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Like Walking into a Fairy Tale or Back into Medieval Europe
Maramures, Romania

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Sarah Shuckburgh travels through space and time to an ancient Romanian way of life.

I wake to the sound of crowing, clanking and mooing. As chickens peck in the dust just beneath my window, a dozen cows are shuffling through the village, their bells a hollow, discordant jangle. At each house, another cow joins the throng. Like a dog-walker or childminder, one villager is taking his neighbours’ cows off for a day’s grazing.

This is the village of Hoteni in Maramureş, one of the remotest corners of the European Union, where villagers have preserved a way of life which most Europeans cast off centuries ago. Too far from Bucharest to have had its identity crushed by Ceauşescu, this isolated part of Romania has clung on to its ancient rural heritage and to its unspoilt landscape of pastures and forests. Visiting Maramureş is an extraordinary experience, like walking into a fairytale or stepping back into medieval Europe - life-affirming and restorative, but also evoking poignant feelings of regret for what we have lost.

Hoteni nestles between hillsides of poplar, beech and flowering ash. Beyond, lie snow-covered Carpathian peaks and spruce forests where bears and wolves still roam. Here, in the Land of Wood, traditional houses are made of timber, with steep shingled roofs, dovetail joints, wooden pegs and no nails. Gates are massive, perhaps 12 feet high, topped by a shingle roof, and with intricate wood-carvings of ropes, suns and wolves’ teeth – to protect the family from harm. Every household has its own well, neatly hoed rows of vegetables and colourful pots and pans dangling from a tree, a local custom which began as a practical way to store cooking utensils in a home with no cupboards.

I am staying in a traditional Maramureş house. Although my hosts married decades ago, the wife’s trousseau is prominently displayed – layers of hand-woven blankets and embroidered linen hang from the ceiling on wooden poles. By a ceramic stove, a bed is heaped with more blankets and cushions. Above the dining table, sacred icons are draped with white scarves.

Romanian villagers still use horse-drawn carts, coffin-shaped with rubber wheels. I watch as a husband and wife lug a wooden wagon into the road, harness their horse with a bridle hung with lucky red tassels, and then, perching on a plank balanced across the cart, bump off towards their field.

Following a stony track, I stroll to the neighbouring village of Breb. It is a magical walk – silent except for crickets chirruping, birds singing and hens clucking. Everywhere, wild flowers grow with irrepressible exuberance – a glorious, waist-high tangle, unchecked by chemical sprays, filling verges, hay meadows, and orchards of plum, apple and morello cherry.

This is the haymaking season. In Maramureş hay is still made by hand, cut with scythes, turned using homemade wooden pitchforks, draped over wooden railings to dry, and formed into lanky haystacks around timber posts. Whole families are at work - men scything with rhythmic swings, stopping to sharpen blades on a whetstone; women and children tossing hay. Several times, I have to step into the bank of cow-parsley and dog-roses as a cart passes, its sloping sides hidden by a tower of hay.

Breb is a maze of dirt tracks, with enormous carved gates leading to small wooden houses, two of them restored by the Mihail Eminescu Trust which Prince Charles supports. As I walk through tall buttercups into a farmyard, a woman in gathered skirt and headscarf is preparing food above an open fire. Chickens peck about and tethered dogs leap towards me, eagerly. A young girl looks up from the well where she is drawing water. Her sister is washing clothes in a shallow bowl. They speak a few words of French.

In an open-sided barn their grandfather sits, an old woodcarver surrounded by half-completed headstones, babies’ cribs, decorated spoons, cups, and crucifixes – all made from interlocking pieces of wood, with no nails. Pointing to some tattered diplomas, he sighs that in the good old days of Ceauşescu, the state valued folk-craft and woodcarvers were well-paid, but no longer.

In nearby Sârbi, a gushing stream has been ingeniously channelled to provide a water-powered thresher, a washing machine which tumbles clothes in a churning pool, and a thumping device in which heavy beams pummel hot, wet sheep’s wool into felt for coats, waistcoats and blankets. Several men, dressed in thick felt trousers, wide belts and tiny funnel-shaped hats with ribbons, are sitting by the watermill drinking plum brandy.

This isn’t the threshing season or the felt-pummelling season, but it is the distilling season. At the village still, a woman works on her crotchet while her plums are turned into brandy. Three men tend the fire, turn a handle to stop the mixture sticking, and, most importantly, sample the ţuică dripping into a bucket. For stronger, purer horinca, the distilling process will be repeated. Another man is carving tiny plum-wood ladders to fit into bottles. When brandy is added, the swollen wood turns the alcohol golden, and adds a plummy flavour.

Religion is hugely important here. There are nearly a hundred wooden churches in Maramureş, eight of them UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The village of Ieud, in the beautiful Iza valley, has a 14th-century church made of fir-wood, with a traditional spindly, shingled spire. Inside, the wooden walls are decorated with 17th-century paintings, a mix of Byzantine and folk art with biblical quotations in Cyrillic script. At the altar, villagers are praying, crossing themselves repeatedly, touching icons and kissing the carpet beneath them. Outside, the gravestones are wreathed in wild flowers.

Nearby is a charming folk museum – an old house crammed with handmade wooden implements. The custodian is a gold-toothed woman in traditional gathered skirt, white blouse and headscarf. She shows me how hemp is harvested, soaked in the river, beaten with wood, carded, spun, washed, and wound on to spools for weaving. A photograph of her winter wedding in 1972 shows bride and groom in bulky felt and sheepskin clothes, homemade outfits which are now in the museum.

Returning to Hoteni, I watch the cows plodding back from their grazing. In June, they will move to mountain pastures for the summer, with a cowherd to make each day’s milk into soft white cheese, and to guard the cattle from bears and wolves. But this evening, each cow turns into its own yard, as the villagers sit chatting on benches outside their high wooden gates.

The next day is Sunday, a day of rest from haymaking. As I leave, the road throngs with villagers, many in traditional costume, walking to church. Friendly voices call “Drum bun” - good journey. A young man waves to me as he polishes his shiny Chrysler. He tells me that he spent $4000 shipping the car from America for just three weeks, to show his family. He hopes soon, as further proof of his success abroad, to be able to demolish his parents’ old wooden house and carved gates, and replace them with plastic and concrete.

Life is hard for these villagers. Many younger Romanians are keen to escape what they feel is a backward rural life. Many older villagers mourn the loss of collective farms and guaranteed wages. Eighteen years after the overthrow of Ceauşescu’s regime, Romanians still have a corrupt, inefficient government. Healthcare, sanitation and education are chronically under-funded. Human rights violations continue, including the notorious orphanages where children are written off as mentally ill. The Roma gypsies are a poorly-educated and despised underclass, under-represented in government. Factories, mines and workers’ accommodation blocks lie derelict - thousands of jobs disappeared after the revolution, and the unemployed now eke out a subsistence living from strips of land, unable to sell produce because of exacting EU laws.

But despite poverty and physical hardship, this remarkable region has maintained qualities which have been lost forever elsewhere in Europe. Maramureş was too remote to be invaded by the Romans who gave Romania its name, and since antiquity has proudly maintained its unique culture. I shall never forget my visit - the wild flowers and birdsong, haymaking and horses and carts, festivals and faith, woodcarving and other crafts, evoking a time when life was hard, but also calmer, simpler, slower, richer.


Photographs by Ramona Cazacu.
First published by the Telegraph

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