Skip to main content

Maramureș: Where Romania Comes Home

We left Cluj on a very damp Friday evening. The bus was supposed to leave at 8pm but it didn't arrive at the station until 8:15pm. Fashionably late, aka: Romanian Time. Roxana and I were lucky to get the two seats across the aisle from each other, it was a full-house otherwise. It wasn't a bad trip, but what sucked big-time was that the bus smelled as thought it was made out of a giant air freshener, the kind you hang up on the car's rear-view mirror. My brain was nauseated but otherwise we made it out fine after three hours of driving up and down serpentine roads in the fog.

Ionuţ and his dad picked us up from the bus station in Baia Mare and took us home. It's worthy of note that up until a week before I'd never spoken to Ionuţ. Life has a funny way of bringing people together. A friend from Toronto put us in touch to discuss an initiative being carried out by a Romanian students association -of which Ionuţ is vice-president of development. We met to talk about the scope of the project and some of the plans going forward. We ended up having a really good meeting over lunch and a particularly creative brainstorming session over shots of Jager washed down with pints of beer. By the end of our 'meeting' the invite to his hometown, Baia Mare -and, by extension, Maramureș-  was on the table and next weekend's plans were taken care of.

Part of what I learned during the trip was that when they (whoever 'they' may be) use the expression, 'plied with food and drink', they are referring to Romanian hospitality. I also found out that Maramureș doesn't have a particular regional dish because they are too busy perfecting the best Horinca in the country. Nobody comes to Romania without getting a taste, and nobody visits Maramureș without learning what it's supposed to taste like. At its best, it rivals a good Cognac and that's kind of how the weekend started, three shots of the region's finest followed by a dinner of Chicken Paprikash, Schnizel, pickled bell peppers, and fresh home-baked bread, all cooked by Ionuţ's mom who actually has a real job in addition to being one of the country's best cooks. I was in foodie heaven. Trust me, most Romanians don't think this is a big deal, but all this goodness is the result of years of tradition, tradition of which we have every right to be proud. Of course, that wasn't enough. We finished the feast with sweet cheese pastries for desert and a bottle of dry Feteasca Neagra. I tried to refuse feebly, knowing it was quite useless and I'd be better off using the energy I had left on chewing and swallowing our just deserts.

In the morning, after a very deep sleep and a copious breakfast of fresh cheese and cold-cuts with that same home-baked bread and garden tomatoes, Ionuţ, Roxana, and I embarked on a day-long Maramureș adventure. Maramureș comprises the north-west of the country and is often considered to be the spiritual heart of Romania. Traditions that are long-lost in most of the country are still alive here in the countryside. It's not uncommon that people wear traditional costumes as their 'good suit' at church, and lots of the local economy in the small towns and villages revolves around agriculture and other types of manual labour. This is a trend that has encouraged a wave of 'agrotourism'. The thick fog ruined any hopes of drive-by sightseeing, but it didn't make our first stop in Şurdeşti any less beautiful. Maramureș is known for its old wooden churches, but Sts. Michael and Gabriel Greek-Catholic parish in Şurdeşti is also home to one of the tallest wooden churches in the world; its spire reaches 72 meters.  It's no surprise that it's included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The church dates back to 1721
Ionuţ rang a bell that promised to deliver the key to the church should it be locked. A priest in a black cassock emerged from the home near the path leading up to the church entrance. As we gazed at the biblical scenes painted on the interior walls, like something of a wooden, byzantine, Sistine chapel, the priest told us that they're hoping to do some restoration this coming summer. The paint was very faint in places. 
"Where do most tourist come from?" I asked him.
"You'd be surprised, but many of the foreign tourists are Japanese." He was right, we were all surprised. I later checked tripadvisor where one of the two reviews is in Japanese. The Google translation indicates the author felt some nostalgia for Japan. I can see there is a certain familiarity in setting to the large wooden Japanese Shinto temples. Who would've thought? The priest also went on to explain that the church was built entirely out of oak, using wooden pegs as fasteners instead of metal nails. We were impressed.

Interior (Narthex)

Ceiling detail (Nave)
A friendly fella

We then thanked the priest for his help and continued our walking tour around the property, most of it just a cemetery that looked as though its plots were chosen haphazardly. Many of the graves were so old the inscriptions were barely visible. In the gloomy fog, the contrast between the colourful flowers on many of the graves and the craggy, barren, tree branches hovering overhead gave the place an eerie sort of beauty. We were the only visitors.

