Monday, October 29, 2012

Maramures, our “Romanian Brigadoon”

Some of you may remember the wonderful Lerner and Loewe musical “Brigadoon” about a Scottish village that remained unchanged and untouched by the modern world because it only appeared for one day every 100 years.  Well, Maramures is our “Brigadoon,” a land of horse-drawn wooden carts where hand-pitched haystacks dot the landscape and the spires of simplistic wooden churches pierce the sky.  This area is also home to some of the kindest, most genuine down-to-earth people we have ever encountered.

We were fortunate to have Andrei Mahalnischi as our driver/guide through this amazing time warp.  Andrei has a remarkable talent for relating to the local people, and he gave us an unforgettable glimpse into a way of life that has disappeared from the rest of Europe.
We spent three nights in Maramures in the home of Maria and Ioan, the nicest couple you could ever meet who welcomed us into their home and into their hardworking lives.  Ioan is a true proud peasant, a farmer who works the land and cares for his farm animals from dawn to dusk.  He is also a gentle soul who touched Anne’s heart when he handed her a perfect white rose on our last day.
Maria holding a painting of her and Ioan on
their wedding day
Maria is a retired elementary school teacher who fills her days making gorgeous handicrafts and creating the most delicious dishes – every meal was a culinary adventure from incomparably creamy polenta called “mamaliga” (made with sour cream) to an assortment of delicious soups, all made with the freshest ingredients.  Dinner each night consisted of a starter, a soup, a main entrée, and a dessert.  Everything made from scratch with local ingredients – baskets of just baked bread, extra spicy pickles fermented with horseradish, featherweight crepes served with homemade jam.  In Maramures, people never want to appear ungenerous, so the amount of food delivered to our table each night was always overwhelming.  We were constantly torn between not wanting to offend Maria and wanting to be able to fit into our clothes!
Maria and Ioan spoke no English, but they did speak French so that worked out pretty well since both of us have a few years of French under our belts.  Frank and Maria were able to speak Russian as a backup; altho reluctant to do so, Maria understood/spoke some Russian, as we found out. 
Ioan, Andrei, and Maria celebrating
Andrei's 61st birthday
Staying with them was so much fun.  Andrei celebrated his 61st birthday while we were here, so one night Maria and Ioan presented him with a huge homemade cake and sang a Romanian birthday song.  Not to be outdone, Frank played his harmonica and Anne sang “Happy Birthday to You.” 

Creek water for an impromtu "shower"
Of course, rural life is full of surprises.  One morning the entire town was without water.  Unfortunately, Anne was just heading for the shower, but no worries, Ioan arrived on the scene with a big pot of warm water (from the nearby creek, we assumed) along with a smaller saucepan to use as a ladle.  What can you do?  When in Romania, you do like the Romanians!  When the water goes down, you sit in the bathtub and scoop warm creek water over your body as you scrub to get clean.
One of the wooden churches of Maramures

The pride of Maramures are the fabled wooden churches – impressive small buildings with towering Gothic spires completely made of wood.  The government at one point in time disallowed any new churches from being made of stone, so not to be deterred, the peasants made them of wood instead.  Inside, the church walls are decorated with unsophisticated paintings by local talent.  The overall effect is a simple devotion that perfectly matches the people who live here.

Ladies of Maramures shopping at
the Animal Market

On one day, we visited the Animal Market, a traveling band of vendors who move from town to town selling animals and just about anything you would need to buy: horses, cows, pigs, shoes, clothes, furniture, leather goods, cabbage, beets, other food staples, and trinkets galore.  What a zoo!  And the best part was watching all the people of the town doing their shopping.  Everyone was so friendly, and they all seemed amused when we took picture after picture of what to them is just a routine event. 

Vendor bagging a piglet for a lady customer
Anne still can’t get over seeing a woman purchasing a live piglet – the piglet was hoisted up and dropped into a burlap sack by the vendor, and the happy buyer went on her merry way, carrying her squiggling, squealing shopping bag over her shoulder!

Unique grave markers of the Merry Cemetery
Another highlight was the Merry Cemetery (which Anne wrote about in her latest cemetery article).  This was the most colorful cemetery we have ever seen with hand-painted bright blue crosses.  Each cross has a painting of the deceased and a personal epitaph (that Andrei translated for us).  The bright colors are intended to remind us that death is not a sorrowful thing but a new beginning, and each epitaph begins with the reassuring words of the dead person, “I am relaxing here…” 
Cells inside the former prison from the Communist era
The Memorial of Anticommunist Victims was a much more sobering sight because it addressed a period of nasty history on the Romanian calendar.  This museum was dedicated to all the Romanians who suffered imprisonment and often death at the hands of the Russians and the infamous Romanian dictator, Nicolai Ceausescu.  It is impossible for us as Americans to imagine living under these regimes, and the tyranny they rained on their citizens.  One small example:  you needed a permit to own a typewriter and permits were given only to those who needed a typewriter for their jobs.  But it didn’t end there -- every year you had to submit a designated text typed on your typewriter which was kept on file so that it could be used to identify the source of any subversive pamphlets or documents.
Artisan milling corn --
note his traditional Maramures hat
We also visited a local Maramores artisan who seemed to have a regular “industrial complex” in his front yard.  Since his place was located next to a small creek, an active water wheel was able to provide power and water to wash major sized blankets and rugs in a large conical wooden barrel; at the same time, it could also operate a mill stone that ground grains like corn and wheat into flour. 

Making "palinka" in a wood-fired still

But the most interesting operation was the brandy distillery, a rough looking set-up fueled by a wood stove to accelerate grain breakdown and fermentation, and where alcohol was cooled at the final stages by the waters of the creek.  We got the full tour including a taste of the home-brewed palinka (plum, apple, or other fruit brandy).  We were never sure if homemade palinka is exactly legal.  But in this country of Romania, everybody drinks it, everybody makes it, and everybody swears it is medicinal.  Yes, Frank bought a few bottles, and we’re bringing ‘em home to America for those times when we need to fight off those nasty colds!
What a cute Maramures peasant couple!
One morning, Maria gave us a demonstration of carpet-making on her loom.  She is an incredible talent, and weaving on a loom, as we discovered, is just one more of this woman’s long list of capabilities -- and she has been weaving since she was five years old!  For some fun, Maria decked us both out in a selection of her best Romanian garments.  We made quite a pair, and Andrei took lots of pix to capture the moment.

Frank drives the hay wagon with some of the locals
A favorite activity in Maramures was just driving around and stopping whenever something caught our eye.  One day, we stopped to talk with two farmers who had just finished loading their hay wagon, and before we knew what was happening, Andrei had arranged for Frank ride on the wagon and drive the horses.  What a thrill!
We hope this report and these pictures give you a taste of what we experienced in our “Brigadoon.” According to the legend of Brigadoon, no resident can ever leave the town or Brigadoon will disappear forever.  Even in this regard, Marmaures is somewhat similar.  Recently after an especially difficult winter, Maria suggested to Ioan that they sell the farm and move to the city.  Ioan replied, “I can’t leave; this land is my life.”
Faces of Maramures:

Frank hunkers down with the locals and entertains
them with his harmonica


  1. It sounds like an idyllic trip. I'm considering my own trip to Romania and Maramures. Would you mind sharing the name of Maria and Ioan's pensiune and the town in which it was located?

  2. Astonishing Frank! I wouldn't present Romania better.
    Congratulations from a Romanian who is in love of this beautiful ever-lasting MARAMURES.