The historic county of Maramureş – heart of the present-day county – lies north of Baia Mare, beyond the Gutâi Pass. You’ll find idyllic rolling countryside, still farmed in the traditional manner, together with some of the region’s finest churches, in picturesque villages where customs have remained virtually unchanged for centuries.
The eastern border of Maramureş is formed by the Rodna mountains, one of Romania’s best hiking areas, largely because you’re sure to have them virtually to yourself. Routes converge on the grubby mining town of Borşa, 5km east of Moisei, with some buses continuing for 10km to the small ski resort (beginners and intermediates only) of Borşa Complex on the mountain flanks. Naturally, there’s a wooden church in Borşa, hidden away north of Strada Libertăţii, west of the centre; it was rebuilt in 1718 and painted internally by Zaharia Zugrav in 1765.
The easiest way into the mountains is either by the chairlift from Borşa Complex (daily 9am–5pm, although you may have to wait until a dozen or so people have gathered; €2) or by hiking south from the 1416m Prislop Pass on the road from Maramureş to Moldavia; you can also head north into the Maramureş mountains, wild and largely unvisited, although scarred by mining and forestry. Heading south into the Rodnas, following red triangle markings then blue stripes, it should take two hours at most to reach the main crest at the Gărgălău saddle; from the Complex you can get here in no more than four hours following blue stripes. Then you can follow red stripes east to the Rotunda Pass and ultimately (camping wild en route) to Vatra Dornei, or head west along the main ridge to the highest peaks. This will get you to La Cruce in four and a half hours, from where you can turn right to follow blue stripes up to the weather station on the summit of Mount Pietrosul (2303m), ninety minutes away. There are great views in all directions, particularly deep into Ukraine to the north. Borşa is 1600m below, another two and a half hours away, or you can return to the Complex (a loop of 22km in all). Well-equipped hikers can continue west to the Şetref Pass (south of Săcel), or south towards the Someş Mare valley and Năsăud in two days, camping wild en route.
Alternatively, follow red stripes from the Complex up the Fântana valley to the Cascada Cailor (Horses’ Waterfall; Romania’s highest at 90m), which takes ninety minutes. You can continue to the Şaua Ştiol (at the top of the chairlift) and on to the Prislop Pass, following red triangles (4–5hr), and return to the Complex in at most three hours following yellow stripes. In 2016 the new gondola should finally open from the bottom of the Complex to the southwest, opening up more direct routes to Mount Pietrosul.
Some of the loveliest villages and wooden churches in Maramureş are in the Iza valley, extending roughly 60km from Sighet to the Rodna mountains, on the frontier with Bucovina. Smaller villages nestle in side valleys, enticing visitors to walk across the hills between them.
The wooden church of BÂRSANA, 19km southeast of Sighet on the DJ186, is small and neat and perfectly positioned atop a hillock to the west of the village centre. It was built in 1720, and its florid paintings, among the best in Maramureş, date from 1720 and 1806. Hodor Toador and Ion Plohod were responsible for the later set, with icons on wood by the former – the narthex is adorned with saints and processional images, while the naos is painted with Old and New Testament scenes, each in a decorative medallion. Don’t miss the images of angels covered in eyes. At the east end of the village, 4km from the centre, stands the new Bârsana monastery, a large complex of wooden buildings, all in traditional style, including the wooden church which, unusually, has a pentagonal privdor and two apses, as well as a 57m steeple, briefly the world’s highest but now overtaken by that at Săpânţa. The original monastery was closed by the Austrians in 1791; construction of a new one (in fact a nunnery) began in 1993, and it has expanded steadily since. Just east of the Călineşti junction, you can visit the splendid woodworker Teodor Bârsan, with carvings big and small for sale.
