|Maramures (pronounced mara-moorish) is located in
north-northwestern Romania. The historical Maramures region is in four valleys to the
south and south-east of Sighetu Marmatiei (known locally as Sighet). To the south is the
Mara valley with the Cosau valley heading off to the southeast at Feresti. To the
southeast is the Iza valley with the parallel Viseu valley just over the mountains to the
northeast. The historic Maramures region is less than 500 square kilometers.
The inhabitants consider themselves descendants of the Dacian tribes which inhabited the area beginning around 1000 B.C. The Roman emperor Trajan, conquered the region that is now Romania in 106 A.D., but the Romans never crossed the range of mountains which protected the Maramures villages. Because of this, their culture remains free of Roman influence. They were invaded from the north by the Tartars with the last invasions taking place in 1717 from the Russian Steppes. The mountainous region, being unsuitable for mechanized farming, was untouched by the collectivism of the 1940s and Ceaucescu's systematized plan to eliminate Romanian villages in the 1980s. Perhaps nowhere in Europe has a culture remained so untouched by the twentieth century, or the eighteenth and nineteenth!
The traditional life here is startling to most westerners. Traditional gender roles hold firmly to the past. Men, women, boys and girls all have their special places in the society. In the churches, the men occupy the the pews or stand in front of the altar with the young girls in front of them, often around the altar. Young boys fill the balcony while the women, and girls over fifteen years of age, sit or stand in the narthex. Older women sit outside on the benches attached to the walls of the church. In many villages, divorce or abortion has never been known.
Traditional costumes are worn in most villages for church on Sunday followed by promenading in the streets and, quite often in the warmer months, a public dance. In several villages, traditional clothing is worn every day. Budesti is one such village where nearly all of the men wear ridiculously small straw hats that look like an inverted straw funnel. The women wear boldly striped woolen aprons front and back. Each village has its own colors for aprons and style for hats, some straw, some felt.
The wooden architecture of Maramures is amazing. The churches, most dating from the sixteenth century are maintained today exactly as they were built. New wooden churches and houses are built using the same style and construction techniques that have been used for hundreds of years. No power tools are used. One exception most often seen is the tin roof on houses in place of wooden shingles. In addition to every building being constructed from wooden beams, nearly all have an ornamental wooden gate. The carving on these gates is a mixture of pagan and Christian symbols. Wood is everywhere! It is possibly the most significant aspect of the traditional culture in Maramures.
Except during the winter, almost everyone will be carrying a rake, hoe, shovel or scythe over their shoulder as they walk down the village roads. Farm machinery is virtually unknown in Maramures. Horses are used to plow the fields and transport the harvest while the remainder is done by hand. It is hard to envision families in the field with men cutting hay with a scythe while women lift it onto drying racks with a wooden pitchfork. After drying, the hay is piled onto haystacks.
Plum trees abound! In August there are so many that plums lay rotting on the ground. This, after enough have been harvested to provide a year's supply of tsuica, a 100 proof (or more) plum brandy distilled in mass quantities by distilleries found in every village. It is remarkable how much of this stuff is consumed. If you visit, you'll have it offered to you for any and all reasons. After buying a carpet at nine o'clock in the morning for instance. One must celebrate! The quality is quite good and you can bring a liter home for only two dollars. Just take an empty plastic Fanta Orange bottle (they seem to be the favorite) to the nearest distillery and fill'er up!
In the village of Botiza, Victoria Barbecaru, the wife of the local Orthodox priest, has taken it upon herself to revive traditional carpet weaving. Though excellent quality woven wool carpets can be found all over Romania, they will generally be made from wool that has been dyed with chemical (aniline) dyes in order to get brighter colors. Not to mention that it's more convenient. Victoria has also revived traditional vegetable dying techniques. Walnut, onion, mustard and other plants are used to provide all of the color for the traditional carpets. Victoria's work has been exhibited al over Europe. Victoria has involved many of the other women in the Maramures villages in traditional carpet weaving. Most of their carpets are sold to western tourists. The carpets have a geometric pattern or contain traditional symbols. They range in size from 40 x 40 centimeters to many square meters. Here are two very small examples:
The information and photographs on this web site are only meant to whet your appetite. If you want to find out significantly more, you have two options. First, you can get The Wooden Architecture of Maramures mentioned on the Travel Info page and while you are waiting for it to arrive from Romania, go to a local bookstore and read the chapters on Maramures in Romania, The Rough Guide and Lonely Planet's Romania & Moldova. Second, you can visit Maramures, in which case, you should buy at least one of the guides. Should you choose to visit, make sure you are aware of the influence you will have in this isolated part of the world. They have not yet seen what tourists can do to a place. The cave explorer's cautionary words come to mind. Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints. In this context, the best "footprints" you can leave the people in Maramures are an enhanced pride in their culture and the beautiful wooden architecture that is Maramures.