Monday 28 November 2016

Roaming In Romania: Part 3 - Maramures

Day 8 – Botiza to Ieud


After a fairly leisurely breakfast of yogurt and honey, bread and jam, hot milk and coffee, we set out from the pension to walk over the hills to the main village of Botiza and on to the neighbouring village of Ieud.

Our host Tudor led the way for the first part of the walk. Good job too, as the route was complex – invisible paths leading to clear tracks that were promptly left behind again – and probably only understood by someone who had spent a lifetime wandering these hills. We reached low summits, followed ridges and dropped into valleys, meeting shepherds and skirting haystacks on the way.

Near Botiza, Tudor took us to a small house that belonged to Maria's uncle until he passed away earlier in the year. Maria's mum was there, 75 years old and still working in the fields. We had a brief chat and a look round the house: but clearly, the loss of her brother was still very emotional, so out of respect we didn't stay too long.

Descending into the village, we said goodbye to Tudor and met Dan who had the lunches. We had a brief look round the village, including a rug/fabric weavers, then set off up the hill on a lovely path through pasture dotted with haystacks and fruit trees.

At this time of year, there are millions of apples. Some are for eating, but mostly they will be used for making Palinka, the favoured way of “preserving” the abundant crop.

On reaching the saddle, we stopped for lunch with one of the best views you could image, a small sheepfold behind us and oodles of silence. With great food too, it was bliss!

Unlike some of the paths we followed, the route we were now on had recently been re-signed and clearly way marked. Apparently, this was the work of a German man who had settled in the village and who was a keen hiker.

From the saddle the route took a detour from the way Ramona knew, so we decided to follow it. It was lovely as well, contouring round the valley under a higher summit, then following a ridge with wonderful views all round, especially from the final summit where we were greeted with a 360 degree panorama.

Our descent into Ieud led through pasture, meadow and wood, until a final narrow path brought us out beside one of the larger churches. We made our way through the village, crossing the river before meeting Dan and the van beside another small wooden UNESCO heritage church.

Originally built in 1364 it has also been painted,  but in this case directly onto wood, not as frescos. Restoration had taken about 8 years, but the beauty was undeniable and quite different from painted monasteries we had seen before.

Next we popped into the nearby ethnographic museum which mainly focused on use of hemp as a fabric and also held a collection of traditional household items.

Returning to our digs, we had another delicious meal – White bean soup, stuffed cabbage leaves (Sarmarle) with sour cream and raspberry and apple cakes. There was homemade hooch, too, and wine, and we enjoyed a convivial evening with Ramona, Dan, Maria and Tudor swapping stories and showing photos, the evening chill kept at bay by the stove and the warmth of the hospitality.

Day 9 – Botiza to Glod and transfer to Hoteni


We had another superb breakfast of coffee, homemade yoghurt, pancakes, bread, jam and honey, plus a vegetable paste called Zacusca made from aubergines, peppers, etc, that is a bit like pizza topping (and is another example of how to preserve an end-of-season glut of produce).

Afterwards, we said our goodbyes to Maria and Tudor and set off up the hill behind the house under gloomy skies. We passed a few ladies heading out into the fields - today's work seemed to be gathering potatoes.

Descending into the village of Poienile Izei, we visited another UNESCO church: this one a small wooden example from around 1780 whose interior had not been restored and whose painted walls were black with the accumulated grime of 230 years of candles and prayers.

Moving on, we climbed the next hill and fell in for a while with a local chap who was keen to set us on the right path. As we walked, conversation flowed via Ramona, and we got a brief snapshot of life at this end of the village.

We joined a dirt road for a while then headed off across a scrubby meadow before becoming locationally challenged in a small band of trees. Losing the path did give us the chance to see deer and a fox, so worthwhile in the end!

After backtracking slightly, we descended to a gravel road that we followed down hill and into the village of Glod (which apparently means “mud”) where Dan was waiting with the van, arriving just before a squally shower swept through.

We headed down the valley and made for the town of Sighetu Marmatiei, right in the north of Romania on the border with Ukraine. We had lunch at a nice traditional restaurant (goulash soup and potato rosti) before having a quick look round the town centre including the market, where sweet paprika tempted us into purchase.

Moving on, we took a side trip following the border to see what is known as the Merry Cemetery, where the headstones are wooden and inscribed with a short biog of the person’s life in a humorous style. Some were self-congratulatory, some slightly acerbic (one was to a mother-in-law along the lines of “please go quietly so as not to wake her”) but the majority were gently comic and mostly respectful.

Returning to Sighetu, we then made for our pension in the village of Hoteni. We had a quick wash and brush up before dinner – 4 courses, but we could choose as much or as little as we wanted, so not too overwhelming! We had bread and Zacusca and cheese to start, then pork and cabbage soup, grilled pork with garlic and potatoes, and chocolate cake to finish. Pretty good!

