A journey through the churches of Maramures

Having spent alot of time in Budapest city we were ready for something a little bit different. On our way East across Hungary we stopped off and slept in a motorway rest station before continuing to Romania early the next day. Our destination was the northwestern area of Maramures famed for its wooden churches, sleepy villages and locals dressed in traditional dress. We made a stop over at the gateway to Maramures, Baia Mare. Baia Mare is a city with some very large churches and a lot of clothes shops. We didn’t make it to the old town on our way through but we will probably take a look at it on our way back. The thing we enjoyed most about Baia Mare was an artisan coffee cafe which sources coffee from small farms and then roasts them in house. The coffee was fantastic and the staff very friendly. 

One on the fabulously carved gates of Maramures

EditContinuing our journey we drove over mountain pass and discovered a trout fishery and restaurant at the bottom. On a Sunday it was packed with cars parked in every possible space along the road. Given this it must be pretty good so we marked it on the map for our return trip, since we already had some food for dinner. We drove through pretty village after pretty village with locals sitting on their roadside benches dressed in traditional clothes. The women wear colourful knee length a line skirts with white or black blouses and a head scarf, a little like a babushka. The men are often in trousers and a shirt completed with a brimmed hat. These clothes seemed to serve all purposes from working on the land to relaxing on a Sunday afternoon. We frequently overtook wooden carriages being towed by well muscled draught horses and also lots of bicycles. 

A traditional horse and cart complete with red cuicure for luck 

Our search for a place to stay for the night was a little frustrating as all the campsites we had marked no longer existed. In the end we drove all the way to a village called Sapanta close to the border with Ukraine. Luckily it was a lovely little campsite with a restaurant, hot showers and only space for 7 or 8 campervans. We parked up next to a friendly German couple from Chemnitz. Sapanta is famous for its somewhat unusual cemetery, known as the Merry Cemetery. The next morning it was our first stop and thankfully we beat the tour buses. So we guess you are wondering what is so merry about a load of graves. Well each of the graves is marked with a beautiful crucifix carved from oak and painted in a huge array of colours. These grave markers were created by Stan Pâtras, an artist and wood carver who decided to use them to display the life of the person and write a short truthful witty epithet about the persons life. The people of Sapanta can request what they would like to be on their grave including any achievements or messages for loved ones. In the end the artist decides what will be depicted and written and creates a unique monument to each persons life. Not all of them are funny but most are quite earnest and a little tongue in cheek. Even without knowing any Romanian we enjoyed walking about and guessing from the pictures what each was about. They include stories about mother in laws, young children who have been run over and even a vet with his secret drinking life depicted on the other side. The church in the centre of the Cemetery is currently being renovated and now has a dazzlingly colourful tiled roof. The Cemetery is well worth a visit and costs only 5 Ron per person. There’s a book on sale that contains translations of the texts but it costs around £30. 

The stunning church and intriguing cemetary at Sapanta

A vet’s grave

From Sapanta we drove south East towards a region of Maramures famed for wooden churches and beautiful villages. The villages are slowly being modernised from the traditional wooden houses to concrete palaces. Initially, we wondered how such a rural area had the wealth to build such huge houses, but we later found out that the men of many of these villages had joined the merchant navies of the world and sent money home. Sadly this means many of them are slowly loosing their charm but conversely the villagers have a better standard of living. One thing that the villagers seem to stick to is building wooden churches as we saw quite a few under construction, so it seems they still have good craftsmen. The best example of wooden architecture we visited was the monastery complex at Barsana. The wooden church, altar and houses here are really impressive and all made with dovetails and wooden bolts. The gardens within the complex are full of beautiful flower beds and even a pond with a few frogs in. It’s free to visit but a photo ticket is 5 Ron. We also recommend trying one of the Romanian pancakes called Plâcinta that they sell from a cabin in the car park. The church has the tallest wooden church tower in Europe with a height of 57m.

Barsana monastery complex

A view of the tallest wooden church

Having driven around 50km through the region, we found we were close to another attraction. The forestry steam railway in Viseu de Sus is the last one of its kind in Europe. Although, today the steam trains are used purely for tourists. We booked our tickets for the train the following day and then went in search of a campsite. There seems to be a few guesthouses that offer camping in their grounds but no real campsites. We picked one and followed the signs, ending up driving 500m along a gravel track to a house in the woods. As it turned out we had a private campground until around 8pm when some tent campers turned up. Having not realised that Romania was an hour ahead of Hungary we got a little confused with the time and set our alarm earlier than we needed to. Getting to the train station early meant that we got onto the second train of the day. As the train rolled out of the station we got a taste of things to come with the jolting over the edges of the rails and the upright wooden benches. Comfort definitely wasn’t a priority when they converted the forestry cars to hold tourists, but the scenery more than made up for it. We traveled slowly through a wooded valley with steep sides and occasional villages. The train takes around 2 hours to make it to Paltin around 21.5km from Viseu de Sus. The tracks go 21km further but are used purely for forestry or aren’t in good condition. We stopped in Paltin for around 2 hours where there was a cafe and grill along with a small museum. The journey back to Viseu de Sus was even more jerky and jolting but thankfully a little shorter than on the way up. The 6 hour round trip cost 55 Ron per person or 90 Ron including a meal, hot drink, soft drink and pastry. We enjoyed the scenery and relaxing speed but the meal deal probably isn’t worth it unless you want a lot of food and to save just 3 Ron.

Ted and Matthias with ‘Bavaria’

The foresty company seems very fond of collecting old cars and using them for transportation of goods and people in addition to their diesel trains.

The work car of Romanian’s 007

That night we drove back along the valley to the trout restaurant which we had been looking forward to. Planning to camp in their car park for the night, we went straight in to eat their speciality trout. With the menu in Romanian and the waitress not having great English we accidentally ordered two fish each with fried potatoes and a salad. The fish was rolled in polenta and fried so had a lovely crispy skin and tasted pretty good. We watched the trout jumping in the pond while we ate our dinner and we’re too full for pudding by the end. Our huge meal cost just 98 Ron, around £20. Well worth a stopover!

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