©Mara Valley, Maramures (copyright: creative commons)
Geography of the area – the main geographical features of Maramures County are the Maramures Depression and the wild mountains that surround it, with certain peaks reaching more than 2000 meters. The most prominent massifs are Gutai, Oas, Tibles, Rodna, with the latter boasting the highest summit in the area, the Pietrosu Peak, at 2303.
Traditions and culture – a trip into the heart of this historic region is akin to travelling in time to an age when mythology and folklore were unspoiled by modern traditions. The sky piercing spires of the wooden churches, the traditional log houses, the folk songs that can still be heard over the rolling hills of the region, and above all, the friendly people (some of whom still dress in old traditional costumes, especially on Sundays) are reasons why Maramures is probably the best place to get a taste of genuine Romanian values and culture.
The Land of Wood – It’s no wonder that Maramures is also known as the Land of Wood. Rich forests still cover many patches of the region, and people here have been using wood for constructions, tools, and art for thousands of years. Woodworking and woodcarving are staples of the region, with example of the craftsmanship of its inhabitants abounding everywhere. Many households are adorned with beautifully sculpted wooden gates, decorated with intricate geometric and vegetal motifs that reminisce of ancient symbols like the sun and the moon, the circle of life, or the tree.
The Wooden Churches of Maramures – Above all, the famous wooden churches of Maramures are recognized for their beauty and unique architectural features, with some being inducted in the patrimony of UNESCO’s World Heritage. Some of the best examples of traditional architecture of Maramures include the wooden churches in Rogoz, Ieud, Surdesti, Plopis, Budesti, Desesti, Barsana, and Poienile Izei. Built by local craftsmen and adorned with Biblical scenes by local painters, the wooden churches of Maramures are a highlight of any trip in the area.
Outdoors enthusiasts will enjoy an unforgettable experience by visiting the Rodna Mountains Natural Park, UNESCO World Heritage site, stretching over 47,000 hectares of beautiful and wild mountainous land, unique through its unique geological formations and teaming with wildlife. On your way to the park, stop by the scenic Cascada Cailor (Horses’ Waterfall) for a few minutes of respite.
Leaving from the county seat of Maramures, Baia Mare, outdoorsmen can ride a bike up to scenic Creasta Cocosului (1428 meters, part of an old volcanic crater), go rafting on one of the area’s rushing rivers, fish (trout is very common), or simply hike through the woods on one of the marked routes. If you prefer winter sports, you’ll be delighted to learn about the excellent ski slopes, such as those at Suior, Cavnic, or Mogosa, all located in the proximity of Baia Mare.
Souvenirs for your family – Besides woodworking, local craftsmen also make beautiful pottery (hand modeled, baked in traditional ovens, and decorated with traditional motifs), woven straw objects (such as the iconic “clop”, the small hat worn by local men), and hand woven carpets and clothing, that make for some unique souvenirs.
The narrow-guage train Mocanita – There’s probably no better way to experience the unspoiled natural beauty of Maramures’ mountainous heartland than to take a trip on the Mocanita, an old steam-powered train that goes up the Vaser Valley, starting from Viseu de Sus. For decades, the Mocanita has been used by lumberjacks working in the forests north of Viseu, but the charming train has been restored for tourist use. The Mocanita is one of the few remaining narrow-gauge train lines still in use in Europe, and even to this day, lumberjacks use it to reach their logging grounds up on the mountain. Tourists can hitch a ride on the regular trips of the Mocanita, which take about 3-4 hours each way, and for larger groups, the train can be chartered.
The Merry Cemetery – If you want to truly understand the psyche of the inhabitants of Maramures, a visit to the Merry Cemetery in Sapanta, nearby the city of Sighetu Marmatiei, is a must do. The brightly painted (many in sky blue) crosses and tombstones of the cemetery usually depict a significant scene from the life of the person buried in the grave, along with a few verses, that are often humorous and tongue-in-cheek. The tradition of the merry tombstones was started by local sculptor Stan Ioan Patras, in 1936. Patras created over 700 tombstones until his death in 1977, and the tradition was carried on by his disciple.
The city of Sighetu Marmatiei – located on the northern border of Romania, is worth visiting for its museums, most notably the Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance (also known as the Museum of Arrested Thought), which functions in the old prison where hundreds of political prisoners were detained during the communist regime. Many intellectuals, priests, and anti-communist politicians were tortured and killed here, with the walls of their cells still bearing mark of their passing. The museum is a stark reminder of the long period of oppression that inflicted so much suffering on the Romanian people, affecting it even to this day.
How to get there: Getting to Maramures usually implies passing through Baia Mare, which is easily accessible by car, train, or plane.