Maramureş is a dreamlike land with sceneries that charm any visitor the moment they set eyes on it – mountains covered with forests crossed by fast, crystal-clear waters, majestic, intertwining hills that seem to embrace each other, adorned with haystacks, which stand scattered like stern guards, quiet, soft lakes, endless pastures, wild waterfalls, rare flower species so full of colour and so lively... With 38 protected natural areas, among which Creasta Cocoşului (“the Cock’s Crest”), Pietrosul Rodnei, Tăurile Chendroaiei (the Lakes of Chendroaia), Piatra Rea (“the Evil Cliff”), the strait of Lăpuş river, MARAMUREŞ is a fortunate land, a place where God paid particular care with His creation.

There are few places in Romania where people are so hospitable, kind and glad to welcome guests as the inhabitants of Maramureş. To know them better and get to love them for good you just have to talk with them, visit their homes and accept their invitation to dinner. But most of all you have to see them dressed in their traditional costumes when to church on Sundays and then meet in the centre of their villages for a dance. Visitors often feel that time has stopped in these places and anything modern is unable to alter the fibre of these people’s spirituality and their ancestral traditions.

A testimony of the deep, special bond of the people here with God are the numerous monasteries and wooden churches built everywhere that ennoble this land, as well as the completely original architecture of these religious buildings which makes them unique in the world. As you travel through the villages of Maramureş it is hard not to note that almost each village has a wooden church and where in one village there are more churches, at least one is made of wood. With their tall steeples, as if to reach God in the sky, solid, with their hand-sculpted pillars made of fir tree or oak wood, their roofs covered with wooden tiles and their old interior mural paintings, each of these churches creates a piece of heaven. In such a building anyone just feels closer to God, as if the sky has come down and the bond with God is more direct and easier. The churches of Maramureş were all erected by local craftsmen. Eight of them are listed as part of the UNESCO World Heritage. These can be seen in Bârsana, Budeşti, Deseşti, Ieud, Plopiş, Poienile Izei, Rogoz and Şurdeşti; so if you come to Maramureş don’t miss them.

Wood has become of the symbols of Maramureş because the people here have learnt how to use it to manufacture all kinds of objects: from the plates they used to eat from to the houses where they used to live or the churches in which they pray. Built generally on three poles and a „front” (the upper gate beam) made of oak, with the roof (which is called here “hăizaş”) covered with wooden tiles, the monumental carved gates so typical of this region have often been compared to triumph arches reflecting the villagers’ dignity. ”The inhabitants’ love for these valuable constructions which are so deeply rooted in their cultural and artistic traditions and in the social and political history of Maramureş is illustrated by the preservation to this day of the habit of judging households by their gates. Even today, when you ask about someone who lives in a village, the older people of that village will indicate the gate of the house where that person lives, which generally is illustrative of a family’s status within the community”, wrote Francisc Nistor in 1977. The motifs carved on these gates have magical significances providing access to a mythological universe whose role is to protect the household and the family. Among these motives are the rope, knots, solar rosettes (and the variants of these: a circle, a series of concentric circles, the sun with a human face, all originating from ancestral cult of the sun), then the life tree („symbol of life without death and of the infinite fertility”), the snake (protector of households), human faces, birds, wolf’s fangs, fir trees, etc. Old carved gates and houses can be seen today particularly in the villages along the Cosău and Mara Valleys, as well as in the Village Museums of Baia Mare and Sighetu Marmatiei

The people of Maramureş have preserved their traditions and passed them on from one generation to the next in virtually unaltered forms. Country life is still based on such landmarks as field works and the most important Christian holidays. The year starts with a number of New Year and Epiphany traditions. Spring comes with traditions meant to celebrate the first villager who has ploughed his fields („Tânjaua” on the Mara valley, „Udătoriul” in Şurdeşti) and Easter. In summer the visitor can witness the celebration of St. John’s, St. Mary’s and the Saints’ days. The holidays dedicated to crop harvesting follow in autumn, when villagers thank God for the fruits of the land. The last autumn holiday is Shrovetide, in mid November, which marks the beginning of the preparations for Christmas, the most beautiful holiday of the year, when the villages resound of carol singers’ voices.

