The golden glow of the sun against the soft pastel houses; residents going about their business, tending the chickens, their vegetable gardens or sitting on the front porch can make an unforgettable scene. In villages and in the countryside, on lands dominated by ancestral castles, old fortresses and peaceful monasteries, life moves a little slower and follows ancient rhythms of tradition and culture.
It’s not unusual to see a farmer bringing his fruits to the marketplace in a horse drawn wagon or to encounter a village festival where the locals perform ancient rites of planting and harvest dressed in colorful traditional costumes. Cold, pure well water beckons the thirsty traveler from the roadside. Men kiss women’s hands in a courtly greeting unchanged for hundreds of years. Lush vineyards, first planted by Dacians – ancient inhabitants of Romania, yield fine wines.
In Transylvania, you will find villages clustered around ancient Saxon citadels, edifices that often enclose exquisite churches built by German settlers from the 12th to the 16th centuries.
A lovely half-hour drive south of the medieval city of Sibiu takes you into the pastoral landscapes of Marginimea Sibiului, one of Transylvania’s best-preserved ethnographic areas. Located at the foothills of the Cindrel Mountains, Marginimea Sibiului (meaning Boundaries of Sibiu) encompasses a string of 18 traditional Romanian villages *, rich in architecture, history and heritage. Age-old traditions, customs and celebrations, as well as the traditional occupation of sheepherding, have been carefully passed down from generation to generation in the villages of this area. Rasinari, dating to 1204, is the oldest, followed by Talmaciu (1318), Orlat (1322) and Saliste (1354). Saliste claims the oldest church, housing beautiful interior frescoes (1674), while Poiana Sibiului’s wooden church was built in 1771. Painting on glass has been a tradition for 200 years in these villages. The Museum of Painted Glass Icons in Sibiel exhibits the largest collection of painted glass icons in Europe - more than 700, as well as furniture and ceramics.
* The 18 villages are: Boita, Sadu, Raul Sadului, Talmaciu, Talmacel. Rasinari, Poplaca, Gura Raului, Orlat, Fantanele, Sibiel, Vale, Saliste, Gales, Tilisca, Rod, Poiana Sibiului and Jina.
Villages in the Apuseni Mountains are even more remote and lost in time. If you wish to discover local life and preserved traditions, one of the main points of interest is the Aries Valley, where the beautiful villages of Albac, Garda, and Arieseni are located. Skilled artisans, the Motzi people, carve musical instruments, hope chests and houses from the local wood, the spruce. In Patrahaitesti, a little mountain village, you may hear the famous Bucium ("Alps horns"), which are used for generations in the Apuseni Mountains.
The road from Bistrita to the Painted Monasteries of Bucovina runs east through the Bargau Valley and across the Tihuta Pass which peaks at 3,840 feet. The Bargau Valley encompasses some of the most beautiful unspoiled mountain scenery in the Carpathians with picturesque traditional villages located in valleys and on hillsides, ideal bases for hiking, riding or discovering their vivid tapestry of old customs, handicrafts and folklore. Explore the traditional villages in the Bargau Valley: Livazele (5 miles northeast of Bistrita) with its small folk museum called the Saxon House (Casa Saseasca) displaying Saxon ceramics, woodcarvings and folk dresses; Josenii Bargaului (10 miles northeast of Bistrita), a traditional center for black and colored pottery, and Prundu Bargaului (15 miles northeast of Bistrita), the site of the first paper mill in Romania, opened here in 1768.
Some of Romania’s most beautiful countryside is found in Bucovina, whose rolling green hills nestle villages and monasteries in their valleys. Horses, decked with red-tasseled bridles, travel country lanes, as villagers crows churchyards in traditional folk dress on Sundays and holidays. Bucovina remains the heart of craft mastery in Moldova. A felt mill in Vama serves the villages women, who bring their homespun wool cloth to be thickened for heavy coats against the harsh winters.
The village of Marginea, located just 7 miles northeast of Sucevita Monastery, is renowned for the black clay pottery crafted here, said to preserve a centuries-old Gaeto-Dacian technique, passed on from generation to generation. Winter festivals abound, with caroling bands of merrymakers dressed in handmade masks and costumes celebrating the New Year.
Baia Mare is usually the starting point for visiting a number of famous valleys with traditional villages: Iza, Viseu, Mara and Cosau. The villages of this remote Northern region are known for masterpieces of elaborately carved wooden roadside gates leading to family homes. The knots and sun designs of these traditional gates come from ancient pagan motifs. Popular motifs include grapevines, acorns, twisted rope, sun symbols, crosses and forest animals. The villages of Barsana and Oncesti have, perhaps, the greatest number of impressive gates, while Ciocanesti, whose houses covered with painted flowers and geometrics, makes perhaps one of Romania’s prettiest villages.
Behind the traditional carved wooden gates of Maramures, old orchards groaning with ripe plums become homemade tuica, the intoxicatingly strong brandy given to guests in thimbleful glasses as a traditional welcome.