No ghosts here
There wasn't much left to do, so after snapping a few photos, we headed back down to the car. The Lab accompanied us, very much a sucker for Roxana's affection. Once in the car, I had a pang of conscience. I'd noticed a donation tray inside the church but pretty much ignored it until that moment. "Hold on guys, let me check if the church is still open." I bounded out of the car and jogged back up the path to the church. The door was closed but I thought I'd try pushing it anyway -it opened. Nice, I thought, and walked inside where I'd seen the tray. That's when I noticed the priest in the sanctuary, behind the altar doors, he was saying mass. If he heard me, he didn't show it. Very quietly I left my donation on the copper tray and turned to go. The door wouldn't close. I'd pull it shut and its weight would cause it to swing open again. Conscious of the noise I was making, I tried again looking for a way to hook it into the door frame. I was fumbling around so much it reminded me of those awkward scenes in a movie where the bumbling character tries to fix something but instead keeps making it worse. So I let the door swing open all the way, made a quick sign of the cross and got out of there, hoping God has a sense of humour and that the priest wouldn't catch a cold.

Who's a good boy?
Our next stop, according to Ionuţ was Cavnic, a former mining town turned ski resort. We weren't going there for the moguls but for the tubing, an activity Ionuţ was particularly excited to have us try out. I'd only been tubing in the water and in the snow before, there were always wipe-outs involved. We turned in and noticed the cars in the parking lot, but there was nobody around. Inside the main chalet there appeared to be a team-building event of some sort so we walked around looking for some site staff. The rental station was abandoned with a set of keys still in the door. The hotel check-in desk was likewise staff-less. It was as quiet as the Overlook Hotel, and Johnny was with us.

Eventually we were met by the resort's manager whose daughter had been a high-school classmate of Ionuţ. He told us tubing was out of the question due to the slippery conditions, but he called Oana (the daughter) who lived in a chalet on the premises. She kindly invited us in for a drink and we spent some time getting acquainted over San Pelegrinos. After taking our leave, we headed to Bârsana on a magic road. The fog had begun to clear and suddenly we could see the beautiful landscape that surrounded us.


"I think this is it." Ionuţ said flipping the blinkers and stopping the car in the middle of the road.
"What now?" I said. To our amazement, the car started rolling up the hill. "No way!" and "Wow!" Roxana and I said. Moreover, I was thinking, how did I not hear about this? It's certainly novelty newsworthy. Ionuţ told us that there's been plenty of news crews around, but I guess none of the footage ever made it to Canada. No problem, I got to film it myself.



After that bit of excitement, we continued on to Bârsana, where we'd find another one of Maramureș' UNESCO listed wooden churches. The church sat in a complex with a number of other structures, most of them built after the revolution.  The setting was extremely picturesque and idyllic, not least because it was so clean and well maintained. Case in point, when we entered the church a nun was vacuuming the carpet inside and for some reason I got the feeling it wasn't just a once a day thing. One of the more interesting events during our visit was that shortly after our arrival, we stopped by a Plăcintă stand near the gate and noticed a couple of cars, including a slick black Benz, pulling in. Out of it piled five bearded monks, wearing their black robes and the Skufia atop their heads. I found the contrast so striking I couldn't help snapping a couple of pictures.


#Ballin
Now that's a showroom
Gate to Bârsana Monastery

Well with counterpoise-lift

We left Bârsana for the last sightseeing stop of the day. It was about an hour away, past Sighet, a stone's throw from the Ukrainian border. It's one of those places that you really want to see when you hear about it. I'm referring to the one and only Merry Cemetery at Săpânţa, a place where the headstones are carved with little epitaphs that describe the person's life along with colourful images depicting, usually, what the person did in life. We went at a good time. The gatekeeper who collected the entrance fees was in a very talkative mood and, since we asked, he even took us to the workshop where he carved the headstones.

He told us that they only use Oak wood and that the average headstone is completed in about four weeks. He was currently doing restoration work as many of the older pieces had deteriorated with time, but he was also working on a special one for his parents. He'd carved not only back and front, but added a pattern on the sides as well. He further told us about the specific geometry he had learned to use when carving the motifs and explained the importance of colours to the pattern applied. For example, a green may only go in a certain part of the motif and if it's painted elsewhere it isn't in keeping with the aesthetic aspect for which the cemetery is renowned. I wondered about the cold in the shop, but he didn't seem to mind, his hands bore the unmistakable marks of hard labour; they were thick and caloused and could probably bear the cold better than mine could wearing gloves.

