I start getting edgy already 100 km before we reach the boarder between Hungary and Romania. Finally we’re on our way to Romania!! A country that has inspired my travel-phantasies for years. And even though I have do not have an accurate idea of what to expect…only that it is said to be a scenic incredibly diverse and beautiful country and also just somehow different!
And now we chug along comfortably over the last 30km in Hungary, the roads are getting rougher, the potholes more frequently and the area is flat as the Netherlands.
And out of nowhere a small border post suddenly appears behind a grove.
A customs officer in a tight uniform with a round, red moon-face is controlling every car. As it’s our turn we hand our passports obediently through the car-window. A second official comes out of his small house, takes the passports, goes back inside, returns and hands them to the first guy. The first one now demands the registration papers. Same procedure, then the drivers-license. The second guy again disappears into his cubbyhole, seconds after shouts something to his colleague outside. As a result customs official No.1 requests that we open the campervan door. I am lowering the electric stairs, he gets aboard, examines the kitchen and the bed. I am tempted to offer him a short guided tour of the bathroom as a third official appears and starts talking to Davide who answers in Italian, because what he had heard sounded similar. Somehow the two seam to understand each other. There seams to be something wrong with the drivers-licence, the officail wants to know if it was lost or stolen? Davide vehemently denied several times. He is asked to leave the car and follow the 3rd official into the cubbyhole.
In there they point out to him that the license h’s holding in his hands, is reported as stolen by the Federal Police since 2009. We just don’t get it and probably look so dumbfounded that the official feels pity and tries to reassure us, that there won’t be a problem with that in Romania, but that we should see the police in Germany directly after we’ve finished our holiday. As we reply that getting back home could take us around 70 weeks, we look into three puzzled faces and with the best wishes for our travels they motion us to drive on.
And that’s it! We are in Romania!
The warm evening sun illuminates the roadsides that are covered with poppy and the idyll materializes in the first horse & carriage fully loaded with hey!
With the last rays of sunshine we roll into Carei or Großkarol. Soon we are gonna be used to the fact that the names of the towns are always indicated in 2-3 languages (romanian, german and hungarian)…. The evening light puts a glistening shine on the silver spiers of the church and the full moon stands picturesquely between the bell towers.
“Oh how beautiful Romania …!” Or was that Panama??
As we finally park our campervan as the only guests at Camping Carei, the sky has turned into a deep lilac blue. The crickets are chirping…….hmmm, but the main music is provided by various dogs that herald the night in a concerted whining and barking. It’s gonna be a cold one, 14°C in the morning, but the sun already shining! We are heading further east. The horse and carriage multiply and we will soon realize that obviously you do not necessarily need an alert charioteer, but that having the reins around your neck, you can snuggle up in the hey and have a snooze, your horses will know where to go….
From the West we reach the area of Maramures, the most pristine and isolated part of Romania. Surrounded by mountains from most sides, there is only this way to get in without having to cross passes, what explains the long-time isolated situation of the territory. Historically and ethno-culturally a piece of Ukraine also belongs to this northern part of Romania, both of which were separated by the demarcation after WW2. The region is inhabited mainly by Romanias, some Hungarians, Ukrainians, Germans and Zipser-Germans and relatively few Roma.
It seems to be a special day to get married in Baia Mare, the provincial capital of Maramures and one of the 2 only cities in the region. In the Orthodox Church one couple after another gets married in a kind of assembly-line-ceremony. The whole town is like a single huge wedding party! Unfortunately, in the last decade the town has only once become a talking point, because in 2000 a dam of a gold ore processing plant burst and the largest environmental disaster in Eastern Europe since Chernobyl took place.
But the old town is well-decorated and in the Restaurant La Palincie we are having our first Mamaliga, the typical Romanian polenta with lots of sour cream, mostly served with seared sausage or bacon, if you’re lucky with mushrooms.
But our first goal is another one, the first of many still to follow classical wooden churches, for which the Maramureş is famous for. Since a bunch of evil sovereigns banned Orthodox churches built of stone, the region’s inhabitants created filigree churches and used the material that constitutes the majority of the existing natural resources anyway. Wood!! They utilized beech-, oak-, fir- and elmwood. All churches have a quite slender clock-tower in common, the roofs are covered with shingles. Inside frescos painted on wood show themes of the Old Testament and the life of different Saints. Fortunatly this craftmansship is still alive and roofs are still covered with shingles, new wooden gates are carved and like in the monastery Mănăstirea Bârsana new wooden churches and houses are built in historical style to preserve this tradition.
