Maramures, Land of Fairytale (Romania)

Crossing the border from Hungary into Romania is a salutary experience these days for a couple of Brits. The officer at the checkpoint took a long look at our passports and shook his head, then he uttered three words: “Brexit. Schengen. Visa.” before handing them back. Basically I think that, like so many other Europeans these days, he was implying that on the 23rd of June last year the citizens of the UK had taken careful aim and fired the rifle squarely into the foot. Further ironies of our situation would become apparent as we entered the country whose citizens had been targeted for the greatest concentration of opprobrium in the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the “Leave” campaign.

The very first thing you notice across the border is how much easier the Romanian language is on both the eyes and ears than the Hungarian, The strong Latin root means that road signs are suddenly comprehensible and the people are speaking something that sounds remarkably similar to Italian. Well, to someone with my dodgy level of Italian, anyway. Towns are smartening up their old Soviet era architecture and the residential areas (we took a few wrong turnings) look well-tended without being particularly prosperous but it is the countryside that simply takes the breath away.

Alright. So we were heading into Maramures: one of the most beautiful regions in Europe, the discrete hideaway of HRH Prince Charles and, without a doubt, the best candidate I have ever encountered for a “New Chiantishire”. If a few more British politicians had ventured a bit further away from the Cotswolds or Tuscany for their holidays and discovered this little paradise, the relentless barrage of anti-Romanian sentiment that became the focus of British xenophobia last year might have been tempered by a more balanced approach. It is amazing what a few gushing pieces in the Sunday supplements can do to make a place fashionable.

Why target Romanians in particular? As new immigrants who are often unskilled, I suppose they are an easily identified group whose white ethnicity makes it easier for the Far Right to claim that “racism has nothing to do with it”. Perhaps there was a vague, subliminal association being made with Roma people (gypsies), always a good target for “hate speak”. I’m not saying that an influx of British holidaymakers would have done much for the people of Romania culturally but, since so many voters in the UK Referendum made poorly informed, emotional choices, I think it might just have tipped the balance in attitudes towards the citizens of Eastern Europe.

Well, how to describe this region without gushing? I have to admit that after telling Grahame that I wanted to go and see some of the gorgeous old wooden churches of Northern Romania, I more of less left the itinerary up to him. Perhaps I thought that the last country on my exhausting Odyssey through Europe could hold little to surprise or delight or perhaps I was just tired of looking stuff up. Nonetheless, after negotiating a steep and twisty route through small villages and patches of forest, we arrived at Budesti to find the church of St Nicolas, the tallest wooden church in the world. Not for this particular World Heritage Site the usual harbingers of cultural excellence: the elaborate signage, the streets of souvenir shops and the tightly parked rows of coaches. No. Here, amongst the sorrowful trees and a graveyard of hand-carved crosses we found a cardboard sign pinned to the gate bearing a mobile phone number.

After about twenty minutes, a local trustee arrived to let us in to the surprisingly cosy three room interior (the church itself is disproportionately small compared to the 70 meter needle-thin tower). The gnarly old walls glitter with ancient icons and simple benches of dark oak are adorned with brilliantly coloured embroidery and handmade lace. As with all wooden buildings, the dates of construction varies according to which bit you are looking at and vary from late 17th century for the magnificent Copernican Cosmos painted on the ceiling of the vestibule to early 21st for the latest repairs to the external shingles. And here’s a snippet of information you won’t find in the guide books; this church boasts four tiny corner towers surrounding the main spire, a symbol to all around that the Courts of this Parish, above all of its lesser neighbours, once had the power to impose a sentence of death.

The Heritage status is bestowed upon a whole cluster of such churches in this region and we visited several more of them including, to Grahame’s delight, some in various stages of re-construction. We stayed in a farm outbuilding which, while admittedly “done up” for the tourist trade, had wooden shutters and a ladder up to a bedroom straight out of a folk story. When we were offered supper no-one asked us what we wanted, it was just assumed that we’d eat the same as the family: thick vegetable soup, thick bread and thick cream, strawberry tea, strawberry jam and strawberry liquor. No-one counts calories around here, they all work much to hard for that.

Between churches we found our way into a couple of Folk Art exhibitions, which were really little more than enterprising locals who had opened their homes to show visitors their family photographs, textiles, musical instruments and furniture. Since what we were looking at was the genuine article, with many items exquisitely handcrafted and passed down through the generations and treasured all the more for their patina of long use, it was something of a privilege to find ourselves exploited this way. After all, visitor traffic is remarkably light at this time of year and, although sincerely admiring, we were not buying much more than a bottle of the local spirit (strawberries, of course) and a small Christmas ornament made from cleverly interlocked pieces of wood.

We dressed up in local costume for photographs and I marvelled at the detailed hand stitching on a gorgeous white lace blouse. It’s just as well I decided that the style would be too “boxy” for me to wear back home because grandmother wanted 800 Euros for it. On reflection, she was absolutely right; three generations had worked on that garment and once it was gone, there would never be another like it. Later when we visited Manasterea Barsana during Sunday mass, I understood the appeal of these unflattering, square-shouldered, big-sleeved blouses. Romanian women from fifteen to fifty love to wear them above swirly, knee length skirts in pretty floral prints that match their headscarves. The whole “Sunday best” outfit seems to be assembled to show off their absolutely splendid legs, whose calves are further enhanced by the most exaggerated strappy, shiny, high-heeled shoes you could imagine. Lack of much discernible waistline is apparently not seen as a disadvantage as they cling on to the arm of one of their more soberly clad men.

We visitors were admitted to the monastery even as this long, colourful Communion procession snaked its way back from the outdoor sacrament while nuns fluttered about clearing away the altar cloth and beautiful hymn music rang out over the surrounding hills. It all looked so idyllic that I almost missed a couple of little girls begging beside the exit. From their grubby, heart-shaped faces and long, tangled hair I think they were probably Roma but to most of the congregation, they might as well have been invisible.

Categories: Europe

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