"What about the epitaph, who comes up with that?" Sometimes, he told us, it's the deceased himself, if he knows he's got a plot in the cemetery. More often though, it's done by family members who present it to the sculptor alongside a photo of their loved one. He struck me as one of those people who's very proud of what he does and who is just as proud to get the opportunity to tell others about it. From what we gathered, he was a descendant of Stan Ioan Pătraş, but he dropped the names of so many uncles, brothers, and cousins twice removed that afterwards we all agreed we didn't know where he fit in exactly. Before we left he assured us we came at a good time of the year. It's full of tourists all summer he said, and it's much more interesting when you have the time to wander amongst the graves in peace.

Interesting it was. But sad too. For a merry cemetery it has its share of sad stories. One headstone depicted the death of a ten-year old boy struck by a train while he was out playing. Another of a young man who died at work. When it comes down to it, none of the epitaphs I saw actually made light of the gravity of the situation (except the one about the mother-in-law), and one could feel the human loss in each poem. I wished them well, those poor souls. As I read those few stanzas above each grave I almost felt I'd known the person and, in light of our respective positions, appreciated my own life that much more.

Near the entrance, the man at the desk was vice-mayor

The shop



A tragedy

It was nearly 5pm and getting dark when we left Săpânţa. Ionut had taken us on an unforgettable Maramureș tour, but there was one more 'sight'. Dinner.

The fog had begun creeping in again and as we drove, Ionuţ and I, up in the front, started talking.
"You know, this is how scary movies often start..." I said.
"This is the perfect setting for a horror movie." He agreed.
"Guys come onnn, stop it!" Roxana said from the back seat.
We both started laughing. "For real, it's always like this that it starts, a bunch of idiots driving without a care in the world, trying to scare each other when, WHAM!" I smashed a fist into my palm. Roxana gave a yelp. Then she hit me on the shoulder. Ionuţ and I continued to laugh it up.
"Imagine while we're driving now, we see a little girl in a white dress, standing on the side of the road. Staring."
"Oh man, yeah I know," I said "Look there's somebody up ahead right now!" We were driving at about 40km/h and up ahead a shape was emerging out of the fog on the side of the road. Roxana was covering her eyes. We drove by a guy carrying a wicker basket on his back. It was a piece of equipment we'd already seen a few times that day.

Earlier that day
Spooky Maramureș

We stopped teasing Roxana and started talking about food. The place we were going to was a Trout farm, slash Inn, slash Restaurant located in a commune called Mara. As far as I was concerned we couldn't get there soon enough. We eventually found the place. It was nestled at the bottom of a dark, sloping forest and overlooked a pond. The air was crisp and fresh. We could hear a waterfall in the background. From the outside it looked like a medieval Inn near an old water mill.  I felt as though we may as well have arrived on horseback. Inside it was deliciously warm. The wooden walls and furniture gave the small room a welcoming atmosphere. The servers wore long traditional dresses. When one of them came to take our order and I asked for a cheese and slanina platter in addition to our trout specials she looked at me and said "Mai, oameni buni..." Which literally means, "Hey now, good people," and which actually means, "Whoa, relax with your crazy appetite." Okay, so apparently the portions were big. I appreciated the honesty and told her to scratch that.

I'll say two things about the meal. The first was that it was delicious, starting with the ridiculously good home-made bread, the fresh and crispy cornmeal-breaded trout, the rustic mamaliga, right down to the mujdei. The second is that not a word was spoken throughout.


House Special
Ionuţ Special
The server was right. There was no space for anything else. I couldn't even finish the beer. We left the Alex Happy Fish Trout Farm (Pastravaria Alex - Happy Fish)  dreaming of soft pillows and horizontal resting positions. But it was only a dream. Back home, one of Ionuţ's tovarași joined us. We finished a half-liter bottle of Horinca - during which I had the bright idea to create the first Tuica-Redbull cocktail - while Ionuţ and Alex told us the story of  some crazy remote place in Maramureș where they go fishing and weird inexplicable things happen at night (going next summer). We sat around the table nibbling on the best Salam de Biscuiti in the world and when the parents came home we drank, and talked, and ate some more. We were like a big family hanging out around the kitchen table. We talked about our hopes for the country mostly in regards to politics, football (soccer), and initiatives to make Romania better. Then at about 1am, the four of us went to meet two other friends for a night out in Baia Mare.

