I’m a major road trip fan. The open road, the ability to go wherever I want, to stop in any city, town or village along the way, to slow down or speed up, to visit destinations that would be difficult to reach without your own transportation.
When I pass by a vendor on the side of the road selling freshly made goat cheese or homemade jams, I want to stop and have a taste. I want to stop for that sudden photo opportunity or, better yet, just to take a few minutes to observe my surroundings or walk into that valley that I would otherwise pass right by.
Other forms of transportation have their value too. But if I have a chance to take a road trip, I’ll sign up faster than I would shave my armpits upon arrival in an intensely warm tropical location.
Over the past two weeks, I was fortunate enough to embark on a Romania road trip with a couple of other people, a trip that took me all over this mighty fine land.
And this was by far one of my favorite road trips of all time and it went a little something like this…
It all began with the wedding of some friends, more like acquaintances actually, and probably people who will never talk to me again after my horrendous dancing display when it came time to dance to traditional Romanian music at their wedding. As I was dancing as part of a circle of fifty people, moving this way and that, kicking my feet a little and trying to avoid looking as clumsy as I am, I think I almost caused serious injury to several other wedding attendees. My apologies to any aunt, uncle or cousin that I may have semi-trampled on!
But overall, this wedding was a major success. Just one of those genuinely brilliant nights full of good people and good fun, a long night (over 9 hours, finishing at 5:30am), but wonderful nonetheless. Great start to the road trip!
From Focsani, the town where the wedding took place, we headed to…
On my Wandering Earl Tour to Romania that I led last year, we visited the region of Bucovina, mostly for its well-known painted monasteries, but since this road trip took us in that general direction, I did not hesitate to head that way again. And I even decided to show up without warning at the beautiful guesthouse in Vatra Moldovitei where we stayed last year on the tour, something that proved to be a highlight of this adventure. The owners recognized me instantly and wouldn’t let us continue without spending a night at their place, enjoying a home-cooked dinner and drinking some of their own afinat, an often-delicious liquor made from blueberries. It was the kind of unexpected, yet perfect, experience that constantly reminds me why I’m traveling in the first place.
Yes, we also visited some of the painted monasteries – Voronet, Sucevita, Humor and Moldovita – and those were cool to see again as well. They’re interesting and remarkably peaceful with such few tourists up in the region at this time and the windy roads between some of them are the kind of roads that make you want to stop the car every ten meters for the view.
(Vila Crizantema – if you’re ever in Bucovina, I can highly, highly recommend this guesthouse!)
This was the heart of the road trip. Ever since I first stepped foot in Romania back in 2010, the region of Maramures, in the north of the country, was on my radar. However, given its location, well, way up in the far north of the country, I never seemed to find the time to travel there.
So when I actually saw the sign, along the remote mountain road leading from Campulung Moldovenesc to Borsa, welcoming me to Maramures county, I nearly drove right into that sign because I started clapping and cheering and doing some kind of weird (according to my passenger) thrusting motion in the driver’s seat. Luckily, I was yelled at in time to avoid hitting the sign in the end, or driving over the edge of the road and straight into the valley below.
Soon after, with the cool air of autumn descending upon the region on the day we entered Maramures, our first stop was the small town of Borsa. Here is where we prepared for the exciting days ahead, with a hot coffee at a cafe, a few minutes look at our map and a change into warmer clothes.
Then, with winter hat on the head and jacket all zippered up, we continued…
Maramures did not disappoint. The relaxed atmosphere and the traditional way of life, as well as the super-friendly people everywhere, matched exactly what I had heard, as did the wooden churches, merry cemetery and all the rest. And any area that offers endless, and usually empty, country roads to explore is ideal for a road trip. We drove all over the place, without much of a plan apart from choosing where to go based on the signs we passed or choosing random roads from our map.