The traditional crafts are still kept alive here in the same form as in the distant past and are passed on from father to son, from generation to generation, in the most authentic form. One of the best preserved traditional Maramureş crafts is wood carving. The carpenters here can make anything, from plates, spoons, seal engravers and furniture to houses, gates and churches. Each item is created in the most ingenious shape. The women in these parts are excellent weavers. In each house you will notice a “beam” which is stacked with hand-woven clothes, for the manufacture of which manual weaving loom are used. For the wool and hemp of which these clothes are made women make colours that they extract from plants and tree barks. Săcel is an important centre of pottery. The clay here is extracted from very deep pits and processed using ancient techniques to make very strong pots. Also in Săcel they make traditional New Year masks, which are worn by lads to drive evil spirits away. The traditional hat worn by each man in Maramureş, with its unique form, is a compulsory headpiece here. These hats are still manufactured on Cosău valley, in Sârbi, where the best hatters in Maramureş can be found. Glass painting, embroidery and the specific Maramureş folk costumes are also “registered marks” of this magnificent region and can still be seen in their authentic, well preserved forms

The Merry Cemetery of Săpânţa owes its name to vivid colours of the wooden headboards on which are engraved satirical poems and epitaphs. The Merry Cemetery has become in time an important tourist place of this region and has created a reputation for the village of Săpânţa. The Merry Cemetery was started in the mid 1930s by the folk artist Stan Ion Pătraş, who was a sculptor, painter and poet. He was the creator of these very special and original headboards. The images carved in wood naively illustrate the most important moments of the lives of the deceased and the epitaphs are short satirical poems, written in vernacular, using the first person. Note that, owing to its particularities, this cemetery was linked to the Dacians’ culture, whose life philosophy was based on the idea that people are immortal and on the belief that a person’s death should celebrated with joy, as after death the deceased will live a better life. The headboards are painted in bright colours: „Săpânţa blue”, green, yellow, red and white. The Merry Cemetery is undoubtedly an important tourist attraction, chiefly because of the unique outlook on death that it illustrates. It is one of the top 10 most visited funeral sites in the world

In the two major cities of Maramureş, i.e. Baia Mare, the county capital, and Sighetu Marmaţiei, the old capital of Maramureş there are a number of museums worth visiting. The Mineralogical Museum in Baia Mare hosts a spectacular collection of minerals and rare rocks which is unique in the world. Then, both in Baia Mare and Sighetu Marmaţiei there are museums of ethnography, where visitors can find out about the old occupations of the inhabitants of this land and can see old houses, costumes, pottery, tools and many others. The history of Baia Mare and its neighbouring villages is illustrated by the County Museum of History and Archaeology, whereas the artistic heritage of the city is preserved by the Art Museum. Both these museums are in the county capital. The notorious political prison in the communist period of Sighetu Marmaţiei was turned into the Memorial of the Victims of Communism and Resistance. Also in Sighetu Marmaţiei, the house where Elie Wiesel, a laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, was born became a memorial house and a museum of the local Jewish culture. I have selected but a few of the most important cultural destinations of Maramureş region, but there are a lot more places which are worth visiting, including cultural sites, memorial houses and historical monuments

The first thing you are expected to do if you are invited by an inhabitant of Maramureş to his home is to drink a glass of fruit brandy (“horincă”). It is the host’s way of showing you that you are welcome and accepted in his house. This is not just a traditional drink, but it is each villager’s pride. The magical drink can be made of plums, apples, pears, cherries or other fruits. Villagers will considered it good only if it is as strong as possible and if, when the bottle (“uiagă”) is shaken, it holds the bubbles that are formed at the top until you finish saying the prayer „Our Wholly Father”. This liquor is drunk by villagers at any feast. It makes people relax, helps them make friends, loosens tongues and sometimes it is even used as an elixir: ”Just a bit of brandy if I get, / Any pain I have away will melt!” Just don’t forget to drink little of it, because after just two or three glasses ”your legs will be as soft/ As earth is after rain”

The traditional Maramureş music was created in the middle of nature; that’s why it is unique, full of pathos and rhythm. These songs – either they are songs of longing and love, or party or drinking songs – will arouse the listeners’ deepest feelings and emotions. A violin (“ceteră”), a 5-string guitar (“zongoră”) and a drum (“dobă”) make up the Maramureş traditional band which accompanies the singers. Songs will always include the unmistakeable extempores. These songs make listeners’ souls vibrate and leap with joy to the rhythm of the songs and dances (”I just die for Maramureş folk dance”). If you don’t believe me, just try and you will see.