The countryside is the heart and soul of Romania, where peasant culture remains a strong force and medieval life prevails, as it does nowhere else in Europe. A young American couple, researching ancient traditional villages in Europe for post-graduate studies, recently moved in with a host family in Northern Romania in order to document a culture unique in the world.
People are happy to meet foreign visitors, often inviting them into their homes for a meal and conversation. For a true introduction toRomania's traditional villages, consider a home stay. Rates range from $8 to $25 per person including two meals. Rooms are clean and comfortable but some do not have private baths. Most hosts do not speak English.
For more information and reservations visit www.antrec.ro — the Website of the agro-tourism organization ANTREC.
Strada Stirbei Voda 2-4
Telephone: (011) 40-1-315-2732
Fax: (011) 40-1-312-0148
From the province of Moldavia, head westward along a good, but mountainous, road to Romania's most traditional region, Maramures. The drive takes about five hours with no stops, but this is virtually an impossibility, especially for photographers. Picturesque villages (notably Ciocanesti, whose houses covered with painted flowers and geometrics make it arguably Romania' s prettiest village), spectacular mountain scenery and a unique museum smack in the middle of nowhere The Museum of the Tree Roots (Muzeul Radacinilor) with a bizarre exhibit of figures sculpted from tree roots all beg inspection. Gawking becomes even more demanding once Maramures is reached. At Mosei, turn left toward Bistrita, then right after a few miles toward Sacel and Sighetu Marmatiei, the principal town. (Sighetu also can be reached by continuing straight at Mosei, but the lower road passes through the region' s most traditional villages.) From Sacel on, each village offers its share, and more, of wooden houses, many with sculpted designs on balconies and around entrances. Then, there are the towering carved wooden gates, attached to fences half their size, rising before even modest dwellings.
Popular motifs include grapevines, acorns, twisted rope, sun symbols, crosses and forest animals. The villages of Barsana and Oncesti have, perhaps, the greatest number of impressive gates.
Maramures is Brigadoon land where the way of life has changed little over the centuries. In late afternoon, old women sit outside their gates coaxing coarse wool onto spindles. Many still favor traditional dress, meaning white frounced blouses, striped woven panels covering full black skirts, headscarves and "opinci", a sort of leather ballet slipper from which heavy yarn criss-crosses over thick socks. On Sunday, such dress is practically de rigueur, even for little girls.
Hardly a village lacks its own small wooden church dating to the 17th and 18th centuries. These are exquisite, high-steepled jewels with multiple gabled roofs, all of a pattern yet each distinctly unique. Seeing at least a few interiors is a must as many frescoes remain in good condition. If time is limited, the interiors at Ieud, Bogdan Voda and Poenile Izei are recommended. The latter depicts some highly original torments for such sins as sleeping in church. Although churches are usually locked, ask any passerby for the key-keeper by pointing at the door and saying "cheia" (pronounced kay-ya), meaning the key. Romanians are extremely kind and friendly and will be sure to help.
While the main tourist activities in Maramures are gate-, church- and people-viewing, the town of Sighetu Marmatiei has a few attractions worth visiting. The outdoor village museum, on the road into town, boasts dozens of homes and farm buildings assembled from around Maramures county. Even Oncesti s wooden church has been relocated here.
For a look at Romania s more recent past, an hour spent at Sighetu' s Museum of Arrested Thought is instructive. Though only a block or two off the main street, it is not easy to find. Ask for the "Muzeul Inchisorii" (pronounced moo zow ool un kee swah ree), meaning prison museum. Although built in the days of Austrian-Hungarian rule, the Communist regime utilized the prison for opposition leaders and intellectuals. Three tiers of cells and various exhibits may be viewed; an English-speaking guide is available. An old synagogue (currently under restoration) and the childhood home of author Elie Wiesel (not open to the public) also are in Sighetul Marmatiei (Sighet for short).
No trip to Maramures is complete without a look at the Merry Cemetery of Sapanta, a 20-minute drive from Sighet. Here, colorful folk art pictures and witty words carved into wooden headstones immortalize the deceased's foibles, occupations or family problems. No translations, but the pictures tell much of the story. An old woman bakes round loaves of bread, a young person bends in scholarly fashion over his books, one man is shot by soldiers while another tends his flock of sheep.
Beauty assumes many forms. For most travelers, the enduring traditions of Maramures and the magnificence of Bucovina's painted monasteries will define two of them.
