Sunday, 16 February 2020

Maramures Part 2 - Churches and Countryside

Good morning Maramureș!
Who are you?
So I'd been travelling up in the North of Romania for the last day and a half, and absolutely loving it. I caught an overnight train to get to Baia Mare, a mini bus early in the morning to see some wooden churches, some country hiking trying to avoid angry dogs, and now it was time to do some hitchhiking! I made it up to the main road and to a bus stop, a few houses on the road and not much else, traffic included. Without times or anything that I could understand anyway, I figured the bus that dropped me off wasn't coming back in a hurry, nor would there be another possibly until the next day. I've hitchhiked a few times, in Argentina, Chile and Romania as well, but to be honest you could count how many times on my fingers. I stuck out my thumb, stood up straight and smiled. It didn't take long at all, about 4 cars in fact, before someone pulled over and offered me a lift! There is something exhilarating about successfully getting a ride, your heart beats faster and you get excited that someone has actually decided to let you in their car. There is also the part where they could be a serial killer, but hey, they are probably thinking the same about you! I jumped in the van, a guy clearly a delivery driver of some sort, and off we went, whizzing through the green countryside. We didn't chat, as he spoken no English, but I told him where I was going and get took me there in record time. 26kms later and around 30 minutes, I said thank you in my best Romanian and hopped out, ready to walk through the next small town to my next small wooden church. I walked down into the village of Budești, to the first of 2 churches here. I was the only foregner as far as I could tell (although I saw the French couple, from the first church, in their van as I was leaving), and it was a very authentic village of wooden houses, decorative gates and even a guy walking down the street with a scythe. Yup, you don't see many of these tools, but here in Romania you have to watch out for your head when walking and taking pictures, as they are still very much used in farm work and people do carry them around over their shoulders.

Budești Josani Church.
Inside the church.
The holy log.
Cows waiting to be milked.
The weather was warm, the sun shining, shirt sleeves rolled up and I was sweating, but a happy sweat as I was completely free, enjoying the weather and my surroundings, and I wasn't even worried that I didn't have accommodation for tonight. I have to apologise if I get the names of these churches wrong, but the names are difficult to pronounce and write, and I think even Google was a little confused here. The first church, the wooden church of Budești Susani, was up a hill and a little away from the centre, but I found it and glad i did. Although closed, I was able to walk around the church and the grounds and admire it in peace, as there were no people here at all. This church dates back to 1760, the iconostasis (the decorated wall that separates the nave from the alter) is even older (1628) and the main building is said to have been built in 10 days. I wasn't able to see the beautiful paintings inside, but the next church in the centre of town was open and I did go into that. The Church of St Nicholas, or the Budești Josani Church, is open to the public for a small fee and photos are even allowed inside. I waited with a group of Romanians to be let inside and and go exploring. The walls are filled with paintings dating from when the church was built back in 1643, and although the interior was a little dark, you could still see everything clearly with the light let in by the tiny windows. This could be a reason why the paint has survived so well in fact, as they looked quite new and fresh. The whole church was timber and in some parts it felt a little unstable, but I guess if it's stood for this long, it wouldn't fall when I decided to climb the stairs to see the second floor. Inside, there was a cabinet with a glass front, displaying a split log with a burnt crucifix on the wood. I read the description and it said that the log was found in Budești on the 30th of March 1998 as it appears here: "Neither the chainsaw and ax have broken no sign so dear to all Christians Holy true. God deigned to give us this wonderful sign in the Holy and Great Lent just of Easter." After walking around and taking some photos, I went to the supermarket (at least this place was big enough for one!) and waited for the bus to take me to the next town.

Traditional methods.
The main road of Săpânța at sunset.
Wooden roofs.
Brightly coloured graves.
I have to mention these 'buses' that I caught all around up here. They weren't what you normally of as buses, more minibuses or just big vans with loads of seats in them. Sometimes you get them from a bus depot, sometimes just on the street. In fact, one time I had been waiting at the stop and cars just kept stopping and picking up people, who I assumed they knew. It kept happening and I worked out that these cars were 'buses' too. I asked a police officer just to make sure, and he looked at me like I was an idiot, which passed for 'of course this is the bus, why would you ever doubt it.' Other times I go the bus from a 'real' depot, but still it was a little weird and I never knew exactly when the bus would arrive, or if, as there wasn't much in the way of timetables or spoken English. What I also found was that the drivers acted as a local postal service too and were delivering small packages to people when they stopped to unload their human cargo. I find this really quite interesting! My next stop was the The Merry Cemetery in the village of Săpânța, something that had been recommended to me and was my first, real tourist destination along this route that I'd chosen. I got off the bus after a lovely drive through the countryside and found myself on the main road of town. I decided to find accommodation here first, to be able to dump my bag and walk around freely. The place I had in mind, Casa Vlad, was just across the road to where I'd got off so I went to investigate. Run by a jovial old lady, who was all dressed up in traditional clothing, including the head scarf. She also didn't speak a word on English, so my teaching skills were put to the test, relaying meaning and gaining understanding of what I was being told as well as answering. I mustn't have done too badly as I scored a big room, located the bathroom and got a decent price. I dropped by bags and headed straight for the cemetery. So far, I'd seen very few, if any, tourists, but this was about to change - as soon as I turned the corner to the only other road in town, I started seeing mini-buses, cars with families, roadside stalls selling tat as well as more and more people everywhere. To be honest, it wasn't that bad, not like it was Barcelona in August in front of the Sagrada Familiar, but for Romania, and especially this part of the country, it was heaving! I paid the small entrance to visit the site, even though I could clearly see over the wall, and started wandering around and admiring the strange site that is the Merry Cemetery. The thing that makes this place 'merry' are the brightly painted 'headstones' - wooden crosses with pictures of the 'occupant below' doing what they loved in life. There are pictures of some people working on their farm, having dinner with a friend, and even one with a a guy driving a car. I did start to wonder if the scene depicted was how they person actually died, and as I can't read Romanian, I wasn't sure so decided that it was in fact the things they did in life rather than how they go to where they are now. These markers were in various states or repair (or disrepair), but all colourful and interesting, completely matching the church with it's nearly too colourful roof and decorations. Sadly work was being done on the inside and I couldn't see much, but still, I think people came for the graves more than another church.