I'm not going to write about the club because a club is a club. But when we left there, at about 3am, we stopped at a non-stop kiosk where Ionuţ insisted on getting a bottle of Jagermeister. We couldn't decide on a good mix for it, so we picked up a bag of oranges. Then we found some building steps nearby and the six of us hung out talking, drinking Jager out the bottle, and washing down each swig with a couple of orange slices. I was nicely buzzed and I felt grand, it was as though I'd come home. In reality though, we only got home at 6am.

On the ride back to Cluj on Sunday evening (last Sunday) I couldn't help thinking about the irony that some of the simplest things, literally, like talking, eating, drinking, and being around people, can far outdo the experiences we're supposed to think we like best: watching movies, going to amusement parks, watching sports, clubbing, shopping, and the rest. There's a time and a place for all those, I'm not knockin' em, but they're never the *precious moments*. Not one of those experiences can add up to the feeling that you're truly home. In Canada, it was the precious moments I missed, but this is why I love Romania, because it's full of them.

Comments

  1. amen! And there's an awesome club for lautari in BM. I love it!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great post! It compelled me to think about possible epitaphs for my headstone, which is something I probably never thought about.
    J

    ReplyDelete
  3. This place is colorful!
    It is been said that wooden crosses from the Merry Cemetery have bright colours, predominantly in blue, bearing an image and a few rhyming lines, most often with a comical content, relating to the deceased’s life and their image in the memory of their families and in that of the community.
    Source: http://www.rolandia.eu/the-merry-cemetery-in-sapanta/

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Is Cluj The Best City On Earth?

It's a question I ask myself at times.

Let's put it this way; I've been around. Maybe not all around the world, but halway-ish maybe. Sailed the canals of Amsterdam, biked from one end of Paris to the other, took the train from Budapest to Berlin, drove the 405 in LA, and yeah, I even rode a hay cart back in the day. But other than enjoying all these forms of transportation, I got to enjoy the places I visited. I don't know about you, but when I visit a place I always ask myself,  'would I live here?' While the answer is often 'yes, why not', the only place I moved to was Cluj.

Cluj, how do I love thee, let me count the ways:

1. I love your smell. It's like earth, and air, and city. I will never forget my first day here, when I  walked out of the arrivals building at the airport and breathed in your smell. Spring. You're the city of eternal Spring. On a balmy day, it's what you smell like, even if it's December, or August.

2. I love your…

10 Reasons Why Romania is Better Than America

Really? Yes, really. Let me count the ways.

In America you can get everything you've ever dreamed of: GameBoy, Sega Genesis, plants that look like faces, and more.  Maybe if you work really hard long hours at the job you hate (but that you tell everybody you love lest you appear to be a miserable person), you can even get a flat panel home theater TV that takes up half your basement (on credit, of course). Awesomeness!!
In America you can always be sure to be on top of the latest fad, such as devil sticks or Tamagochi and you will be first to read bestsellers like The DaVinci Code and Fifty Shades of Crap literature. Basically there are thousands of ways of feeling accomplished -or pretending that you are - you just need to be there to catch all these wonderful trends on time!

I know what you're thinking, how can Romania possibly top all that considering America is also the land of Root beer floats and Antoine Dodson?

Everything's been done in America, that's why peopl…

Are Romanian Women The Most Beautiful In The World?

More than once, I was asked to write about the beauty of Romanian women, but...

I have no words. Besides, I may be biased, but clearly it's a rhetorical question.

However, there is no shortage of Facebook pages and Tumblr blogs dedicated to the subject.






Image: Geanina Olaru @ weheartit

10 More Reasons Romania is Better Than America

I get it. The US is special. I hate to say it, especially as a Canadian, but it is.

But it's mostly special because of the America that it used to be. The idea of America is special.

There was, once, an American Dream within the reach of any hard working man. It was a country that offered unprecedented freedoms and opportunities unmatched by any other. The great melting pot was about inclusion towards one common goal, it was not divisive, individualistic and driven by a Bergeron-esque vision of 'equality'. Assets were not based on decades-long lines of credit, and salaries kept up with cost of living increases. I could go on about 'the way things used to be' but you can look it all up if you're interested. If you live there, you should be.

The reality in America is different now.

Sure, it's still the land of plenty. But the plenty is not all good. Plenty of debt, plenty of poverty, plenty of obesity, plenty of civil unrest coupled with plenty of heavy-hand…

Here Is Why Romania's Future Is Bright

The festival is only in its second edition, but following last year's inaugural event, Electric Castle has stirred up enough buzz to attract visitors from beyond Romania's borders. Walking around the festival grounds I had the impression that every other group was comprised of foreigners speaking Hungarian, English, German, or French. And judging by the license plates in the parking lots, every county in Romania was well represented. While there's plenty to be said about the artists and the music, there's something else I want to discuss in this post.