Here’s where we ended up while in Maramures…
From Ieud to Botiza to Rozavlea, from Budesti to Barsana to Calinesti and Surdesti, you would think that after visiting a couple of these wooden churches, one might be a little tired of the activity and prefer to do something else, maybe even hang out with the cows, for a change of pace. But surprisingly, it wasn’t so. I don’t think there was anyone else at any of the churches we visited and even though the signs in front of most of them said they were open from 9am – 4pm, there were so few visitors that we had to call the phone number on the sign and the villager with the key had to come up to the church to let us in. And when you have these unique, 200-400 year-old churches all to yourself, often surrounded by forest or located on a hill overlooking the countryside, religious or not, it’s hard not to enjoy the experience.
Carrying on to the…
Oh yeah, the Merry Cemetery. This was perhaps at the top of my list of places to visit on this Romania road trip and the two and a half hours I spent roaming around these graves certainly lived up to my expectations. In short, it’s a cemetery in the town of Sapanta where a local wood carver creates brightly colored wooden tombstones for the deceased. However, it’s not just the colors that make this cemetery stand out – it’s the carved images of the deceased and the short, often humorous, poetic and ironic, tale of the person’s life that is carved into the wood as well. It sometimes even goes into the details of how they passed away.
Here’s a few examples with the words translated (very loosely, as it’s almost impossible to maintain the meaning with they style in which they are written)…
With over eight-hundred of these tombstones packed into this relatively small area, there are stories everywhere and by the end of your visit, it’s hard not to look at death, and even life, a little differently, a little less seriously.
Who would think that spending such an amount of time walking around a cemetery would actually put you in an overly good mood? I wasn’t sure who to thank…the deceased, the wood carver or the villagers for keeping this tradition going even today. Heck, I’ll thank them all.
Onward we drove…
THE MEMORIAL OF THE VICTIMS OF COMMUNISM
This was the biggest surprise of this portion of the Romania road trip. Having planned to arrive at this museum in the town of Sighetu Marmatiei two hours before closing, we were stunned to discover how large and how well-laid out this place turned out to be. We were equally stunned to discover that the exhibits, full of such detail that made you want to read every single word (or in my case hear each word translated into English), would take far more than two or three or even four hours to cover without rushing through it all.
The Memorial of the Victims of Communism is located in an old communist prison and is dedicated to all those who were victims of communism, not just in Romania, but in other countries around Europe as well. It’s a moving experience to spend time here and one that is absolutely worthwhile if you’re in Maramures. Give yourself a few hours, take it slow and try to soak it all in.
CHESTNUT FESTIVAL – BAIA MARE
After visiting a couple of more wooden churches and driving the beautiful route from Bistra to Cavnic and then on to Baia Mare, we reached the final stop on this Maramures section of the road trip. Baia Mare is the capital of the region and I’ll be damned, there was a chestnut festival taking place when we arrived!
Right in the main square we found a stage and dozens of stalls and quite a celebratory atmosphere. But I’m not so sure what they were celebrating because it sure wasn’t chestnuts.
There were old-school Romanian singers performing, food vendors selling mici (grilled meat in sausage form made from beef, lamb and pork as well as spices) and chicken and shaorma, local artists offering their goods…there were apples for sale, freshly made jams, homemade wine and other delightful foodstuffs as well.
Chestnuts? Not so much. Despite being billed as the chestnut festival, there were only two chestnut vendors who were both very much overshadowed by the other stalls. But as I mentioned on my Facebook page at the time, who needs chestnuts anyway when there is hot wine available?
So, a couple of servings of hot wine, a few hours hanging out at the festival, listening to music and sampling the local products, a superb dinner experience at the Butoiasu cu Bere restaurant a few blocks from the main square and a nice, long night-time wander around town – not a bad day at all before it was time to hit the bed for my final night’s sleep in Maramures.
The following morning, after one more quick walk and purchasing a large bag of apples, and with my jolly mood showing no signs of disappearing at all, I bid farewell to this town and turned my attention to the second half of this Romania road trip…
Romaina Road Trip – Part 1 Route [Bucharest, Focsani, Vatra Moldovitei, Vadu Izei, Sighetu Marmatiei, Baia Mare]
Romania Road Trip – Part 2 Route [Cluj-Napoca, Turda, Hunedoara, Bulzesti, Sibiu and Transfagarasan]: Post coming soon!
Now let’s hear it…tell me about your greatest road trip…where did you go, what did it involve?
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