Romania is a country full of pleasant surprises. Its bad international reputation keeps many away from some of its innumerable charms. The northern county of Maramures still retains the appeal of rural traditions, which have not yet been plundered by the modern life. But who knows how much longer it will last. Everything changes in a Romania that catches up with the rest of Europe quickly, via structural funds.
However, tourism is already here, but it seems that its perverse effects have not yet contaminated the villagers. The people of Maramures are hospitable, friendly and I would say, happy. They live in a harsh environment in winter, but of a supreme beauty, and they know it.
The isolated geographical location also helps. The nearest international airport is located in the Transylvanian city of Cluj-Napoca, about 300 km south of the heart of Maramures. The area is surrounded by a rather poor and antiquated road network, that has to overcome valleys and mountains everywhere. To the north are the Ukrainian Carpathians, and further west is a corner of Hungary that few travelers visit. It's almost perfect.
When I arrived in early spring, I was the first guest of the season in my homestay. It looked as if the people of these valleys were awake after being in hibernation mode, since the last outsider left five months ago. The room was still full of cobwebs and the dog of the house was jumping like crazy, looking for some action.
But let's start with how to get to Maramures. The provincial capital, from which to plan the assault on the region, is Baia Mare.
From Baia, my hosts recommended me to use the village of Breb as a base. And to go hitchhiking, the most efficient transport in Romania. I had not yet displayed my thumb, when a beloved retired couple were already waiting for me aboard a classic Dacia 1300.
Once out the main road, instead of streets the villages have dirt roads. And instead of rows of houses, they are estates with wooden farmhouses, sheds and stables, decorated with big hand-carved timber gates.
Finding the house where I stayed was not easy. Maps are of little use, and one has the feeling that the name of the street exist just to write something for the mail and official documents.
These are white cherry trees blooming. In the distance they look like a field of white rocks.
Golf Manele style. The Romanian Manele is like a gypsy reggaeton, funny to dance in an improvised party with violins, clarinets and accordions, or whatever you have on hand.
Then you better get on the bike and follow one of the many routes available, with plenty of opportunities to take good photos.
Ocna Şugatag market is still a real place of exchange of goods for the locals. So far, no souvenir stalls or circus set for tourist in sight.
What you can find here is some live sex!
People do not mind being photographed. Nor to use a bowl of breakfast as hat.
Here you drink Palinka, the favorite liquor in the lands of Hungarian influence. And then the drums are played with joy.
After pedaling up and down, we come to the famous monastery of Barsana. Eight of the churches in Maramures, including one here, are part of the UNESCO's World Heritage list.
Barsana is one of the must of Maramures, a set of wooden buildings of sharp spires pointing to the sky.
There I met this charming and elegant pair of towers.
It's getting late and there are still many miles of road to return to the fold.
Twilight in Breb church, a building that looks huge in the middle of the countryside.
Charles the Prince of Wales was for a time linked to the village of Breb, as he owned a couple of houses.
In a village near the border with Ukraine there is located the Sapana merry cemetery. The tombstones are painted in bright colors, and include an explanation about the life of the deceased. Image by Richard Mortel
Another reason why Maramures survived the 20th century: Apparently, when the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu visited the county, he liked the way people was living here. Thus he allowed its inhabitants to continue with their traditions, avoiding the collectivization of agriculture. Another version says that opposition to the process was so strong, and they were so far from everywhere, that local party cadres simply gave up trying to implement it.
And this is the lovely dog who took me out for a walk.