As a border region, Maramureş remained vulnerable to attacks by nomadic tribes until the eighteenth century, and the wooden church just east of the centre of ROZAVLEA, 20km further along the valley, was one of many rebuilt after the last Tatar invasion in 1717. Its magnificent double roof, recently restored, is now weathering nicely; its paintings by Ion Plohod, including an unusual exterior painting of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist in the porch, have been cleaned and it may be added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Although there’s a good road from Şieu to POIENILE IZEI (“the meadows of the Iza”), from Botiza only an unpaved road leads 6km northeast to this charming little village, famous for its old wooden church, which is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Built in 1604–32, the church is filled with nightmarish paintings of hell. On the red walls to the left dozens of demons (draci) with goat-like heads and clawed feet are depicted torturing sinners and driving them into the mouth of hell – an enormous bird’s head with fiery nostrils. These pictures constitute an illustrated rule book too terrifying to disobey: a huge pair of bellows is used to punish farting in church; a woman guilty of burning the priest’s robes while ironing them is herself pressed with a hot iron; adulteresses are courted by loathsome demons, and a woman who aborted children is forced to eat them. These hell scenes presumably formed the nasty part of a huge Day of Judgement in the narthex, the other half of which has, ironically, not been saved. Opposite are paintings of gardens and distant cityscapes in a sort of Gothic Book of Hours style, executed around 1793–94. The nave’s murals are badly damaged and soot-blackened, but from the gallery you can recognize Adam and Eve, The Fall and episodes from the lives of Christ and John the Baptist.
Continuing along Iza valley, and 4km southeast of the Botiza turning, a turn-off at Gura Ieudului leads upstream to the village of IEUD, 2.5km south. It was Ieud artisans, supervised by master carpenter Ion Ţâplea, who restored Manuc’s Inn in Bucharest, and master carpenter Gavrilă Hotico is currently building new wooden churches all over Maramureş and beyond.
The village’s tradition of woodworking has been maintained since the superb Orthodox Hill Church (Biserica din Deal) was first raised here in 1364. Long thought to be the oldest church in Maramureş (though largely rebuilt in 1620 and the eighteenth century), with a double roof and tiny windows, it once housed the Ieud Codex (1391–92) – now in the Romanian Academy in Bucharest – the earliest-known document in the Romanian language. It has perhaps the most renowned paintings of any Maramureş church, executed by Alexandru Ponehalski in 1782; look out for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob welcoming people in their arms, in the pronaos. And don’t miss the ingenious removable ratchet that opens the bolt in the main door.
No less splendid than the Orthodox church is the Uniate lower church (the Val or Şes church, also dubbed “the cathedral of wood”), built in 1718 with a magnificently high roofline, though, unusually, no porch; few wall paintings survive, but the iconostasis and icons on glass (including an image of St George on a blue horse) are artistically valuable.
Winding down from the Gutâi Pass into the Mara valley, the DN18 passes through MARA, with its splendidly carved gateways and the excellent Alex trout farm and restaurant (t 0726 254 276), and soon enters DESEŞTI, where a lovely wooden church hides among trees to the left. Built in 1770, it’s a fine example of the “double roof” or clerestory style, with high windows to give more light; nowadays, electric lighting allows you to fully appreciate the marvellous wall paintings. Executed by Radu Munteanu in 1780, these seem more primitive and less stylized than those in the Moldavian monasteries, painted two centuries earlier. Boldly coloured in red, yellow and white, saints and martyrs are contrasted with shady-looking Jews, Turks, Germans, Tatars and Franks. There are also folk-style geometric and floral motifs, and inscriptions in the Cyrillic alphabet – Old Church Slavonic remained the liturgical language of Romanian Orthodoxy until the nineteenth century.
Some 2km along the road, in HĂRNICEŞTI, the church, built in 1770, houses a number of fine icons; the apse was widened in 1942 and a porch added in 1952, so that the tower now seems disproportionately short.
