Having lived in Romania for the summer of 2003, I was fortunate to visit much of that fascinating and beautiful country. Many Romanian friends told me about the friendliness and authenticity of the rural Maramureș region in the north, but I didn’t manage to make the trip there at the time. More than a decade later, I was excited to finally see Maramureș this past September.
Visiting Maramureș is a bit like stepping back in time. Largely agricultural, the green rolling fields are dotted with small rounded haystacks, horse-drawn carriages travel between villages, it’s not unusual to encounter cows being herded along the road, and local farmers walk to work the fields with their rakes and scythes over their shoulders. Life here goes on much as it has for centuries. Even Ceașescu’s communist “systemization” had little impact here.
In addition to enjoying the scenic beauty and rural hospitality, visiting the unique wooden churches is another highlight of visiting Maramureș. The city of Sighetu Marmației offers some interesting museums and many of the small villages have their own little museums dedicated to the traditions and handicrafts of rural life. Visiting Maramureș is a unique chance to visit a special part of Europe that has yet to be discovered by most tourists.
WHAT TO SEE:
The Wooden Churches
Marmureș is probably best know for its 17th and 18th century wooden churches, built during a time that the Hungarian rulers of the area did not allow the Romanian Orthodox and Greco-Catholic faithful to build their churches from stone. The locals used their skills to build high steepled churches from the abundant local wood. Eight of these churches are included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. There are many more not on the list that are just as impressive.
Exploring these churches was a bit like a treasure hunt; we never knew what we’d find at each one. Since tourists have just begun to discover the region, we’d often arrive to find a locked church with a hand-written note on the door and a phone number to call. Within a few minutes, a caretaker or priest would always arrive, let us look around, answer questions, and then lock the church back up when we left. It really felt like we were off the beaten track and fortunate to see such beautiful art and architecture. Many of the churches have small visitor centers that have recently been constructed with EU funding, but none seemed to be regularly staffed yet. Those that have regular hours generally tended to open from 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. every day but Monday, but this varied quite a bit.
The exteriors featured tall, slender steeples, roofs reminiscent of forest cabins, and intricate wood carvings. Inside, the walls were painted with colorful and interesting wall paintings depicting scenes from the Bible. The condition of the wall paintings varied greatly and this added to the element of surprise. More than once, we went into a smaller church that wasn’t included in the UNESCO list and discovered some of the most vibrant paintings. In other churches, years of candle and incense smoke have darkened the paintings and some are just barely visible.
We found this guide helpful as we explored the churches, but it is a few years old so information may be outdated. The Visit Marmureș website and this guide to the UNESCO sites in Romania were useful as well.
Of the 18 or so wooden churches we visited, our favorites included:
Rogoz: Beautiful wall paintings and an impressive wooden chandelier. This is the furthest south of the UNESCO sites, so we visited it on our way from Cluj north to Vadu Izei. As the first church we visited, we were impressed and excited to start exploring.
Șurdești: The tallest historic wooden building in Europe and a great example of Maramureș church architecture. Locals believe that the taller the steeple, the faster their prayers will reach heaven. The interior paintings are very vibrant and the caretaker is very enthusiastic and informative. A Greco-Catholic church, it is still used for regular Sunday masses and is included on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Călinești: A few kilometers from the main road on a hill above a tiny town, this church was a real hidden gem. At the top of a steep staircase, the church’s location is especially peaceful surrounded by tall trees and it seemed to be even less frequently visited than the other churches. Its interior wall paintings were in nice shape.
Budești: This UNESCO-listed church has some of the region’s best preserved interior paintings we saw. Surrounded by a cemetery on a small hill just above town, this church is an easy one to find.
Rozavlea: Located right on the town’s main road, we didn’t expect much from this church. We were pleasantly surprised, however, to find extensive restoration of the interior paintings in progress. It was fascinating to see the contrast between the newly restored paintings and those that haven’t been touched yet, and interesting to see the restorers at work.
Bogdan Vodă: Another nice surprise, this church located in a park-like setting right in town was well worth the stop. We called the caretaker’s phone and he arrived just a couple minutes later to show us some impressively well-preserved interior paintings.
Merry Cemetery: A half hour west of Sighetu, the town of Săpânța is home to Cimitirul Vesel, the Merry Cemetery. Filled with colorful, hand-carved wooden grave markers that celebrate the lives of the deceased rather than mourning the loss. The illustrations show people’s occupations, favorite hobbies, or special skill, and each is accompanied by a witty poem (only in Romanian).