Few people in today's world maintain and cherish their age-old customs, as do the villagers of Romania. Hardly a week goes by without a religious or secular festival somewhere in Romania. Some of the best, however, take place between Christmas and New Year's.
For the grandest winter spectacle, head to Romania's northwestern corner by December 27 when the "Festivalul Datinilor de Iarna" (Winter Customs Festival) takes place in the town of Sighetu Marmatiei.
When a group reaches the reviewing stand, they earn a few minutes in the spotlight for a carol, a folk dance or a tune on old instruments such as the "trambita," an extremely long horn, or the "buhai," a small barrel through which horsehairs are pulled. Some young men ride beautiful horses with evergreen and ribbons braided into the mane and tails and red tassels hanging from the bridle. Gorgeous handmade saddle cloths are ablaze with patterns of colorful flowers. Signaling the end, a horse-drawn sleigh filled with white-jacketed youths, musicians and of course, Santa Claus passes by the crowd. Throughout the afternoon, folk musicians, singers and dancers perform from a stage set up by city hall.
In many villages, especially in the northeastern province of Moldavia, December 31 is the big day — not eve, mind you, but morning. The tradition-packed outdoor event I observed in Verona, a 45-minute drive from the city of Suceava, is typical. The weather may have been chilly but neither participants nor onlookers seemed to notice. First, a choir of schoolgirls sang old carols. Animal skin winter jackets failed to completely hide their embroidered blouses, flowered belts and long striped skirts from which the lacy edge of white under-skirts peeked. Colorful hand-woven shoulder bags and black head scarves completed the costumes which are unique to the area.
Soon, this idyllic scene gave way to the whistles and shouts of young men who galloped out for a spirited dance of the "caiuti," or horses. With amazingly fast foot movements, punctuated by high kicks and boot-slaps, they maneuvered themselves and white cloth horse heads, attached to their waists and adorned with embroidery, tassels and a multitude of colored pom poms, around the small space. In olden days, white horses were believed to be messengers bringing life and luck and this dance symbolizes the bond between farmers and the animals that pull their wagons and aid in working the land.
A clack, clack, clack signaled that the "capra" (goat) was coming. A guaranteed crowd pleaser, the carved wooden head is attached to a long pole which the bearer manipulates to noisily open and close the mouth as he dances around. Any resemblance to a real-life animal has been disguised with long ribbons, a towering headdress and whatever other adornments flash into the creator's mind. This dance once foretold an increase in shepherds' flocks along with abundant crops in the new year. Today's antics are lighthearted, with many a satirical reference to the manners and morals of the villagers. Another festival staple is the dance of the bears (the two-legged costumed variety). Accompanied by their Gypsy trainer and a youth beating a tambourine-type instrument, the animals crawl through the crowd. Reaching the centre, they perform a dance until eventually, the bears fall dead on the ground. After their hearts are taken by the trainer, they return to life, theoretically, a more gentle one. Even today, more bears exist in Romania's Carpathian Mountains than any other place in Europe and this ancient rite suggests the power of man to tame nature. Throughout the festival, masked figures ran about, banging anything that made noise, to frighten away any stray bad spirits that might have invaded the merrymaking. This is another reference to pre-modern days when people believed that spirits of the deceased wandered the Earth between Christmas Eve and January 6. After young orators offered rhyming chants of welcome and good wishes for the new year, the mayor presented round braided loaves of bread, symbolizing abundance and rich harvests, to each participant as well as to a Senator or two, who, true to the nature of politicians worldwide, knew the wisdom of appearing at public events.
Following the spectacle, in a scene repeated in villages and cities throughout Moldavia, groups of children, dressed as bears, horsemen or Gypsies, made the rounds of their neighborhoods. Announcing themselves with a jangling bell, they touched the homeowners with a flower-adorned stick while chanting a verse invoking them to be "strong as stone, quick as an arrow, strong as iron and steel." In return, they received fruit, candy, a pastry or some coins.
For those whose winter travel plans lean toward more tropical climes, Romania offers many more festival opportunities. One of the most well-known, "Targul de Fete," or Maidens' Fair, takes place in July atop Mount Gaina, situated about 20 miles west of Campeni in the province of Transylvania. In decades past, the festival served as an opportunity for young men to meet girls from neighboring villages (and vice versa, of course). Since this not infrequently led to marriage, everyone dressed in his or her finest traditional attire.