Eighteen kilometres northwest of Sighet, SĂPÂNŢA has achieved widespread fame thanks to the work of the woodcarver Stan Ion Pătraş (1908–77) and his disciples Vasile and Gheorghe Stan Colţun, Viorel and Dumitru “Tincu” Pop, and Toader Turda, in the village’s Merry Cemetery. You can find more of Pătraş’ artistry in his modest wooden cottage some 300m along the dusty road behind the cemetery (it’s signposted). The barn where he worked is adorned with some spectacularly colourful fixtures and fittings, as well as highly unusual wood-carved portraits of the Ceauşescus. Săpânţa is also known for its traditional cergi or woollen blankets, and the village, lined with handicraft stalls, has become accustomed to busloads of tourists making a thirty-minute stop before rushing on.
The Merry Cemetery (Cimitir Vesel) is a forest of beautifully worked, colourfully painted wooden grave markers carved with portraits of the deceased or scenes from their lives, inscribed with witty doggerel (in Romanian) composed by Pătraş as he saw fit. Some are terse – “who sought money to amass, could not Death escape, alas!” – while a surprising number recall violent deaths, like that of the villager killed by a “bloody Hungarian” during World War II, or a mother’s final message to her son: “Griga, may you pardoned be, even though you did stab me”. Pătraş himself is buried right in front of the church door, his carved portrait flanked by two white doves (“Ever since a lad I was, I have been Stan Ion Pătraş…”).
Sighetu Marmatiei, or SIGHET as it’s generally known, is just 1km from the Ukrainian border and was a famous smuggling centre before World War I when the territory to the north was called Ruthenia. History is repeating itself today; the bridge to Solotvino (Slatina to Romanians), destroyed in World War II and reopened in 2006, is now busy with traffic crossing into Ukraine to buy cigarettes and petrol for resale in Romania. A peaceful town of around 42,000 inhabitants, it has always been highly multi-ethnic, with a plethora of churches and schools catering for Ukrainians, Hungarians and others. You can see residents of the surrounding villages in local costume on Wednesdays and especially on the first Monday of the month, when a livestock market is held 1km out on the Baia Mare road. The key attractions are the Village Museum, the memorial house dedicated to Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, and the superb Memorial Museum, which ranks among the country’s finest museums. The town is also famed for its winter carnival on December 27, when many of the participants wear extraordinary shamanistic costumes and masks.
From the train and bus stations, it’s a ten-minute walk south down Strada Iuliu Maniu to the Reformat church, a fourteenth-century structure rebuilt just before World War I on an unusual ground plan. The town centre, to the east, comprises two one-way streets, both of which change their names and are linked by several squares, so it can be hard to make sense of addresses. Immediately east of the Reformat church is the Curtea Veche, the Baroque county hall of 1691, now housing a restaurant and shops. Beyond here is Piaţa Libertăţii, with the Baroque Roman Catholic church, built by the Piarist order in 1730–34, on its northern side. On the east side of the church at Piaţa Libertăţii 22, the Ukrainian high school is a splendid piece of Art Noodle, as some jokingly refer to the Hungarian version of Art Nouveau.
Sighet's former prison opened in 1997 as the Memorial Victimelor Comunismului şi Rezistenţei(Memorial Museum of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance). The cells have been converted into exhibition spaces, covering the oppression of the communist era; little is in English but the general outlines are clear enough. In addition to memorials to Iuliu Maniu and Gheorghe Brătianu, the prison’s two most famous inmates, there are displays on collectivization, forced labour on the Danube–Black Sea Canal, the deportations to the Bărăgan and the demolition of the heart of Bucharest during the 1980s. There’s fascinating coverage of the feared Securitate, and another cell-full of Ceauşescu-oriented memorabilia (aptly entitled “Communist Kitsch”), including paintings, busts, lists of honorary doctorates and photos of him lording it with world leaders such as Castro and Nixon. In the courtyard is an underground memorial hall, its walls inscribed with the names of some eight thousand people imprisoned under communism, and a dozen or so uninspiring bronze statues.