The wooden church in Șurdești is one of 8 on the UNESCO world cultural heritage list, it sits enthroned on a small hill, the steeple rises pointedly 54m into the skies and thus is the highest religious building made of wood in Europe and worldwide. It is surrounded by a small cemetary with wildly growing spring-flowers and 3 bottles of spirit decorated with flowers are left on the church balustrade…. schnapps bottles??? Yes, full of Tuică de Prună, the traditional, home-made, strong plum-spirit, that is called „the one that burns like 50 fires“. In the church, whose interior does not take more than maybe 40-50 people, another marriage is taking place. As bride and groom leave the church a 2-man band with accordion and saxophone starts playing cheerful romanian songs, white doves are put on the couple’s forearms and 2 men, supposedly the brides- and grooms-father start sharing the bottles with the guests. We are sitting in front of the church, courteously applauding the happening and taking pleasure in the incredible 60s-hollywoodstyle-updos of the female guests as the two schnapps bottle guys one after another come over dancing and swinging the bottles. With a loud „Noroc!“ they take a deep mouthful from the bottle and with a broad smile pass it on! The schnapps tastes smooth, soft and strong! We express our delight with our newly learned „mulțumesc!“ and scarcely have a choice but to feel welcome in Romania!
And as things are so nice we decide to spent the night at the church’s parking lot. At 5am we start from our sleep!! Fully 5 minutes the church-bells are beating like hell! War? Fire? The first marriage? Or is it the wake-up call for all the female churchgoers that will appear later, to begin dressing up, cause as the Sunday messe starts at 11am and these women start to get on the catwalk we ask ourselves what kind of event is going to happen, as skintight mini-dresses, super-short skirts, silver-glittering high-heels and crazy hairstyles are passing by.
We are getting back on the road, direction North, driving through increasingly more mountainous terrain with mixed beech- an coniferous forest in incredible shades of green. And gradually we start to understand, why the saying goes, the clocks were measuring not only time but eternity in the Maramureş. Even for Romanian standards the region seams to be poor and underdeveloped, but in a satisfied and proud kind of way. The often shabby looking houses are guarded by typical wooden gates, embellished by carved ropes, crosses, trees of life, ears of corn, resident ghosts and other symbols.
The elderly are sitting on benches or chairs in front the the houses. There are not many young people to be seen, nearly no children. The young if possible leave the area because of unemployment, inflation, no perspective. Modern achievements only slowly make their entrance, like refrigerators, electricity, TV etc.. Though internet can be found in even the last corner of the region. As the supply of public telephone network was quite miserable, mobile telecommunication and the internet have spread extremely fast and the Romanians now have one of the best network coverage in whole Europe! The people that stayed work on small, single fields or in their gardens with tools, that in western Europe would be displayed in museums. The agriculturally exploited plots of land are well-tended and tidy. They now about the importance of their basis of life, most of them are self-sufficient in food. On the pylons in the villages again and again sit stork’s nests. People are wearing traditional clothing, even the few young ones. The women wear patterned and billowed skirts at knee-lenght with blouses and colorful headscarfs. The men are seen in working-clothes most of the time, trousers and shirt with a vest and almost all of them wear a hat. Or a tracksuite….Which especially for the young seems to be something like the favourite piece of clothes and wearable in (nearly) all life-situations.
As we arrive at our next destination our hearts start beating faster. Campsite & Hostel „Babou Maramureş“ in the absolutely heart-rendering charming village of Breb is a gem! It is run by a young dutch couple, that emigrated to Romania 6 years ago. Surrounded by fields, with a view to the nearby mountains they have created a location where it’s just simple to feel at ease and to veg out!
Roaming Breb is like immersing into the past through a wormhole: peasants on their fields, sheep’s wool hanging outside to dry between traditional haystacks, cattle, horses, chicken and dogs wandering freely in the streets of the village on search for some lush greens. The inevitable wooden church, already a little crumbled but simply picturesque with it’s surrounding graveyard, that is covered in meadow flowers, the lady in the grocery store that is so excited about the possibility to have a little chat in Italian, where she used to work for years…just awesome! And even his Royal Highness Prince Charles once owned a little house here, like in some more villages of country by the way. After 2 days we are leaving this enchanting place full of contentment and peace!
