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Visiting Maramures – A place like no other…

Maramures is located in the Northern part of Romania, a land rich in myths and traditions that date back to the times of the Dacians (ancient Romanians), ancient Greeks and the Roman Empire.

According to archeological findings, Maramures was inhabited since pre-historic times. The first Indo-European settlements (Dacian, Celtic, Sarmatian and Germanic) discovered in Sapanta, Sighet, Saliste, Ieud, Tisa, Rozavlea, and other places, date back 2,000 years BC. During the ancient times, Dacians built several fortresses at Sighet, Oncesti, Slatina and Calinesti. Maramures became famous in the 1st century BC under King Burebista, one of the most important Dacian kings.

During the early part of the middle ages, Maramures was part of Moldavia. Later on, it became part of Transylvania. This province was ruled by Maramures’ noblemen until the 11th century. After that it was ruled by the Huns/Hungarian Empire, and in 1867, by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After WWI, Maramures was split in two, and the Southern part came back to Romania. The Northern part was first given to Czeckoslovakia, then during WWII it was again controlled by Hungary, and after WWII was taken by USSR and given to Ukraine.

Geographically, Maramures occupies one of the biggest depressions in the Carpathians (approx. 10,000 sq km), and it is completely surrounded by mountains. Its deep forests are home to several protected species of plants and animals, such as yew, larch, swiss pine, edelweiss, chamois, lynx, alpine marmot, brown bear, European bison extinct since 1852 (a symbol of Maramures), and lostrita, a rare type of salmon that still lives in Maramures’ rivers. Pietrosul Peak (2303m) in Maramures’ Rodnei mountains is also the highest peak in the Eastern Carpathians.

Maramures is famous for several things: its unique hand crafted wood works, the Merry Cemetery at Sapinta, where death is dealt with in a very humorous way (the only one of this type in Europe so far), the traditional way of harvesting and small scale farming that have vastly disappeared in most European countries, its foods, its drinks, and its music and traditional clothing that still preserve elements dating back to the ancient Dacian culture.

Maramures is the place with the greatest number of wooden monasteries, all of them with a very distinct style, such as Birsana Monastery, or Surdesti Wooden Church. Equally beautiful are the wooden gates and fences that adorn Maramures’ houses. Wood started to be exclusively used in constructions a few centuries ago due to very strict rules imposed by the Hungarian & Habsburg empires on the Maramures people to prevent them from building strong fortifications that withstood foreign invasions. Over time, people in Maramures turned wood work into an art form. Maramures is also the birth place of many famous Romanian freedom fighters (or “haiduci”) somewhat similar to Robin Hood, the most famous of them being Pintea Viteazul (Pintea the Brave).

Other recommended attractions: a trip back in time with Vaser Valley Railway (or “Mocanita”) through the breathtaking landscape of Rodnei mountains, a visit to Sighetu Marmatiei Prison (“Memorialul Durerii”) – the most infamous communist prison in Romania, which has been turned into a museum after Ceausescu’s death, the Mineralogical Museum in Baia Mare, the Museum of Ethnography and Folk Art in Baia Mare, and Horses Waterfall (or “cascada cailor”) located near Borsa ski resort in Rodnei mountains.

Those who want to spend a day or two vacationing in Maramures, will be surprised to find a variety of traditional guest houses and small hotels that serve  Romanian dishes using fresh ingredients from privately owned local farms. My favorite places to stay in Maramures are: Alex Villa and Trout Farm, which is located in a beautiful natural setting just outside the Mara village on the DN 18 road to Baia Mare; Gabriela Hotel, located in the small town of Viseul de Sus, near Mocanita rail road; and The Suior Hotel located in Gutai mountains, about 18 km away from the city of Baia Mare.

Voronet Monastery, the most famous painted Medieval monastery in Romania

In the Northern part of Romania, between Moldova and Transylvania, lies Bucovina, a beautiful countryside sprinkled with forested hills and small mountains. It is the home of some of the most beautiful monasteries in Eastern Europe, the painted monasteries of Bucovina. These Byzantyne style religious monuments were built during the 15th and 16th centuries and their most impressive features are the intricate and vividly colored frescoes painted on the exterior, as well as the interior walls, the murals, and the overall architecture. The frescoes are a way to visually tell various stories from the Bible.

The most famous of all is Voronet monastery built in 1488 by the Moldavian Prince Stephen the Great. According to the legend, Stephen was on the brink of losing a big war against the Ottoman Empire. He was in a bad mood and sought advice from a hermit who lived near Voronet village. Daniel advised the prince to continue the fight. This was one of the most impressive and hard won battles in Romanian history, known as the Battle of Vaslui. Stephen built and dedicated the Voronet monastery to Saint George to celebrate his victory. Daniel became the first abbot of Voronet monastery and was buried inside it.

The monastery can be accessed through the city of Gura Humorului. A sign indicates to turn onto a pretty narrow and sometimes bumpy road. After passing by Moldova river and leaving behind a crossroad, the picturesque Voronet village emerges. The village is older than the monastery. Many residents of this area are skilled in hundreds of years old traditional arts and crafts, visible not only in the architectural style of the houses, but also in the art that villagers put out on display.

Voronet monastery is surrounded by forested mountains and a high-walled fence. The entrance fee is 10 Roni (approx. $2.50) per person. The first thing your eyes will experience is the beautiful balance between the dominant blue color of the exterior frescoes and the blue sky (… on a clear day). Voronet church is famous for this special hue of blue named “the Voronet blue” and for its Gothic style architecture.

In addition to scenes from the Bible, the frescoes also include a painting of Prince Stephen the Great and several symbols, such as the Moldavian coat of arms. The inside of the church was painted during Stephen’s reign, while the outside was painted at the request of Stephen’s son, Prince Petru Rares.

Petru took his father’s concept even further and is credited with turning all monasteries of Bucovina into works of art, by adding exterior frescoes. He built the monasteries of Humor (1530) and Probota (1530), while his father built Putna (1466), Patrauti (1487), and Voronet. This became a tradition during the Middle Ages. Every time a prince came out of a battle victorious, he would build a monastery dedicated to a Christian Orthodox saint. The painted monasteries of Bucovina are so unique that have been included on the UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list since 1993. The other three are: Sucevita (1584), Moldovita (1532), and Arbore (1503-1541).