The wood fiber permeates and holds together everything mankind in Maramureș has gathered in her/his life, to pass on to the children: house, table, wagon, tools, art, places of prayer. The world has seen many wood-based civilizations, but few of them remained. The Maramureșean (man of Maramureș), however, kept his as a treasure – he wore it with him, from generation to generation, all the way to the 21st century. Wood is not only a source of heat and a construction material for him: he embraced it with his hands, his eyes and his mind and turned it into art.
Free and refusing to obey, the people of Maramures have advanced through history by mastering their own purpose. They were peasants or gentry (also called “nemeș “ – that is why Nemeș remained one of the most widespread family names) and raised their household alone, as they saw it fit and as they could afford.
The wooden gate is the ultimate exposed symbol of the Maramureșean’s pride – and not the house itself. Through the gate you enter the yard: proof that its purpose is not at all to lock the place in, is the fact that the fences are short, allowing the passer-by to see the house and the household annexes. Therefore the gate has a different meaning than protection: it is tall to say something about the people who live beyond it – hence the stately and elaborated wood-carved architecture – wood carved with solar, zoomorphic and religious symbols, above which, on the frontispiece, stands the year of the construction and information about the family members’ occupations.
Beyond the gate you find the Maramureş household, which has as its vital center the house – “stătutul” (the place where you simply stay), as people call it – made mostly of three rooms over which there is a high roof. Above these, the craftsmen placed draniţă (wood shingles). Around the house gravitate the annexes – a few constructions with precise destinations, arranged harmoniously, according to old unwritten ordinances, in the garden enclosed by the woven fence of hazel rods: the tool shed, woodshed, the haybarn with the stable, the corn basket.
What makes the traditional households special is what ethnographers call “openness” – the passer-by can see everything from the street: how large is the house, how many annexes it has, what kind of works the family is doing in the yard. The people of Maramureş are sociable and jovial – it is possible that they will talk to you if they see you on the street, greet you in their yards with a glass of horincă and a piece of homemade cheese and then tell you stories and jokes.
If you know where to look, you can still find enough traditional households in Maramureș – despite the implacable advance of new buildings, easier to raise and more comfortable, but so impersonal and drab. Authentic houses with tall gates, long worked, carved with an artistic refinement that made Maramureş a place so special, can be seen if you enter the less wandered streets of Breb, Hoteni and Sârbi, but also of Budești and Călinești. If you want to understand the soul of the people in Maramureș, look for these houses. You will not be sorry.
The heart of the community beats in Maramureș, as in most rural civilizations, at the village church. People go there for prayer – but also to meet each other and speak about the rites of the place. Centuries after centuries, the church was the place where the important problems of the community were debated and the crucial decisions were made. The village fields were strategically supervised; people gathered in the church for happy moments – weddings and baptisms, and also when troubles, fires, invasions, and other misfortunes came to happen.
Churches are, as it is natural, like places and communities: some are small, almost unknown – such as the one in the village of Mănăstirea; others are imposing on the outside but intimate and warm on the inside, such as those in the Mara-Cosau-Creasta Cocoşului area – many of them part of the UNESCO heritage. Both the small ones and the big ones keep a whole world hidden in them, which you can feel and understand only if you get close to it with care, patience and discretion.
Churches part of UNESCO heritage
St. Nicholas Church in Budești-Josani
The coat of armor belonging to Pintea Viteazul, the legendary outlaw – a Robin Hood of the place, mentioned in documents from the end of the 17th century – is preserved here alongside a valuable collection of icons on wood and glass dating back to the 15th and 16th century in this wooden church raised in 1643 – and from then until today, they have celebrated its patron saint on December 6, the day of Saint Nicholas.
On the inside walls of the church, considered “monumental” at the time – the height of the tower reaches 26 meters – you can still see the craftsmanship of Alexandru Ponehalschi, probably the most famous artist in the 18th century in Maramureș. In most of the paintings that Ponehalschi made in 1762 his personal mark can be discovered: miniature biblical scenes framed with colorful borders. And under the biblical scenes, a number of church ministers can be noticed: Vasile the Great and John Chrysostom, but also Pope Clement and Pope Leon the Great.
