Rolling hills and village life
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In Maramures it seems as if time has stood still. The Romans never made it here but the Hungarians and the Tartars did and afterwards the region endured the power struggles of the two world wars before finally settling back into an isolated peasant culture. Ceausescu's regime had little impact but here, as everywhere, people speak with relief that those times are gone.
In small villages the people live off the land, using wooden tools long abandoned elsewhere in Europe. Horses and carts continue to be the main, and often only, means of transport. Village markets are a colourful weekly event where everything needed for this simple life is sold. Strong horses pull the long, boat shaped carts that transport everything. Whole families climb up to be transported to work in the mornings and home in the afternoons. Mountains of hay and corn, long trunks of timber for firewood or building construction, animals, general junk and even a frig and a broken down car were some of the cargo we saw.
The women continue to wear their traditional costume - a short gathered skirt, often colourful stockings and always, a headscarf. Some old ladies wear traditional shoes - pointy toed slippers with broad laces that criss cross up the leg over stockings. Most wear more practical sneakers. The men wear conventional modern dress except for a curious little straw hat that perches precariously on the top of their heads.
Traditional houses are crafted from wood, retreating behind huge decoratively carved wooden gates that are like fortresses. Sadly these old houses are succumbing to a desire for the comforts of garish modern houses with shiny wrought iron gates. Old houses and gates are being sold,
Sometimes outside a house we saw pot trees - spindly naked tree branches with cooking pots suspended on the branches to dry. They told us that, if the top one is white, there is a girl of marriageable age living in the house.
Beautiful old wooden churches are a feature in many villages and a large number of these are UNESCO World Heritage sites. As seen in the houses, the traditional craftsmanship in these old churches is superb.

Some old churches are no longer in use, now replaced by dazzling new churches with shiny spires and domes.
dismantled and reconstructed by those trying to preserve the old crafts.
The rolling hillsides were dotted with haystacks, artfully constructed round a central pole to look like Indian tepees. Wooden crosses were also a feature in the landscape.
Villages in Maramures
The first village was Breb, a tiny hamlet distinguished by lovely old wooden houses, majestic carved gates and two churches, a very old wooden one and a shiny new one. Alongside the churches were simple cemeteries with beautifully crafted crosses sheltering under shady trees. We had a spacious room in a typical village house surrounded by gardens and a simple pot tree stood at the corner of the veranda. We loved that the grand entrance gate had a pet door.

We dined well here and had our first introduction to
tuica, that fiery plum brandy that starts every meal.
We stayed in two different villages in Maramures, accommodated in traditional houses which have been tastefully adapted for tourism. Wholesome meals were prepared for us by the owners.
Nearby was the town of Ocna Sugatag where the weekly village market co-incided with our itinerary. It was a very colourful affair. There were horses, cows, big woolly sheep and long haired goats and pigs of all sizes for sale.

There were colourful fabrics and woven belts and bags, brooms and rakes, bags of grain, fruit and vegetables, rugs and blankets and all manner of clothes and footwear. Horses, still harnessed into their carts, waited patiently to take stuff home.
In the village of Botiza we stayed in another delightful house that was one of a group of rural buildings just outside the village. Woven fabrics and carpets decorated our room and in pride of place was a huge ceramic stove that pumped out heat on the chilly evenings. Around the house were apple and pear trees laden with ripe fruit.
There was another lively and busy market in Botiza but the real spectacle was on Sunday morning when all the villagers dressed in their best clothes to go to church. Old ladies wore a lot of black and practical jumpers but the girls and younger women were adorned in all the colourful fabrics that were on display in the markets.

There was definitely a competitive air here - still the short gathered skirts but often topped with frilly white blouses and we were amazed to watch the precarious progress of some girls in fashionable stiletto heels. All wore headscarves. The men were dressed much more soberly.
One of the real highlights of Maramures is the Merry Cemetery in Sapanta. This is a very unconventional cemetery where every grave is embellished with a cross and descriptive panel painted in bright colours with delightfully naive scenes from the person's life. A sometimes graphic and often humorous account of the life of the departed is carved onto the panel. These tell us the person's profession, favourite pastimes and prized possessions and present a refreshingly different approach to the inevitability of death.
From Breb we did our first walk, starting from the top of the Gutai Pass which we had crossed on our journey through the mountains to reach the region. The walk began on a well formed forest track soon emerging into open country along the ridges that looked down into the valleys below. Our objective was a rocky outcrop called the Creasta Cocoshului, or Cock's Comb, that could be seen from miles around, looking ... just like a cock's comb.
We had been told about bears and wolves but we were to discover that the most dangerous animals we were likely to encounter were the shepherd's dogs that guard flocks of sheep on the mountain pastures. Sergiu, our guide, had a very healthy respect for these dogs and told us harrowing tales of his experiences while guiding other walkers or trail bike groups.
Sure enough, as we enjoyed the scenery, we saw a mob of sheep about 500m away and had our first encounter with these fearsome dogs. They saw us coming, barked furiously and ran towards us, teeth barred. We all shouted in different languages and they were discouraged but we weren't taking any chances so we made a wide detour round the hillside. Sergiu encouraged us to keep together and picked up some stones which he carried till we were out of the danger zone.
The descent was a steep forestry road, very chopped up and very muddy. We were now to discover the extent and importance of forestry, one of the economic mainstays of this part of Romania. It is strictly controlled and we saw a lot of it, not surprising given the widespread use of timber in building construction. At this time of year there is also extensive harvesting for winter firewood. The forests are pretty inaccessible and we were often to see horses being used to drag out the big logs to trucks for transportation. All in all it makes a terrible mess of all the forest roads and tracks.
Walking in Maramures
Breb to Mara
In this gentle rolling country we found a sheltered meadow for lunch before descending towards the village of Mara, a small village with more photogenic houses and impressive gates. There was a conveniently located small bar where Dan joined us and we were introduced to Ciuc (pronounced chook) a refreshing shandy style of drink.
After visiting the market in Botiza we walked across the hills to another village called Ieud. On the outskirts of Botiza we passed rustic farmhouses where wood was stacked up for the long winter ahead. Freshly shorn and washed wool was hung out to dry ready for weaving and garlands of dried corn and chilli were hung under the eaves of the roofs. We smiled our way between peasants carrying wooden rakes and scythes and dodged horses and carts till a climb took us round a hillside and up into rolling meadows with sweeping views back down to the village.
Haystacks clustered on the hillsides and wooden huts were dotted about. There was no track, just Ramona and Sergio's familiarity with the countryside. We passed a yard where a flock of goats lay about, watching us with disinterest. Pails of milk and heavy cheeses hung from the railings. A little further on we passed a straggly flock of sheep and goats guided by a shepherd and a couple of dogs. Far from being ferocious these dogs seemed quite friendly.
A splendid lunch had been packed for us and we ate this high up on a ridge with a vista towards the distant mountains. Then an easy walk wound down to Ieud where there are two churches. We visited the oldest, in fact the oldest wooden church in Maramures which is not used but being restored as a monument. Dating from 1364, it is said to have survived the Tartar's attacks. Inside were simple ochre coloured paintings of saints and bible stories. A glistening iconostasis was under repair.
Botiza to Ieud
Along a bumpy road, we were transported home again to our peaceful rural retreat.
Next day we travelled to Bucovina.
In further pages are descriptions of our experiences in
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The cottage in Breb
Covered gateway in Breb
In the market in Ocna Sugatag
New church in Breb
Historic church in Breb
All purpose transport
Near the Gutai Pass
Creasta Cocoshului
Near Botiza
The goat's milk dairy
Between Botiza and Ieud
Historic church in Ieud