It is hard to imagine being any more beguiled by a country after the awe and wonder stirred up by Buchovina. Yet we were to learn that Romania doesn’t serve up a ‘one dish suits all’ mentality, and literally as you navigate the winding roads, you can feel as though you have entered another world with the simple crossing of a mountain pass. In addition, in Romania, we were discovering that the journey is not solely to reach a destination, but an attraction in and of itself.
Our next destination was Maramures, the north of Romania bordering the Ukraine. The area is known for its stunning steepled wooden churches and villagers’ homes fronted by ornately carved gates. It is the most traditional area left in Romania and it truly does feel as though you have entered a time warp and travelled back 100 years. Peasant culture still prevails, and there was no need to search for any authenticity – you were surrounded by it!
It was a snowy late afternoon descent in to a cloud of mist as we approached Maramures. We had chosen the village of Breb as our base for the next few days, hosted by an English couple who had lovingly restored a series of traditional houses for visitors to the region. We couldn’t have been more thrilled with our cosy Casa, feeling like we were in the middle of nowhere, yet completely at home all at the same time. There was a crackling fire, loft bedroom with sheepskins, a comfortable couch and rustic kitchen well stocked with local produce. Milk from the cow, eggs from the chickens, honey from the bees, cheese from the sheep… you get the picture!
Dinner had been organised for us by our host Penny at the home of one of the local village ladies. In the torchlight we stumbled in to the village to be warmly greeted at the front door by a beaming woman. Now if there is one thing they do well in the villages, it is eat! I wished that I had five stomachs as I would have filled all of them. It was devastating to turn down seconds of each dish when I had an enthusiastic face eagerly edging me on for “more, more”. At the point where I had to vigorously rub my belly to illustrate that I was full and that the baby was taking up a lot of space, she looked truly crestfallen. There was home made wine, suveca, soup with dumplings, plates of cooked meats and crepes with jam for dessert. We had to display enthusiasm for dessert as to not offend, and ended up carrying platefuls of crepes and fresh cream back to our casa for the next day! It was a truly fascinating night as Penny regaled us with tales of the region, how the locals live, trade and operate i.e. there are no police in their town and no crime. Western ways and desires are slowly filtering in to the region i.e. Christmas lights, whitegoods. I particularly enjoyed hearing about how all the villagers meet each other’s needs without money exchanging hands. The people of maramures are rich in resources rather than money, and they trade these to survive i.e. if someone helps you with building or repairing you might repay them with a pig, or sheep’s cheese when it is harvested. The cycle goes around and around and nobody ever forgets a debt or leaves people in need. The night became more jolly as Penny consumed an impressive amount of Suveca, and we left having truly felt warmly embaraced and immersed in village life. Not to mention our bellies were begging to be carried the short walk home.
It was fascinating the next day to stroll through Breb to see the villagers engaging in worship and community with one another. The women were in traditional dress and all the livestock were contributing their particular call to the harmony of sound drifting down the dirt roads. We visited the Catholic church, with the villagers, steamy breath rising on the words of every song and prayer in the crisp morning air. The inside of the church was truly spectacular and I yearned to take a photograph of these devout villagers singing praise in their quaint wooden church padded in woven rugs and tapestries throughout the centuries. The newer Orthodox church was a hive of activity as the women and children spilled out followed by the men all scurrying through the fields home for their Christmas preparations. All the women pride themselves on their wide waistlines, evidenced in their constant baking and sharing of food – a language in itself.
I would call Maramures a cultural immersion. Without trying we were swept up in the local ways of life. That afternoon we went to visit one of the UNESCO wooden stave churches, splashed with vibrantly woven rugs and hung with pictures of saints. The locals don’t bat an eyelid at your appearance, rather the opposite, they curiously include you in whatever they are going about their business doing. Regardless, and in spite of, the language barrier. Therefore, whilst navigating our way around the breathtakingly gorgeous wrought iron crosses in the church yard, we were invited to join in the feast marking the first year of someone’s passing. Crowds of women gathered around us, offering all sorts of local homemade goods. The locals sang songs of thanks for the person’s life and it was all around a merry affair which disbanded as suddenly as it had gathered. I wondered who this person was, they looked to be hardly buried in the earth, with the soil seeming to still be settling around the grave. I thought it was a nice way to mark the passing of the first year without a loved one, life and death seemed to be interwoven, and a universal acceptance of one’s mortality appeared to abound. It felt to me a healthy way to approach grief, with equal measures of celebration.
The same themes were echoed in our visit to the Merry Cemetery. You need to see the photos before you can believe that a cemetery could be such a joyful place. An artist took it upon himself to paint on each cross scenes from the deceased’ life, accompanied by a short and humorous poem. For example there is one that speaks about a man loving his sheep a little too much, and another that speaks about a mother in law being better off in the grave! The overall effect is a graveyard sprinkled with colour and narratives of life and death – a truly unique and fascinating challenge to solemnity of dying. As we were making our way out of the cemetery we were blockaded by a procession of mourners dressed in black. I was confronted by professional wailers following an open air casket to a freshly dug grave. Again, an acceptance of death prevailed – there were children amongst the mourners, seemingly unphased by the scene playing out before them. I watched in morbid fascination as the blessed older gentleman was farewelled and clumsily lowered to his final resting place. And as quickly as it had begun, it was all over. The wailers ceased, tears were wiped away, and it was back to the swing of life as the villagers filed out of the cemetery, upon their merry way. I was in equal measures rattled and peaceful, which seemed a juxtaposition. I became aware of the life stirring in my belly, and just how alive and fragile both of us were at the same time. Life is but a breath in eternity’s pages.
Being in Maramures is like the rest of the world has stopped, and you are there reflecting on what matters most. Seeing a way of living so simply in community, and in partnership with the land, causes you to feel connected with the ground beneath your feet. That same ground which will someday hold what is left of our earthly bodies. And what a glorious earth it is. We drove through tapestries of pasturelands and haystacks which were smouldering with rustic beauty, and a peace which comes only to those rare places which are left undeveloped, where people live in harmony with the land. Some of these vistas I don’t even need a picture to remember, they are safely etched in my mind, and there they will stay… a selfish pleasure. The locals are warm and embrace your desire to learn about their culture. The lady in the picture below hand sewed all of the traditional items you can see in the room. Each home has a space dedicated for the ladies to keep these treasured posessions. Sadly the art is dying out, as the incoming generations are not keen to learn the skills. We met her daughter in law who said she did not have time to learn as she was busy studying.
Joel and I unanimously agreed that Maramures is one of the jewels in our travel journeys. However this is a jewel we feel compelled to humbly respect, and only promote to those who will approach it without a travel consumer mentality. If you go, leave it as you found it, the place is perfect as it is. The peace in these cosy churches reminds me daily of the power of simplicity… that I may resist the urge to over complicate things in my day to day life. If I could thank Maramures for one thing, I would thank it for that.