We also had a glass or two of wine to help it all down, and started the meal with a glass of eye-watering home-made pear brandy and the traditional salute of “noroc!”

Tomorrow, weather and brandy permitting, we are hoping for a mountain walk!

Day 10 – Gutai Mountain


Breakfast was again ample, but today we were also choosing our own lunch from the table so we could basically take as much as we needed – something of a relief as we had been overfed for several consecutive days!

We began with a half-hour drive up to a 900m pass on the main Sighetu-Baia Mare road where Dan dropped us off, and after a couple of minutes searching behind a large pile of road gravel, we picked up a wide, clear trail through the woods.

Soon, the trees thinned and the views opened out, and we moved into more open ground peopled by shepherds and other walkers (it being a Saturday).

An old road Roman road traverses the mountain, and after a stretch of walking on the cobbled track we struck off across the grassy slopes and took a steep, rocky path through Beech woods beside the outcrop of the “Rooster’s Crest” to emerge on the summit where we stopped for lunch.

Gutai mountain is not particularly high in reality – or even Romanian in terms at a shade under 1500m – but it stands well proud of the surrounding land. The ridge looks impressive from below and is a dominant feature on the skyline when down in the valley.

After a break for lunch, we made our way along the ridge on narrow paths through low, woody stemmed growth primarily of juniper and bilberry. It’s flatter than might be expected, and takes in minor outcrops on the way until, at the far end, a second more substantial summit is reached.

The ridge is more curved than appears from valley level, with a dog-leg to the right after the second large outcrop towards a group of 3 smaller tops. We followed the path towards these, skirted round the base of each, and began to descend into the woods once again.

Once we had reached more level ground, we took a short snack break then began the task of following the path off the mountain without confusing our route with the many logging paths in the woods.

A bit of checking was required here and there by Ramona, but we made good progress and eventually reached the road where Dan wasn't waiting with the van - he'd parked a few hundred metres further down the road where another path crossed. No problem, though – we were soon reunited.

Heading back towards Hoteni, we called at another village to view a house that was for sale. Nothing special, you might think, but it was interesting nonetheless as what we saw was an authentic wooden house of the Maramures area.

We learned a bit about house buying – apparently, houses can be sold either as we do here – house, gardens, etc – or just as the house alone, which can be dismantled and shipped elsewhere! In fact Ramona and Dan bought their house in Hoteni, then dismantled it and rebuilt it in their home town like a giant jigsaw.

Returning to our pension, we had another lovely dinner – this time starter, soup, cabbage and sausage and a cake to finish, with Palinka and wine – and chatted away into the evening like old friends.

Day 11 – Busteni to Breb and to the airport.


Today was the final day of our trip, but thanks to a late flight home we had the morning free to make use of.

After another lovely breakfast, we left our pension and drove to the next village of Busteni. As it was a Sunday, what better way to begin the day than with a visit to church – this one painted, as others have been, but different because it is still in use as a working church.

Preparations for the morning service were well underway as we peered inside for a look round. Besides the painted decoration, beautiful fabrics hung from the walls and draped around the furniture, and the priest was making his final preparations in the calm before the service.

In the churchyard, an elderly lady was standing over a grave, muttering softly to herself. For a moment, we thought we had unwittingly intruded on an intimate moment – perhaps she was remembering a lost relative or passing on gossip to her late husband. But no: as she turned towards us, we caught a glimpse of the mobile phone tucked beneath her headscarf, and the illusion was shattered. Maramures, Romania in fact, is full of such contradictions.

Walking over the fields towards Breb, the bright, sunny morning was increasingly warm, and the mountains all round, including Gutai, looked glorious.

No walk in Romania is complete without a flock and the ubiquitous sheepdogs. This time we were hidden on approach, so we waited until we could be sure the shepherd could call them back before proceeding.

Soon, we reached the track into Breb. William Blacker, author of Along The Enchanted Way, spent time here, and owns a house in the village. There is also another house owned by the charity ARTTA that renovates old traditional houses, and we got permission to look inside. There was plenty to do to the two dwellings there, but the setting was gorgeous in the autumn sunshine and they will no doubt be attractive guest rooms in due course.

More time ambling between these delightful villages would have been lovely, but our trip was almost over. Setting off from Breb, we drove over the mountains towards the flat plains further south, stopping briefly by a stream for lunch and again in Dej for an ice cream.

Then, almost before we knew it, we were at the airport, and it was time to say our goodbyes to Ramona and Dan. We'd had a very special time, helped greatly by the brilliant guides and drivers who were friendly, fun, informative and patient with us all the way through, and who made our visit all the more memorable.

This trip was everything our previous Romanian outing had promised but failed to deliver. In fact we were really smitten, and, God willing, we will return one day to experience more of the traditions, history, culture and warm hospitality we’d been privileged to encounter this time. 

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