When you think "music festival", the image that comes to mind is that of overly excited youth on a drug and alcohol infused rampage, laying waste to everything in their path. Maybe it has something to do with the way festivals like to promote themselves; these are basically the images that stand out on most 'Official Aftermovie' videos from major music festivals. But obviously the experience is defined b…

What I Learned About Driving In Romania

I get it now. I understand Romanian drivers and their follies. It's something I thought would never happen. All it took to shape me into a Romanian road rage machine was one month of driving around Cluj and a 400 km round trip. I'm kidding about the rage part.

The idea of driving in Cluj was intimidating. Last time I'd driven manual shift was almost ten years ago when a co-worker asked me to drive her and her newly purchased, Pontiac Firefly home because she had no idea how to do it. So of course I stalled that little bastard all over the place. Little surprise that the idea of driving along busy and narrow European streets was unappealing - especially after years of driving automatic on wide, North American roads.

But I managed. Stalled an average of once per trip during the first week, and then a couple of times in the second week, and now, a little over a month later, I sometimes stall at stoplights when I forget I'm driving stick and leave it in gear when I release…

The Cluj Guide to Dining Out

Note: This is a 2016 update to the post originally written in 2012. 

Back in 2012, Toulouse was the only place in town to serve a halfway decent hamburger. How things have changed. There's been a veritable burger revolution and you'll be hard pressed to find bistro-style restaurants that don't offer the king of sandwiches. There are also several new, and very good, additions to the city's fine dining roster. But maybe the most positive change is in the market itself. Patrons have become more discerning about their options, there is a deeper appreciation for consistency, and, as a result, restaurants have responded with an elevated level of service and quality overall.
But there's still no authentic Mexican...


So, with no particular order in mind, let's get into it, shall we?

Via- The simple name denotes understated excellence. At least that's how I look at it now. Over the past couple of years, Via has cemented itself as one of my favourite Cluj …

Rosia Montana - An Informed Reply

It's always a pleasure to see a new email message from somebody who's been reading this blog. In this case, the message came in from a reader who first contacted me last year. He moved to Canada quite a while ago and settled in the Northwest Territories. He wanted to respond to the previous post on Rosia Montana, but given the length of the reply, I've asked him to allow me to publish it as its own post. He asked me not to share his name, but outside of that, I'm copying it verbatim.

(Edit: In Romana mai jos)

Hello Matt,

Here we go again: Rosia Montana. I got involved in this project about four years ago. I had had phone interviews with radio stations in Bucharest; I published several articles in two or three magazines in Bucharest. I hosted, guided and loaded up with data and portable computer equipment one “Romanian explorer” as the Romanian media called her: Uca Marinescu. Perhaps the name rings a bell. Anyhow she never got back to me; there was no feedback, no follo…

Why Romanians Don't Like Romanians

To my knowledge, this national self-loathing is a uniquely Romanian experience. Maybe we share it with some of our neighbours, but I doubt it. I've never seen a people dislike their own as much as the Romanians.
This is going to be highly generalized, but as with most things I write here it's rooted in personal experience and observations. Don't hate the player, hate the game.

1. Romanians like the exotic, to be Romanian is the antithesis of what it means to be exotic.

2. Romanians are often prejudiced. The thought process goes something like this: If you're Romanian you're probably bereft of interesting experiences and financially limited. You're from 'the-worst-country-on-earth', after all. If  you're well off, then you're just a rich asshole (probably a thief, too). Either way, your Romanian-ness ensures you're seen as a person with limited horizons who likely can't offer anything new or different.

If you're Western European or Nort…

Johnny Angel And The Stray Dogs Of Romania

There's this bullshit petition that's been floating around on twitter. An update to Romania's laws on stray dogs is going to result in the euthanasia of Romania's stray dog population. The animal activist set is in an uproar. In other words, in a country where a significant number of people survive on subsistence wages, and where they suffer the added indignity of being attacked by flea-bitten strays, this is the primary focus of the international civil society. I'm not going to link the actual petition because it has zero merit, but I'm going to address the absolutely false, misleading, and pretty much insane claims that it makes, one point at a time.

Let's start with the law itself. It defines a several new provisions to an already existing 2001 law that deals with "ownerless dogs" aka. 'Maidanezi' in Romanian, aka. Strays. I'm not going to put every single bit of it, just the clearly relevant aspects of it. Also added emphasis in bo…