Elie Wiesel Memorial House: Now a small museum, the childhood home of well-known writer, Nobel Prize winner, and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, is found in the larger city of Sighetu Marmației. The museum tells the story both of Wiesel’s family and of the Jewish community in Sighet. The city and surrounding area were home to up to 40,000 Jews before World War II. Nearly the entire Jewish population was deported over the course of just three days in 1944, shipped off to concentration camps. Many of them died in the camps, while many of the survivors later emigrated to Israel.
Memorial to the Victims of Communism and to the Resistance: Also in Sighetu Marmației, this extensive museum tells the story of Romania’s communist regime, from its origins to its fall, and everything in between. Housed in a former maximum-security prison that once held the intellectual enemies of the regime, one section focuses on the networks of prisons, work camps, and secret police that the regime used to punish and control the population. While the displays are in Romanian, free binders are available with English descriptions of each room. The museum is interesting and very educational. A complete visit could take several hours, with a lot of reading. For history buffs and anyone interested in this darker chapter of Romanian history, it is well worth a visit.
Ukrainian border crossing: Sighetu Marmației sits right on the Tisla River, Romania’s northern border with Ukraine. For E.U., U.S., and many other citizens, it is possible to enter Ukraine without a visa. You can simply walk across the bridge (many locals do this too as it’s faster than taking a car), walk to the front of the line, and take care of a quick passport control. Returning to Romania is equally easy. The dusty town of Solotvyno is about a five minute walk from the other side. There were a couple churches, both closed, and a few places for a bite to eat or a drink if you want to take out some local currency from the ATM. It’s not really an exciting destination, but an interesting opportunity to visit a new country nevertheless.
CFF Viseu de Sus: Also known as “Mocănița,” this narrow gauge train is Europe’s last remaining steam-powered railway still used for its original purpose of logging. Forestry railways were extensive in Romania through the 1980s, but disappeared quickly following the fall of Ceaușescu’s regime. Today the Viseu de Sus Forestry Railway still transports logs down from a remote, unspoiled mountain valley, and carries passengers both ways for a scenic trip. The train is rustic, slow, and noisy, not manicured for tourists, but an authentic experience on an historic train. The trip takes the better part of the day, with several short stops during the 3-hour journey up the valley. At its terminus, 21 kilometers from town, a BBQ pavilion serves lunch or you can opt to go for a short hike on a loop trail through the forest and visit a small museum dedicated to the railway. The only way to make a reservation in advance (without being there) is by purchasing a train and lunch combo package. We opted to buy only train tickets and bring our own lunch so we could enjoy the hike during the longer stop. It can get busy before departure time and trains do sell out at times, so we went to the station the day before to secure our tickets.
WHERE TO STAY
Rural guesthouses are one of the best ways to experience local hospitality and cuisine. We found Pensiunea Teodora Teleptean in Vadu Izei to be a perfect spot to stay. Vadu Izei is very close to Sighetu Marmatiei, but is a small, rural town and a great place to stay, centrally located for visiting the beautiful Maramureș countryside and its famous wooden churches. Situated right off a main road, but surrounded by farmland, the pensiune’s location is beautiful and peaceful. Our room was spacious, clean, and very comfortable. The owners were extremely welcoming, friendly, and helpful, always available when we had a question or needed something. The food was fantastic too—breakfast was big and tasty with an emphasis on local ingredients. Dinner was also fantastic, a four course, fixed menu that changes each night. Again, local specialties and plenty of food, with bottles of țuica and another fruit liquor on the table to enjoy too. They happily accommodated my vegetarian wife at every meal, and even surprised me with candles and singing on my birthday. Since there aren’t many restaurants, it was great to stay somewhere with such excellent food. It was a wonderful place we would happily return to again!
WHAT TO EAT
Local cuisine is rustic, hearty, and tasty. In the summer, we were treated to lots of fresh vegetables, especially tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. Cheese featured prominently in most meals, and there was a great variety of local cow, sheep, and goat cheese. Beekeeping is very popular and we found honey for sale along the roadside in many small towns. The quality was excellent and prices are very reasonable.
GETTING THERE & AROUND
With public transportation to and from Maramureș being extremely limited, and most of the sites spread across the countryside, renting a car is by far the best way to explore this area. We flew into the Cluj-Napoca airport, which has flight connections from many European airports, and drove north about three hours to reach Vadu Izei. Driving in Romania can be challenging at times, but most roads we encountered were in good condition.
We flew with Lufthansa through Munich and rented our car from Autonom, an affordable Romanian chain.