Colours everywhere in the Merry Cemetery.
The Merry Cemetery.
More wooden churches.
Church spires in the distance.
I had a late lunch and wandered over to the Peri-Săpânţa Monastery, a short walk from the village. Although only completed in 1997, it was built in the same, wooden style as all of the churches in this region and was very beautiful. There wan't much information and only 2 buildings to look at, one of which was closed (possibly for the monks or priests who lived there), but one man spoke to me to practise his English and told me a little about this place. The church spire is 78m tall, supposedly making it the tallest wooden church in the World, and is a UNESCO site, along with the other wooden churches. There really was't much here, but it was very pleasant and not too full of tourists either. I decided to go for a sunset walk after this, as I'd seen some spires in the distance and decided to check them out. I walked out of my lodgings and headed East. Basically a 2 road town, forming a T intersection at the bus stop, I didn't have much choice, but I was happy just to wander along the road and see what I see. It was lovely, as I saw people go about their normal lives, old ladies gossiping to each other, knitting wool on the roadside, people cycling home and even a farmer cruising down the road on his tractor. I came to a rise and walked off the road, walking through tall grass to find a lookout point with a view of the river Tisa and the Ukraine. I'm not sure what town it was but I could see the very distinctive Russian-style church towers, which I think look like onions, just across the river. I admired the view, the peace and quiet, watching the sunset and thinking how lucky I was to be here, at the edge of Romania. It felt like the edge of the World to me at the time. The next day was going to be a big one, so I went to bed after my walk and slept. There also wasn't much to do around here once the sun went down to be honest. I grabbed a bus early in the morning, got off too late to easily get the next bus (the driver was quite surprised to see me still sitting on his bus as he was nearly home!) but managed to find the depot and walk there, seeing a little of Sighetu Marmației along the way.

Peri-Săpânţa Monastery and its 78m spire.
The countryside of Maramureș.
the Carpathian Forest Steam Train.
The Peri-Săpânţa Monastary.
I caught my next bus and made it to the town of Vișeu de Sus. This town was far busier than anything I'd come across on my whole trip up here so far. A bustling main road, shops full of people, traffic and just lots going on, I started to think that I'd made a mistake. I came here to see the Carpathian Forest Steam Train, a narrow-gauge railway that twists and turns its way through the wooded mountains, which you can't get to by car - there is also wild bears and wolves roaming around. It was built in the 30s and designed to carry empty logging cars up through the mountains, following the river, picking up logs and then making its way back down. I wanted to check out the timetables for a ride, but wasn't planning on it to be honest - I mainly wanted to see this little train in action, not sit on it for hours with a carriage load of tourists. I found the road leading to the station and walked there in about 30 minutes, reached the station and discovered that I had a 30 minute wait for the train - the perfect amount of time to wander and take some photos of the relics in the yard, and sip a beer in the shade. The train arrived, huffing and puffing its black smoke skywards, trundling down the railway to sit at the station. I took some photos and admired the last operating forest railway in Europe before heading off for my 'normal' train back to Bucharest. Although I'd enjoyed myself immensely up here in Maramures, the other places that I wanted to see are quite remote and hard to get to. Places like the Bârsana monastery and much further over in Moldova, would have to be missed - I also had a flight to catch in 4 days time. I left the steam train as it smoked its way back into the mountains and walked to my train station for the overnight train back. Vișeu de Jos, the next town, was about an hour's walk away and I decided to walk there as the weather was lovely. That and I couldn't find a bus to take me there. I made it to the station, even enjoying the walk (apart from the car exhaust as I walked on the side of the road), bought my ticket and then had to wait 3.5 hours for it to arrive. The train station was absolutely bare minimum of everything - including seats. There were also more stray dogs there than passengers waiting for their train. It looked liked it was being repaired but not much work had been done yet (and there was even a scythe in the bathroom!), so I went across the road to a bar. I spent a bit of time sitting at the local bar, having a few beers with the locals, 2 guys in particular were really interesting. Vlad and Ion, neither who spoke English, were great company - we shared beers and chatted away, using hand signals as well as a mix of Spanish, Italian and English (for my own benefit only). We had a storm hit us while I was waiting, and the shopkeeper kindly hustled us inside to wait it out. It was a wonderful experience of Romanian kindness and genuine friendliness, and the best way to finish of my trip in Maramureș.

Sunset on the Ukrainian border.
Drum bun! Farewell!

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MyUncleTravellingMatt. August 2019.

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