A Surviving Piece of Medieval Europe?
Photo : Allison Jeffares
Maramures was not what I had expected. My guidebook had described it as the “last peasant culture in Europe”. The setting sounded idyllic as it said the region was made up of tiny villages that “sit among rolling hills and dreamy landscapes.”
Instead, I saw more dirt and cement than grass covering the ground and the villages were run-down and not at all picturesque. Most of the houses were made of modern materials and not made in the traditional wooden style. Many were made out of grey cinderblocks and looked like they hadn’t finished being built.
Even the photographs I had seen of Maramures had not provided an accurate portrayal of the region. Pictures can easily be cropped to include the only piece of beauty in an entire scene. The weather when I visited was cold and gloomy, but that too can be rectified in photography as you can let more light in, and so what once was a miserable, overcast day now looks like bright and cheerful. The scenes in my photos certainly looked better than they did in reality.
But it was reality I had come to see, not some image I had conjured up in my mind from various texts and photographs. Samuel Johnson once said “The use of travelling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.” There would be little excitement in travelling if it were only to confirm with your eyes what you had already expected to see.
The reality of Maramures was that while many may indeed be farmers, I do not think they are peasants. They drive modern cars (I saw a dozen or so horses and carts in Transylvania and was expecting to see many more here, but I only saw a couple) and many wear western clothing. Ironically though, I saw the one thing I was not expecting. Lots of people were wearing traditional costumes, especially when returning home from church on a Sunday morning or an electoral campaign visit from a politician.
Another tradition I saw an abundance of was the woodwork. While there were few wooden houses, many people have continued the tradition of having wooden gates to front their homes, some elaborately carved, some less so. The purpose of these gates is to ward off evil, but nowadays it is more often done to show off how much money the inhabitants have.
I found the owners were happy to let me take pictures of their gates; one woman closed hers so I could get a better shot. I was a little embarrassed though to take photographs of people in traditional costume, and wary that it could be considered impolite without asking permission first. But my guide, Adi, insisted on getting the shots for me and would take my camera off me and chase after the people. When I asked him if they don’t consider it rude, he said, “The people are good here. They like pictures.”
Maramures is worth visiting to see the wooden traditions and traditional dress, but there are also a few sights you should not miss. The wooden church at Surdesti was stunning from the outside, but even better inside. It was like a cosy cabin with wonderful religious décor and paintings on the wooden ceiling. Worshipers were praying in hushed tones when I visited on a Sunday morning.
Another must-see in Maramures is the Barsana monastery, which is where you will get the postcard shots of wooden structures on rolling green hills.
The Merry Cemetery in Sapanta is also worth a look in. Every grave has a pretty blue cross with a pop-art depiction of the person or the way in which they died, and an amusing poem teasing the dead. It is good to have a guide with you as the epitaphs are in Romanian and there is no translator on site. But the cemetery is still worth visiting, regardless.
With a change of tone to the other sights, the Memorial to the Victims of Communism and to the Resistance in Sighetu Maramatiei is a sobering visit. It is housed in one of the most notorious prisons of the communist government. 50 of the cells have exhibitions in them, the most interesting of which are the torturous ‘Black room’ and the exhibition on the group of students who were imprisoned here for their attempt at resistance.
Maramures was definitely worth the trip for me, but it taught me something about expectations. The best thing about travelling is discovering the unexpected and finding rewarding surprises. By having a set image in my mind about what I wanted and expected to see in Maramures I was setting myself up for disappointment. I’ve learnt that it is best to take what you read with a grain of salt and some scepticism and set out with an open mind. Maramures is still a great place to visit despite the lack of rolling green hills, pretty villages and horses and carts because there are fantastic and unique sights to see as well as the joy of finding people wearing traditional dress, something that you will struggle to find anywhere else in Europe.