Also unique to this region are the local village churches, made of wood and dominated by magnificent Gothic spires. Hardly a village lacks its own small wooden church dating to the 17th and 18th centuries. These are exquisite, high-steepled jewels with multiple gabled roofs, all of a pattern yet each distinctly unique. Seeing at least a few interiors is a must as many frescoes remain in good condition. If time is limited, the interiors at Ieud, Bogdan VodaPoenile Izei are recommended. The latter depicts some highly original torments for such sins as sleeping in church. Although churches are usually locked, ask any passerby for the key-keeper by pointing at the door and saying cheia (pronounced kay-ya), meaning the key. and
The spiritual philosophy of the people of Maramures is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Sapanta – a 20-minute drive from Sighet. The town folks’ ancestors considered death as a beginning, not the end, and this faith is reflected in the carvings in the town’s unique Merry Cemetery. Blue wooden crosses feature a carved scene and humorous verses that endeavor to capture essential elements - both the good and the imperfections - of the deceased’s life. Even without benefit of translation, visitors can appreciate the handiwork of sculptor Stan Ion Patras, who began carving these epitaphs in 1935, and his successors. Patras’ house in the village is now a fascinating museum. Sapanta is also home to several wooden gates and one of the region’s tallest wooden churches.
Village experiences are made even more authentic by staying in a private home, a monastery or a guesthouse. Most accommodations in Romanian villages offer comfortable rooms, running cold and hot water and western-style toilets. They are often also remarkably low in cost.
If journeying out to rural Romania is not on your itinerary, you can also get a taste of this vibrant and exotic culture by visiting one of Romania’s museums dedicated to rural life: the Village Museum and the Museum of the Romanian Peasant in Bucharest and the ASTRA Museum of Rural Civilization in Sibiu. Real landmarks of rural architecture –homes, churches, schools—are set in tranquil parklands just beyond the city center.
Traditional Villages in Maramures
by Joyce Dalton
This section is courtesy of Travel Lady Magazine
From the province of Moldavia, head westward along a good, but mountainous, road to Romania's most traditional region, Maramures. The drive takes about five hours with no stops, but this is virtually an impossibility, especially for photographers. Picturesque villages (notably Ciocanesti, whose houses covered with painted flowers and geometrics make it arguably Romania' s prettiest village), spectacular mountain scenery and a unique museum smack in the middle of nowhere The Museum of the Tree Roots (Muzeul Radacinilor) with a bizarre exhibit of figures sculpted from tree roots all beg inspection. Gawking becomes even more demanding once Maramures is reached. At Mosei, turn left toward Bistrita, then right after a few miles toward Sacel and Sighetu Marmatiei, the principal town. (Sighetu also can be reached by continuing straight at Mosei, but the lower road passes through the region' s most traditional villages.) From Sacel on, each village offers its share, and more, of wooden houses, many with sculpted designs on balconies and around entrances. Then, there are the towering carved wooden gates, attached to fences half their size, rising before even modest dwellings. Popular motifs include grapevines, acorns, twisted rope, sun symbols, crosses and forest animals. The villages of Barsana and Oncesti have, perhaps, the greatest number of impressive gates.
Maramures is Brigadoon land where the way of life has changed little over the centuries. In late afternoon, old women sit outside their gates coaxing coarse wool onto spindles. Many still favor traditional dress, meaning white frounced blouses, striped woven panels covering full black skirts, headscarves and ³opinci,² a sort of leather ballet slipper from which heavy yarn criss-crosses over thick socks. On Sunday, such dress is practically de rigueur, even for little girls.
Hardly a village lacks its own small wooden church dating to the 17th and 18th centuries. These are exquisite, high-steepled jewels with multiple gabled roofs, all of a pattern yet each distinctly unique. Seeing at least a few interiors is a must as many frescoes remain in good condition. If time is limited, the interiors at Ieud, Bogdan Voda and Poenile Izei are recommended. The latter depicts some highly original torments for such sins as sleeping in church. Although churches are usually locked, ask any passerby for the key-keeper by pointing at the door and saying ³cheia² (pronounced kay-ya), meaning the key. Romanians are extremely kind and friendly and will be sure to help. While the main tourist activities in Maramures are gate-, church- and people-viewing, the town of Sighetu Marmatiei has a few attractions worth visiting. The outdoor village museum, on the road into town, boasts dozens of homes and farm buildings assembled from around Maramures county. Even Oncesti s wooden church has been relocated here.
For a look at Romania s more recent past, an hour spent at Sighetu' s Museum of Arrested Thought is instructive. Though only a block or two off the main street, it is not easy to find. Ask for the ³Muzeul Inchisorii² (pronounced moo zow ool un kee swah ree), meaning prison museum. Although built in the days of Austrian-Hungarian rule, the Communist regime utilized the prison for opposition leaders and intellectuals. Three tiers of cells and various exhibits may be viewed; an English-speaking guide is available. An old synagogue (currently under restoration) and the childhood home of author Elie Wiesel (not open to the public) also are in Sighetul Marmatiei (Sighet for short).
No trip to Maramures is complete without a look at the Merry Cemetery of Sapanta, a 20-minute drive from Sighet. Here, colorful folk art pictures and witty words carved into wooden headstones immortalize the deceased's foibles, occupations or family problems. No translations, but the pictures tell much of the story. An old woman bakes round loaves of bread, a young person bends in scholarly fashion over his books, one man is shot by soldiers while another tends his flock of sheep.Beauty assumes many forms. For most travelers, the enduring traditions of Maramures and the magnificence of Bucovina's painted monasteries will define two of them.