With today's less isolated lifestyle, young people no longer need an annual event to meet. Happily, though, the festival lives on and remains a time for traditional garb, food, music and dance along with appearances by some well-known folk artists.
For another colorful traditional event, in an even more splendid wooded mountain setting, don't miss "Hora la Prislop." Held mid-August at Prislop Pass, situated along the northerly road which connects Maramures with Moldavia, this festival attracts people from numerous regions who come, decked out in folk costumes, to mingle and enjoy the traditional music, songs and dance. Travelers often chance on religious celebrations. The majority of people belong to the Romanian Orthodox faith and it is not uncommon to come across processions of worshipers carrying flowers and icons to a church or monastery in honor of a significant event in the church calendar. In villages, such people most likely will be in traditional dress.
A major religious event takes place annually on August 15 near the Maramures village of Moisei. Villagers from around the county make pilgrimages to Moisei's monastery for the Feast of the Assumption. Walking in village groups, sometimes for two days or more, the worshipers carry crosses and holy pictures. The majority of walkers are children and young people. In a scene reminiscent of first Communion, little girls wear pretty white dresses with white flowers, headbands or ribbons adorning their hair. Traffic along the narrow roads slows to a crawl as drivers wait their chance to pass these singing, joyful groups.
After leaving the main road, the procession continues another mile and a half up a moderately steep dirt and rock road before reaching the spacious grounds of the monastery. Most groups arrive on the 14th so the grass is covered with clusters of people who have spread blankets out and are enjoying the chance to socialize and catch up on news from neighboring villages. Some gather in a long open-fronted shelter which has been set up for the pilgrims. Even a few vendors have established temporary shop, hawking food and trinkets. Surprisingly, most of the latter are completely unrelated to religion. Many, especially the elderly, kneel in prayer before various icons set up around the grounds. Others worship in a small wooden church, typical of the region, dating to 1672 or in a larger, modern church nearby. On the 15th, priests lead special services for the thousands who have gathered in the wooded setting.
With its mountains, forests, medieval sites and traditional villages, Romania is a beautiful and rewarding destination at any time. By planning your trip around a festival, however, you'll come away with a better appreciation of the Romanian people and their unique culture. And or course, you'll return home with great photos, too.
While there are great Romanian fine artists, among whom 20th century sculptor Constantin Brancusi is probably the most famous, the typical zest for life and almost naïve optimism that the world is really a beautiful place seem best expressed in the traditional art and craft of Romanian peasants, extending even to their colorful, unique grave markers. In the "Merry Cemetery" of Sapanta, in Northern Romania, carved wooden crosses are painted traditional blue and embellished with fanciful borders, renderings of the deceased and often anecdotes of their lives. As in most parts of the world, full-time artists and artisans are drawn together, tending to form communities throughout the country, where locales are aesthetically inspiring and economically viable. Bucharest and a few of the larger towns boast a few galleries showcasing work from such artist communities, but most don't have galleries. A few examples of local artists' and artisans' work are shown and sold in town museums, but most is sold in street markets adjoining major attractions. Sellers usually are also the makers and some of them speak English. A conversation with them can reveal fascinating facets of Romanian culture. Works of Brancusi are in various locales, but one of the finest collections is in the city of Targu Jiu, in Oltenia province on the southern border of the Carpathian Mountains. Nearby Horezu is a major centre for ceramics, wood-carving and iron forging and the Horezu Museum of Art showcases some of the best work of past and contemporary artists.
The most readily recognizable examples of Romanian art are the famed painted eggs, especially prominent around Easter time. Painting of real hollowed-out eggs was an integral part of preparations for this festival of renewal. Women and children gathered in someone's home and spent a day painting and gossiping. Intricate patterns were actually secret languages known only to residents of the regions where they were painted. The oldest known were painted with aqua fortis (nitric acid) on a traditional red background. They're available in nearly all shops and street markets.
Romanian pottery is still made mainly on traditional kick-wheels with simple finishing tools. Shapes, sizes and patterns reflect the different clays and cultures of diverse areas where are produced. Color glazes and decorations vary from strong geometrics, to delicate florals, animals and humans. There are approximately 30 pottery centers throughout the country, each with its own distinctive style, but the main areas are in Horezu in Oltenia; Miercurea-Ciuc and Corund in western Transylvania; Baia Mare near the northern border, and Radauti and Marginea in Moldavia.
