was influenced by the refined naturalism of Jules Bastien-Lepage. In 1886 he set up his own school in Munich, and from 1896 brought his students to a summer school in Baia Mare. An exhibition in 1897 of the school’s paintings was seen as marking the start of a new era in Hungarian art and the school became known as the “Hungarian Barbizon”, although the area’s motifs and colours were closer to those of Provence.
In 1902, Hollósy suffered a creative crisis, and the leadership of the school was taken over by Károly Ferenczy; tuition fees were abolished, and the embittered and jealous Hollósy left to set up a rival school in Técső, now the Ukrainian town of Tyachiv, just downstream of Sighet. Ferenczy suffered a similar crisis in 1910, and did little work thereafter. Of the second generation of artists, the most gifted was Cavnic-born Jenő Maticska (1885–1906). After his untimely death, Béla Czóbel, Csába Vilmos Perlrott, Sándor Ziffer and others revolted against creeping stagnation; their 1906 exhibition, influenced by Cézanne, Matisse and German Expressionism, again marked the start of a new era in Hungarian art. After World War I the school was opened to both Hungarian and Romanian students – up to 150 a year – but interest faded in the 1930s and the school closed its doors.
The Cult of the Dead is central to the culture of Maramureş, where rituals are fixed and elaborate; if anything is omitted, it’s believed that the soul will return as a ghost or even a vampire. There are several phases, covering the separation from the world of the living, preparation for the journey, and entry into the other world. A dying person asks forgiveness of his family and neighbours, who must obey his last wishes. Black flags are hung outside the house where the deceased lies for three days, while the church bells are rung thrice daily, neighbours pay their respects and women (but not men) lament the deceased in improvised rhyming couplets.
The wailing reaches a climax on the third day when the priest arrives and blesses a pail of water, extinguishes a candle in it, and consecrates the house with a cross left etched on the wall for a year. The coffin is carried by six married men, stopping for prayers (the priest being paid for each stop) at crossroads, bridges and any other feature along the way, and then at the church for absolution. The funeral itself is relatively swift, with everyone present throwing soil into the grave and being given a small loaf, a candle and a red-painted egg, as at Easter; these must also be given to passers-by, including tourists (be aware it would give great offence to refuse it). The knot-shaped loaves or colaci bear the inscription NI KA (“Jesus Christ is victorious”), stamped in the dough by a widow or some other “clean woman” using a special seal called a pecetar. The seal’s wooden handle is often elaborately carved with motifs such as the Endless Column, the Tree of Life, wolf’s teeth or a crucifix.
Three days later there is another pomană or memorial meal, when bread is again given to all present. After nine days, nine widows spend the day fasting and praying around the deceased’s shirt; six weeks and then six months after the funeral, the absolution is repeated with another meal, as the dead must be given food and drink, and after a year a feast is given for all the family’s dead. Until this time the close family may not attend weddings or dances and women wear black. As elsewhere in Romania, cergare (embroidered napkins) are hung over icons in the church or over plates on house walls in memory of the dead. The Uniates also remember their dead on All Souls’ Day.
Marriage is seen as essential, so much so that if a person of marriageable age (in fact from 8 years old, the age of first confession) dies unmarried, a Marriage of the Dead (Nunta Mortului) is held, with a stand-in bride or groom (as appropriate), and a bridesmaid or best man dressed in wedding costume, although everyone else wears mourning garb.
The southwestern corner of the present Maramureş county, beyond the River Someş, is known as Codrul; immediately south of Baia Mare is Chioarul; and further east lies Lăpuş. While the rolling green landscape is not as dramatic as in the north, it is delightful, and you could easily spend a couple of days pottering around the region’s fine wooden churches. Folk costumes here are similar to those of historic Maramureş, although the tall straw hats are unique to the region.
Buses from Baia Mare run southeast only as far as the nondescript little town of Târgu Lăpuş, the hub of the Lăpuş area where many villages have wooden churches. There are various places to stay in Târgu Lăpuş, making it a good base for exploration.