At the Church of Saint Nicholas, which is today part of UNESCO’s patrimony, you can also find an architectural detail not seen in other churches in the area – and which served, in other times, as an indication that there was a council of elders in the village. We leave you the joy of discovering it.
HOW TO GET HERE: the church is right in the center of Budești village, across the street from the school
VISITING FEE: 3 lei
KEEPER OF THE KEY: ask for the key at the tourist information next to the school or call 0764206302
Also raised from wood, like most of the Maramureș churches, the Deseşti Church (included in the UNESCO world heritage), is worth seeing first of all for the beautiful painting preserved in the ante-temple. The image presents the Last Judgment – here, Moses is leading various ethnic folk to the heavenly throne of Jesus – “jids”, “turks”, “germans”, “tatars” or “frânci”, as the documents of the time call them.
The altar stone of the church, dates from 1770 and celebrated on 14 October each year, on the feast of Saint Parascheva the Humble, is also the subject of an interesting legend: it is said that people tried to raise the church in four other places, but the altar stone kept overturning – and that only remained in its proper position here. If you walk around the church and reach the graveyard, you will find ancient stone crosses framed in a circle similar to the Celtic ones; historians say that these are Dacian crosses, the circle being the symbol of the ritual bread – just like the “dead man’s bread roll” in the burial customs.
HOW TO GET HERE: coming from Baia Mare, on DN18, in the center of Deseşti village, turn left on the street that goes up the hill – follow the sign on the national road
VISITING FEE: 2 lei
KEEPER OF THE KEY: contact the parish house (at the end of the street, on the right, before the church) or call 0740980224, 0730004713
The delicate, graceful, unique world of the Maramureș churches will be revealed throughout these places; and when you discover it, most probably a monument church has already come into your way. Here’s a short list of them:
- Saint Archangels Michael and Gabriel Church in Breb, dating from the 17th century. Its tower was erected in 1531 and comes from a church in the village of Copăciș – being one of the most well-kept towers of the wooden churches in Romania.
- The Church of Budești-Susani, dating from the 18th century
- Assumption of the Virgin Mary Church in Călinești Căieni, historical monument dating from the 17th century. The ante-temple contains a unique painting, showing the 12 duties of the Heaven, represented through a ladder upon which souls descend.
- Assumption of the Virgin Mary Church in Călinești-Susani (Băndreni), dating from the 18th century
- Saint Nicholas Wooden Church in Cornești, historical monument dating from the 17th century
Traditional technical installations
People in Maramureș, thrifty and with engineering spirit, have learned to use the energy of water courses – Mara and Cosău, in our case – they have done this by building ingenious technology from the material they have always had at hand: wood.
The grains were treaded with traditional thrashers; cereal grains became flour by using traditional mills; sunflower and pumpkin seeds were squeezed into oil, with traditional oil mills; wool was felted with fulling mills; and then the wool was transformed into garments, which they washed into whirlpools. Above all, the brandy distilleries turned apples, pears or plums into the horincă not to be missed, which is drunk even in modernity before meals.
The installations were built in small complexes, according to the area’s custom (one of each kind was necessary): using ingeniously the rotation movement from the same vertical wheel driven by water, the owners increased the efficiency of the work. In addition, such a complex was a great place to socialize – as they were waiting for the flour or horincă to be processed, the people found out new things, changed impressions and made various plans.
Inevitably, the folk techniques crafted in Maramures were slowly replaced by the ones obtained from mass production – more efficient and more resilient; much of the traditional facilities were in the worst case disused and at best upgraded with metallic parts, easily found today on the market. And yet, on the valley of Cosău, which has a higher flow rate than other water courses, you can still see the traditional engineering at work:
– in Sârbi – fulling mills, whirlpools, thrasher, mill, distilleries for horincă (local brandy)
– in Budeşti – whirlpool, mills, distilleries for horincă (local brandy)
– in Văleni – mill, whirlpool
Everything has been preserved since the time food, clothing and other things needed for life were made at home, right at the village hearth.