Sighet prison operated from 1898 until 1977, achieving a notoriety gained by few others. Its nadir was between 1950 and 1955, when political prisoners (former government ministers, generals, academics and bishops) were held here so that they could be “protected” by the Red Army or rapidly spirited away into the Soviet Union if the communist regime was threatened. The 72 cells held 180 members of the prewar establishment, at least two-thirds of them aged over 60; they were appallingly treated and, not surprisingly, many died. The most important figure to perish here was Iuliu Maniu, regarded as the greatest living Romanian when he was arrested in 1947 (at the age of 73) and now seen as a secular martyr – the only uncorrupt politician of the prewar period, organizer of the 1944 coup, and notably reluctant to pursue revenge against Transylvania’s Hungarians after the war.
The leading Hungarian victim was Árón Márton, Roman Catholic bishop of Alba Iulia, who opposed the persecution of the Jews in 1944 and of the Uniates in 1949, and was imprisoned from 1950 to 1955, surviving until 1980. Others who died in Sighet included two of the three members of the Brătianu family imprisoned here – Dinu, president of the National Liberal Party and Finance Minister (1933–34), and Gheorghe, historian and second-division politician – as well as Mihail Manoilescu, theoretician of Romanian fascism, and Foreign Minister in 1940. Their graves can be seen at the Cimitrul Săracilor or Paupers’ Cemetery, a couple of kilometres west on the Săpânţa road, where fir trees mark out the outline of Romania, with an altar and cenotaph on the spot representing Sighet. In 2012, the Portal of Memory, a bell tower evoking an open book, was built nearer the road, with a viewing platform.
One block west of the Memorial Museum along Strada Şincai you’ll find a monument to the 38,000 Maramureş Jews rounded up by Hungarian gendarmes and deported in 1944; there’s also a plaque to them at the railway station, where they were herded into cattle trucks. Not far from the monument, on Strada Izei, is the Jewish cemetery (Mon–Fri & Sun 8am–7pm), where pilgrims still visit the graves of Hasidic elders.
One synagogue, dating from 1904, survives at Strada Basarabia 10, on the far side of Piaţa Libertăţii (Mon–Fri & Sun 9am–2pm). Note that neither the cemetery nor the synagogue open reliably and you may need to contact the Jewish Community Center (Comunitatea Evreilor din Sighet) at Strada Basarabia 8.
Held on December 27, Sighet’s Winter Customs Festival (Festivalul Datinilor de Iarna) is a vibrant display of music, costumes and customs, illustrating the enduring influence of pre-Christian beliefs. It opens with brightly decorated horses galloping down the main street, followed by up to fifty groups from villages all over Maramureş, Bucovina, Transylvania and Ukraine slowly making their way down the street to present their song or skit to the mayor. Thereafter, a rather mishmash play begins with soldiers arriving to tell King Herod about the rumour of a saviour, while bears roll around the ground to raise the earth spirits. Horsemen are called to find the infant child and men bring heavy iron cowbells to drive away evil spirits, represented by multicoloured, animist dracus. Active throughout is the clapping wooden goat (capra), warding off evil spirits to ensure the return of spring. In the afternoon there are concerts both on the streets and in the theatre, lasting until early evening when more impromptu celebrations take over.
Between Giuleşti and Berbeşti a road leads east up the Cosău valley, the most interesting of all in Maramureş. Just 2km southeast of Fereşti (where the wooden church was raised in the 1790s) is tranquil little CORNEŞTI, where the church (painted in 1775) dates in part from 1406, making it the second oldest in Maramureş; there’s a watermill here, beside which women beat clothes with carved wooden laundry bats by the river, often improvising songs and verses as they work, using a distinctive local technique called singing “with knots” (cu noduri), in which the voice is modulated by tapping the glottis while the singer doesn’t breathe for lengthy periods.
Continuing south, you come to three villages about 4km apart, with two wooden churches apiece. At sprawling CĂLINEŞTI, the beautiful Susani (Upper) or Băndreni church, high above the road just north of the junction, was built and painted in the 1780s. The Josani (Lower) or Caieni church, built in 1628, is one of the loveliest in Maramureş, with its huge nineteenth-century porch and beautiful internal paintings by Ponehalski. It’s best reached by the path across the fields next to house no. 385, on the road east to Bârsana. There are also wooden vâltoare or whirlpools (used for giving woollen blankets back their loft) and horincă stills at nos. 96 and 129.