Next stopover is the second city in the region Sighetu Marmației. Per se not worse a visit, unless you want to cross the boarder to Ukraine or you come to visit the really worth seeing Museum Memorialul Victimelor Comunismului şi al Rezistenţei, the memorial for the victims of Communism and its Resistance. The „biggest“ and most malevolent accomplishment of Communism – which manifested itself dramatically only after the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescus 1989 – consisted in the creation of a human being without memory, of a human being after brain-wash, that shouldn’t remember, who and what he used to be, what his personal goals were and his purpose of life before Communism. The institution of this memorial site for the victims and for the Resistance tries to retort to this achievement by trying to revive the collective memory. An oppressive exhibition in a former jail of the infamous secret police Securitate about the victims of communist dictatorship, the steady resistance, the perverted methods of terror against intellectuals, priests, partisans and all other dissidents. Definitely an exhibition worth visiting if you ever happen to be in this secluded part of Romania!
And as we had really nice traditional food at e.g. Restaurant „Casa Iurca de Calinesti“ it was an absolutely worthwhile excursion to the edge of Europa.
We continue our road-trip at a snail’s pace through more typical villages like Slătioara, Poienile Izei, Şieu and notice another conspicuousness. In between the mostly ramshackle wooden houses once in a while almost swanky looking stonehouses appear, either painted in gaudy colors or not plastered at all because of a lack of money, that with their cold metal gates stand in clear contrast to their neighbours. In front of them big cars with German, Italien or British number plates, that give the passing hores & carriage an even more antiquated appearance. The cars belong to Romanian guest workers on home leave, who with the money earned abroad could provide their parents with a „proper“ house! The lowered vehicles can only be demonstrated on the main street, which in most villages is the only street, the rest of the road network consists of patchwork rugged, a thousand times tared-over pothole pists or dirt-, gravel tracks.
In general there are lots of older model cars with country-code stickers of Germany, the Netherlands, Great Britain etc.. Clearly the cast-off cars of Middle-Europe, that found their way to Romania for decades-long re-usage. This could be considered as quite sustainable, though this is probably the only form of sustainability in modern-day Romania taking into account their handling of trash, abandoned buildings, industrial plants, plastic bags and single use products etc..
We reach another symbol of this kind of sustainability atVișeu de Sus/Oberwischau in form of the last still running forest-train in Romania the Mocanita . It takes tourists into a huge, apart from some lumberjack-camps completely uninhabited forest area, which is a part of the natural reserve of “Munti Maramuresului” that is protected by the European Union. The forestal exploitation is permitted but ecological conditions guarantee the preservation of its current size. A t the station you can find some old trains and cars and if you don’t have anything better to do you got the time to have some fun!!
As we had read somewhere that you’d better show up early for the ride, we are ready to go, tickets in hand, 30min before departure. But the train is already jam-packed with 99% romanian day trippers, who occupy free seats with bags, sweaters and other stuff and defend them by all means! As another wagon is opened we can mange to grab 2 neighbouring seats, shortly before the steam locomotive sets off with a loud blow and black steam. Oh well, I wanted to say something about sustainability. The train in which we are seated now is a decades-old specimen of the Swiss Jungfraujochbahn! They didn’t even mind taking down or changing the signs and maps, so now we are driving in a wagon that says Wengen to Lauterbrunnen. It takes us up through a narrow gorge lined by huge rocks, passing wildly bubbling mountain streams, through dense mixed forest in 1000 shades of green and we pass several groups of lumberjacks performing their heavy daily work.
Were it not for the (sorry for the way of expressing myself!) romanian proletariate with its not to overhear volume and the tendency to move even another bit more in front of the window, when you try to catch a glimpse of the other side, you could imagine yourself on the train to Hogwarts.
After this day with 200 other people in a train we are drawn back to solitude and we start off for the because of the road conditions arduous way to Prislop Pass, one of the passes, that mark the boundaries of Maramureş to the East. And we manage to find a superb spot for the night, crowned with a phenomenal view and a magnificent sunset.