The finest wooden churches in Lăpuş are the two in ROGOZ, 6km east of Târgu Lăpuş, which, despite the arrival of a modern church, remain well maintained: the Uniate church, built around 1695 in Suciu de Sus and moved here in 1893, stands in the grounds of the larger Orthodox church of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, built of elm in about 1663. The latter is unique thanks to its naturalistic horse-head cantilevers supporting the roof at the west end, and its asymmetric roof, with a larger overhang to the north sheltering a table where paupers were fed. It’s one of the most beautifully decorated churches in Maramureş, with paintings by Radu Munteanu, notably a Last Judgement, to the left inside the door, and the Creation and the Good Samaritan, on the naos ceiling. Next to the church is a museum house created by the very entertaining priest (he speaks some French), displaying clothes, rugs and tools.
A swathe of wooden churches stretches across Eastern Europe, from northern Russia to the Adriatic, but in terms of both quality and quantity the richest examples are in Maramureş. From 1278, the Orthodox Romanians were forbidden by their Catholic Hungarian overlords to build churches in stone, and so used wood to ape Gothic developments. It was long thought that most were rebuilt after the last Tatar raid in 1717, acquiring large porches and tall towers, often with four corner-pinnacles, mimicking the masonry architecture of the Transylvanian cities. However in 1997 a tree-ring study showed that the wood used in many churches – notably those of Corneşti, Breb and Onceşti – was far older, the oldest dating from 1367.
In general, the walls are built of blockwork (squared-off logs laid horizontally), cantilevered out in places to form brackets or consoles, supporting the eaves. However, Western techniques such as raftering and timber framing enabled the development of characteristic high roofs and steeples in Maramureş. Following the standard Orthodox ground plan, the main roof covers the narthex and naos and a lower one the sanctuary; the naos usually has a barrel vault, while the narthex sits beneath the tower, its weight transmitted by rafters to the walls and thus avoiding the need for pillars. The main roof is always shingled and in many cases double, allowing clerestory windows high in the nave, while the lower roof may be extended to the west to form a porch (exonarthex or pridvor).
Inside, almost every church has a choir gallery above the west part of the naos, always a later addition, as shown by the way it is superimposed on the wall paintings. These extraordinary works of art were produced by local artists in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, combining the icon tradition with pagan motifs – such as ropes and suns – and topical propaganda against the invading Turks. They broadly follow the standard Orthodox layout, with the Incarnation and Eucharist in the sanctuary (for the priest’s edification), the Last Judgement and moralistic parables such as the Wise and Foolish Virgins in the narthex (where the women stand), and the Passion in the naos.
The first of the major painters was Alexandru Ponehalski, who worked from the 1750s to the 1770s in Călineşti and Budeşti, in a naïf post-Byzantine style with blocks of colour in black outlines. From 1767 to the 1780s, Radu Munteanu worked around his native Lăpuş and in Botiza, Glod and Deseşti, painting in a freer and more imaginative manner. A more Baroque style developed in the first decade of the nineteenth century, with Toader Hodor and Ion Plohod working in Bârsana, Corneşti, Văleni, Năneşti and Rozavlea.
Since 1989, there has been a renaissance of the Uniate or Greco-Catholic faith, repressed under communism and forcibly merged with the Romanian Orthodox Church: many parishes have reverted to Greco-Catholicism, reclaiming their churches; in others, one church is now Orthodox and the other Uniate, while in some villages the congregations even manage to share one church. Many villages have built large, new churches, making it more likely that you’ll find the wooden churches locked – even on a Sunday. Finding the key-holder can be problematic, but ask around and someone is bound to help out. People dress conservatively here, and wearing shorts is not appropriate for visiting churches.
Of about a hundred wooden churches in Maramureş, 35 are left in the north of the county and thirty in the south. Eight were placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1999: Bârsana, Budeşti (Josani), Deseşti, Ieud (Deal), Siseşti, Plopiş, Poienile Izei and Rogoz.