When we announced our plans for a round-the-world trip and told people we were going to kick off our adventure of a lifetime in Maramures in northern Romania, the most common reaction we heard was: Why? Why Romania, what on earth is there to see? Why not fly to a more exotic destination, go to colorful South America, a tropical bounty island or the backpacker paradises in Southeast Asia.
After only five days in Romania we could give our doubting audience a very clear answer: Because Romania is amazing. It has some hidden treasures that are completely unique in Europe, picturesque small cities, friendly people and, as a welcome bonus, it is astonishingly budget friendly. Romania completely blew us away and turned out to be the biggest surprise of our 7,5 months of traveling around the globe.
Arrival in Cluj-Napoca
Our afternoon arrival at the small regional airport of Cluj-Napoca didn’t bode well though: Tourist Information was closed, there was just one nonworking atm, we only found one brochure (in Romanian) and any indication of a bus stop to take is into town was missing. Car rental agencies and taxi drivers, however, were out in full force, but we were not interested.
After finding the bus stop, our next problem arose: it was not possible to buy bus tickets in the bus. Luckily two Romanian passengers offered to sell us two of their tickets for 1 euro (for the two of us together). After arrival in Cluj (pronounce klooszj) they also helped us find the city bus to get to our hotel, introducing us to the Romanian disposition we found all over the country: Friendly and hospitable.
The next morning we took a stroll through town before taking the afternoon bus to the region of Maramures in northern Romania, our first major travel destination. Cluj-Napoca doesn’t have many eye-catching sights but it was pleasant enough to walk around for a few hours, giving us a first small sample of what Romania would have to offer. Being the biggest student city in the country it had a young vibe with many terraces and places to go out.
Getting to Maramures
During the five our afternoon bus ride to Maramures the first thing we noted were the large number of unfinished houses, something we would later see all over the country. We were told that these belonged to Romanian migrant workers who left the country after Romania joined the EU in 2007 to work in Spain and Italy. As soon as they’d saved some money they’d start building the walls and roof for a new home (preferably bigger than that of the neighbors) leaving the rest for later. This, because of the economic crisis, had become much later than planned for most people.
We got off in the village of Vadu Izei, just a few kilometers before the capital of Maramures, Sighetu Marmatiei (or Sighet). Here we were going to spend a few days at Muntean’s Guesthouse, one of the nicest places we stayed at during our 7,5 months of traveling. Owner Florin Muntean and his wife went out of their way to accommodate us, Florin being our driver and guide for two days, his wife serving delicious traditional home cooked dinners and breakfast with lots of regional dishes.
Back to the 50’s
Bordering on the Ukraine, the region of Maramures is all about traditional culture and lifestyle and stepping back in time several decades. The countryside is dotted with old timber houses and farmsteads fronted by big ornamental wooden gates and often with their own water well because there’s no streaming water; farmers mow grass using a scythe, stacking the grass on beautiful haystacks; horses and carts are an integral part of traffic (there are even separate traffic signs for horses and carts); old ladies are almost without exception clothed in wide skirts, flower aprons and head scarfs. But the biggest drawcard of the region are the steepled wooden churches, eight of which are Unesco World Heritage listed.
The first day our host Florin dropped us off in Sighet. Here we visited the Sighet Memorial Museum. Set in the former maximum-security prison this museum tells the sobering story of suppression in communist times. After we had a nice and cheap lunch on the terrace of the Casa Veche restaurant in the center of town, we strolled through the great open-air Sighet Village Museum for a few hours to get some understanding of the local architecture we’d be seeing the next few days, before walking the six kilometers back to Vadu Izei again (we were too ‘lazy’ to find a bus).
Wooden churches of Maramures
But in fact all of Maramures is one big open-air museum. The following day Florin took us on a full day tour of some of the region’s biggest treasures. Among them were the Budesti and Desesti churches, dating back to 1643 and 1770 respectively. Both are fine examples of a traditional Maramures orthodox church and have simple but beautiful frescoes inside representing biblical scenes and rural life. It’s absolutely amazing how well preserved they are.
As the churches are still in use and very few tourists come to visit, a good guide is essential. He knows where to look or knows who to give a call for the church key. A small donation to the church keeper is expected. Along the way we stopped at some other villages as well to admire traditional architecture and the ornamental wooden gates, that in the old days formed the barrier between the safe interior of the house and the evil world outside, but now are more of a status symbol.
Sapanta Merry Cemetery
We ended the day at probably the most incredible sight in Maramures, the Sapanta Merry Cemetery, a cemetery that puts a smile on your face (and no, we’re not crazy or insensitive people). Located just 4 kilometers from the Ukrainian border this graveyard has colorful wooden crosses as far as the eye can see. The founder of the graveyard made his first cross in 1935, painting it blue, writing a funny epitaph and making an illustration about the deceased’s life or about the circumstances of his or her death. It’s a tradition that’s been kept alive until this day.
More wooden churches
Our last day in this fascinating part of Europe (it’s actually hard to believe that this is also the European Union) was a combination of sightseeing and a long taxi ride. Because it was quite hard to find decent transportation options between Maramures and the Bucovina region we decided to charter Florin for another day to visit the wooden churches of Barsana and Ieud and driving us to the city of Suceava, about 250 kilometers to the east.
Barsana monastery is a popular pilgrimage spot and differed from the other sites we visited because of its size and age. The current church is a reconstruction built in 1990. Although impressive and very picturesque it lacked the mysterious atmosphere of the other churches. This could be found again at the church in Ieud, further down the Izei valley, which is deemed the oldest wooden church in Maramures (and one of the biggest), but historians disagree about its founding date. Surrounded by a big cemetery this also was the most picturesque of them all.
A long ride
From Ieud it was along ride, a lot of the time over seriously potholed roads, to Suceava, passing the Martyr’s Monument at Mosei (a monument for 30 peasants that got killed during WWII), the 1.400 meter high Prisslop Pass and the colorful village of Ciocanesti. After an 8 hour drive we arrived in Suceava late in the afternoon, feeling a little bit sorry for Florin who’d have to drive the whole way back the same evening and night over those bad roads.
We visited Maramures in July 2013
Travel tips Maramures
Stay – In Cluj-Napoca we stayed one night at the Hotel Beta, which has some budget hostel rooms on the top floor. Rooms were basic and facilities shared, but it was one of the cheaper accommodation options in the city and it did the job. Strangely enough the hotel doesn’t advertise the fact that the bus station is at the back of the hotel, which was very convenient.
Muntean’s Guesthouse in the small Maramures country village of Vadu Izei was a delight. We stayed two nights at this beautiful wooden house. The room was cozy, the bathroom was shared (with one other room) and the owner Florin could be hired for sightseeing at very affordable rates. For only a few euros his wife will prepare a big and very filling true Romanian breakfast, lunch or dinner. Both speak good English. One of the best deals ever.
Transport/tour – We flew Wizzair from Eindhoven in the Netherlands to Cluj-Napoca. Buses into the city leave from the main road a little bit to the right from the airport entrance. Only a few buses go directly from Cluj-Napoca to Sighet/Vadu Izei, so check before you leave. For sightseeing around Maramures public transport is impractical. Because locally operated day tours are only very limited available, hiring a car and driver is the best way to get around and see the sights. Opting for a private tour proved not that much more expensive than the scarce organized tour options that we could find.