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Maramureș: Romania’s Living Folk Museum

Maramureș, Romania

The remote town of Maramureș is old-time Romania, where horse carts are a common sight. We visit a family home for a rustic feast, see spinning and weaving in action, taste the local firewater, and tour several churches — one with a cheery cemetery.

Complete Video Script

Pondering the challenges of maintaining traditions in an aggressively modern world, we leave Transylvania, and drive north. At the fringe of the country, tucked next to the Ukrainian border, is Romania’s most isolated region: Maramureș.

Maramureș is fiercely traditional. Its centuries-old ways endure. Horse carts are commonplace. The men wear distinctive straw hats. The women are tough as the land. People work the fields as they have for generations.

Village roads are lined with ornate wooden gateways. These gateways are intentionally elaborate — designed to show off the family’s wealth.

The gates protect family compounds: along with the home, you’ll find a barn, a garden, and an old-time dipping well.

And, if you’ve never tried one of these, locals are happy to demonstrate.

Rick: Can you show me the well?
Woman: Da.
Rick: Yeah? What do we have?…Yeah? Like this. OK…nice! OK, so in, to the horses? There we go!

We’re staying at a farmhouse B&B. Our host ritualistically closes the gate behind us. People here are superstitious — especially after dark.

It’s dinnertime, but first we’re getting a little tour. Traditional Romanians collect their nicest belongings into one room to impress their guests. Heirloom dowries are lovingly displayed — these are bridal gifts going back generations.

Tonight, we’re being treated to a farmer’s feast. The food is typical of the region — rustic, delicious, and farm fresh. Our host, Ana, is determined to feed us well. Hearty salads, cabbage rolls. Polenta is a daily treat around here, and pork is big. In Romania, like everywhere else, food is especially tasty when it’s local and fresh. And everything goes better with the local firewater.

Host: Noroc [cheers], hooray!

After dinner, the evening continues in the music room, where Ana’s husband gets out his violin and shares some rousing folk music.

In this traditional community, many homes are busy with small-scale crafts and industry. Just up the lane, we meet a family who welcomes us into their cozy yet busy world. The daughter, using a technique that goes back to ancient times, gracefully spins raw wool into yarn.

Inside, her mother weaves the yarn into bolts of cloth, which will eventually be made into heavy woolens for the winter.

Next door, a watermill does the same work it’s done since medieval times. With the flip of a giant lever, George, the miller, sets things in motion.

All of this powers his fulling mill, which takes the neighbor’s woven wool to the next stage. Wooden hammers relentlessly pummel the fabric. With the help of hot water, the wool is pounded into a dense felt.

The finished product is heavy and warm — ideal for the frigid Romanian winter.

The water wheel also powers grinding stones. To this day, villagers drop off their grain to be ground into everything from animal feed to polenta.

And George also has his own still for making the local brandy, horincă. He stokes the fire and patiently stirs his heated plum mash to keep it from burning. After its steamy journey through his low-tech water cooler, George’s beloved firewater trickles in to his bucket.

And you can’t visit George’s distillery without tasting the final product.

Rick: Oh yeah. Good?

Maramureș has some of the finest wooden churches in Europe. Their graceful spires punctuate the countryside. Soaring skyward, they seem to connect earth with heaven. The exteriors show off the quality craftsmanship of local woodworkers through the centuries. And our guide, Teo, shows us how beautifully decorated the interiors are.

Rick: Teo, this is remarkable. And how old is this church?
Teo: Seventeenth century.
Rick: How old are all these beautiful paintings?
Teo: Eighteenth century.
Rick: You know, they look…more simple. Like what you see [in the] 14th century in France or Germany.
Teo: Yeah, it was a kind of a delay, or a very long-lasting tradition.
Rick: And the carpets! I’ve never seen a church with carpets everywhere.
Teo: They are gifts from donators, from parishioners, from the ladies.
Rick: So [if] the ladies want to show their devotion, they bring a carpet?
Teo: Yes, it’s a kind of devotion, a kind of sacrifice, let’s say it.
Rick: And these beautiful embroideries — are these gifts also from parishioners?
Teo: Yes. For example, here you can see it bears the donator’s name, Jurca Pălăguţă.
Rick: Oh, that’s the name of the woman who embroidered this!

Even modern churches are still built in the traditional wooden style. Dating from 1995, this one towers 250 feet, with artistic shingle work cascading from peak to eaves.

Again, the technical mastery of the woodworkers is on display. Chunky timbers, precisely dovetailed, keep massive walls firmly in place.

Just up the road is another unforgettable church — this one with an unusually joyful cemetery. In 1935, a local woodcarver — reviving an old tradition — began adorning what’s known as the “merry cemetery” with a forest of vivid memorials. Each one comes with a whimsical poem and a painting of the departed in the moment of death or doing something they loved.

Even if you can’t read the poems, the images speak volumes: from a life-time commitment to a traditional trade, like weaving, baking, or wood-working…a more modern one like television repair, or to a passion for bicycles, a sad early end by a lightning strike, or a humorous memorial to a lifetime spent enduring a nagging mother-in-law.

It’s a poignant and good-natured celebration of each individual’s life, as well as a chronicle of village history. And it’s all painted in cheery blue to match the heavens, where these souls are headed.