SÂRBI has two unassuming little wooden churches – the Susani to the north, built in 1638 and painted by Ponehalski in 1760, with icons by Radu Munteanu and a beautifully carved door frame; and the Josani, to the south, built in 1703 – and some fine examples of traditional technology. At no. 181 you can visit a fine watermill, two fulling mills, a vâltoare (whirlpool) and a horincă still, as well as various workshops; it’s signposted as “Ansamblul de arhitectură tehnică populară” and is now rather over-touristy, with a new bar – better to stop immediately north at no. 173, where the family are happy to show you their fulling mill, vâltoare and still, as well as the loom in the house. There’s also a maker of opinci (sandals) at no. 143, at the village’s south end.
Finally, BUDEŞTI is a large village but remarkably unspoiled, with even its new houses largely built in the traditional style. In the centre, the Josani church, built in 1643, contains the chain-mail coat of the outlaw Pintea the Brave. Its frescoes are among Alexandru Ponehalski’s finest, especially the Last Judgement. The Susani church, dating from 1586, has particularly fine paintings from the 1760s, also by Ponehalski, and has been gradually extended westwards, so that the tower is now almost central.
The railway east from Sighet follows the River Tisza for 25km before heading up the beautiful Vişeu valley; the hills between the Tisza and Vişeu valleys are inhabited by Huţul or Ruthenian people, the archetypal inhabitants of the Carpathians, who speak a dialect of Ukrainian incorporating many Romanian words. Local buses from Sighet run along the DN18 through the Ukrainian-populated village of Rona De Jos to terminate at the tiny spa of Coştiui, 22km from Sighet, which has a motel and căsuţe. Beyond the turning to Coştiui the road climbs to a pass in lovely beech forest; from Leordina (once home to Harvey Keitel’s parents), 28km southeast of Rona de Jos, a rough side road follows the River Ruscova north into a Huţul enclave. There’s still a synagogue in Ruscova, once home to British politician Michael Howard’s father, while in Poienile de sub Munte, the centre of the area, there’s a Ukrainian-style wooden church dating from 1788 and a couple of guesthouses. Back in the Vişeu valley, trains continue 10km east from Leordina to VIŞEU DE JOS, then turn south towards Transylvania; from Vişeu de Jos, passenger trains no longer run up the branch line to Borşa, but there are regular buses as far as Vişeu de Sus, and fewer on to Borşa.
Just east of Vişeu de Jos is VIŞEU DE SUS, a logging town that’s growing into a tourist town thanks to the popularity of the steam train from here up the steep Vaser valley, with new guesthouses that appeal more to Romanians in search of comfort than foreigners seeking a wooden-house-and-farm-animals experience. Diagonally across the main Strada 22 Decembrie from the museum is a wooden Uniate church built in 1993–5 by Gavrilă Hotico of Ieud.
The narrow-gauge railway up the wild Vaser valley, towards the Ukrainian border, is still used by diesel-hauled logging trains; in addition, up to five tourist trains run daily as far as Paltin, 18km up the valley. These are hauled by small steam locomotives – known as mocăniţa, meaning “little mountain shepherd” – which have been restored by enthusiasts, the oldest dating from 1910.
There’s a pleasant café (with wi-fi and toilets) in a typical wooden house at the departure point, with a small exhibition on the town’s vanished Jewish community (about forty percent of the population in 1940). There are also three preserved steam locomotives here, including a huge standard-gauge beast (a 2-10-0) near the train-hotel.
Along the route, you may see deer drinking from the river, unperturbed by the trains. The River Vaser, rich in trout and umber, descends rapidly through the 50km-long valley; its whirling waters have begun to attract kayakers to logging settlements like Măcârlău, also the start of a rugged trail over the Jupania ridge of the Maramureş mountains to the former mining centre of Baia Borşa, just north of Borşa. You can also take bikes and cycle the 9km back from Novăţ station.