The next day after having dodged some 1000 potholes, overtaken several horse & carriage, herds of cattle and similar obstacles, we manage to cross the pass and for a short time follow the river Bistrita on its way through the Bucovina into the Moldova-Region. Actually after having crossed the Carpathian mountains the appearance of the villages has changed in deed. Diffrent construction style, hardly any wood, different churches…. Astonishing!
Now commimg from the East our next plan is to go hiking in the Eastern Carpathian Mountains, precisely the Ceahlau-Massif. As we start the trek from our overnight-spot directly at the beginning of the trails in Durău, the sun is sparkling over the innumerable rocky towers, consisting of conglomerat, that are so special for this part of the Carpathians. The treks are well marked but partly narrow, downward sloaping and quite steep until you reach a hight of around 1900m! But the 8 hour trek rewards us with stunning views and the signs that warn us from adders, bear and wolves sound more like magic forest to us than a real threat. After 1500m elevation gain we are sleeping like logs!
The following day we pass 3 „sights“, that can be found in the majority of the travel guides, but in our opinion are not worth an extra way! But the Romanians seem to love them and populate them in large numbers. The first one is the Bicaz-Reservoir, which surely can be called picturesque in most parts. But as we reach the dam and find a swimming dump of mainly plastic bottles which do not seem to be considered worth for further disposal, you can only hope that the concept of the trash-bin someday succeeds even in Romania. You could almost think that the „No photography!“ signs that are displayed at the dam relate to this terrible mess!! I shot a picture of evidence anyway as the guard was scratching his belly in the sun. But definitely worthy noticing is the owner of a house that stands directly behind the dam wall, in the face of imagination what would happen if the dam broke…
The next „highlight“ is the Bicaz-Gorge. It could be quite imposing with its extremely narrow ravine and the partly more than 100 m towering rock face. But they have positioned loads of souvenir huts at every spot that allows somehow to stop a car. And they are selling all the same stuff: fake sheep’s wool vests, plastic-storks, plastic-mushrooms, pottery made in Taiwan, creaky traditional costumes, footballs and „hand-carved“ wooden spoons. The real beauty of the gorge can probably only been found by hiking it at the top! Now the last highlight, which has been recommended to us several times, the Lacul Roșu, the Red Lake! It came to existence in the 19. Century when a landslide blocked the Bicaz-valley. The most thrilling thing about it seem to be the tree stumps that still jut right out of the water. First thing, it is not red but shit-colored, second the heaps of pedalos and rowboats on the lake take away the last bit of romance and third the 100 stalls that sell Mititei (Romanian Cevapcici), Kürtőskalás (chimney cake baked on wooden cylinders ) and soft ice cream produce a revolting stink, that makes you turn your heels immediately. But the Romanians seem to love their brown-red puddle and populate it every weekend!
And all this although the country is bursting with natural beauty!!!! Yep, as well known tastes differ…
Further to the West we realize that we have reached Szekelerland, an area in which the Hungarian-speaking population has the major share. All official signs come bi- or trilingual (Romanian, Hungarian, German). The owner of the Campsite Vasskert in Sovata, where we locate ourselves to stay for a nice shower, is a Szekeler and answers my question how long his people has lived here in Romania with „thousands of years“.
But that’s another story , that you can look up in “A brief history of…. Romania”!
As we arrive in Sovata, health resort with salty, healing lakes, we have already crossed the boarder to the next region some time ago, Transylvania or Siebenbürgen. But that’s the next travel story…
Maramureş, Bucovina & Moldova
– Wooden churches in Maramureş
– Monastry Mănăstirea Bârsana
– Museum Memorialul Victimelor Comunismului şi al Rezistenţei, Sighetu Marmației
– strolling through villages like Breb, Slătioara, Poienile Izei oder Şieu
– let yourself be carried away and feel like time begins to stand still!
– hiking or climbing at Mount Gutâi
– trip on the Mocanita
– hiking the Ceahlau-Massif or the Rodna Mountains
– crossing Prislop-Pass
– Have a look at the extra article here!
– Baia Mare: Restaurant La Palincie
– Sighetu Marmației: Restaurant „Casa Iurca de Calinesti“