Maramures is the area to see the art of woodwork. Homes are trimmed in elaborately carved wood, wooden gates and even fences are intricately carved. Historically, in this area, a family's community status was displayed through the gate – the more elaborate, the more important the family. The "Merry Cemetery" of Sapanta is in this region, open all year long, at all times -- it's worth a visit. Hand-carved decorations in complex patterns hold meanings beyond the purely decorative. Trees of life, twisted rope, moons, stars, flowers and wolf teeth to ward off evil spirits are associated with myths and superstitions. They show up in furniture, spoons, ladles, walking sticks, keepsake chests and other decorative objects, sometimes embellished with paint. Wooden flutes and recorders are also elaborately carved. Most prized are the multi-piped pan flutes, which are now very rare, as few artisans know how to make them and even fewer know how to play them.
At the edge of the street market adjacent to Bran Castle is a peasant cottage with a window behind which an old woman sits at her loom weaving and watching the passing scene. She'll invite interested visitors into her home, where her English-speaking daughter will explain that she's 74 years old and has been weaving since she was seven. She still weaves with thread she spins herself from sheep her family keeps in their tiny enclosed courtyard. On view in her tiny weaving room, which is also her bedroom, is a selection of magnificent throws and spreads that she has woven. Not for sale, they're priceless examples of this enduring way of life.
Textile weaving is the most widespread craft in Romania, handed down from generation to generation, using distinctive family patterns along with those specific to different districts. Looms still are common in homes and women weave and embroider from childhood through old age. The predominant fibers, wool and cotton are woven into rugs, wall hangings, table covers and clothing. Some Romanian weavers and embroiderers still work with threads and yarns they produce themselves, but younger weavers tend to purchase their raw materials. They weave and embroider just about every cloth article used in their homes, from colorful linen and cotton towels to window draperies, bedspreads, rugs, wall hangings, furniture throws and clothing. In a village near Sibiu, part of a bride's dowry is still a tolic, used to decorate horses of those who ride from house to house issuing wedding invitations.
Embroidery on folk costumes worn for holidays and special occasions (like weddings) follows strict regional patterns and serves also as a sort of secret language known only to people within the different regions. Sibiu uses graphic black and white motifs, reflecting its Saxon heritage; southern regions of Arges, Muscel, Dimbovita and Prahova use red, black maroon, yellow, gold, and silver threads, reflecting influences of the Ottoman Empire. Buzau uses terra cotta; Oas uses green and Moldavia uses orange and the Voronet blue made world-famous by its use on the monastery of the same name. Especially beautiful is cut embroidery on white or ecru linen and cotton, done throughout the country.
While technically textiles, these deserve their own category, because no other textiles so dramatically reflect their regions of origin. As varied as different areas' attractions, so too are the rugs that are displayed on surrounding fences. Most are flat-weave kilims, probably introduced centuries ago by the controlling Ottoman Empire. Today's hand-weavers mix traditional vegetable-dyed yarns with commercial aniline-dyed yarns to produce startling accents within traditional patterns and colors. Rugs from Oltenia reflect nature, with flowers, trees and birds. Those of Moldavia have patterns of little branches repeated in rows to create a tree of life. Rugs from Maramures tend to have geometric shapes, resembling those from Turkey and the Caucasian mountains.
Masks are linked to folk festivals held predominantly in Maramures and Moldavia. Typically made from the hides of sheep, goats or cows, the masks are adorned with fabric, hats, pompoms, metallic bits, feathers, beans, straw and animal horns to represent bears and goats, they're traditionally worn to welcome in the New Year during a couple weeks in December and early January.
The oldest preserved Romanian glass dates back to the Roman Empire.
Currently, there is a renewed passion for creating art in blown glass and
several contemporary Romanian glass artists enjoy world renown.
Most of the professional glass artists are clustered in the northeast, near Botosani. Glass artisans are also employed in factories located in Avrig, Turda and Buzau, turning out molded, hand-carved and hand-blown pieces, many of which are museum quality.
More information on Romanian Crafts:
The non-profit Connecticut-based organization, Aid to Artisans, has published an excellent guide for anyone interested in fine quality traditional crafts. Romanian Folk Art presents recognized master craftspeople, broken down by region. Different regions spawned particular crafts. Woodworkers developed around vast forests with abundance of wood. Weavers and embroiderers came from the high plateaus, where sheep graze.
The following Websites offer Romania crafts:
- FOLK ARTS - Our vision of the world is one where people can overcome geographic, social, technological and economic barriers and fully participate in the beauty of folk arts.