Romania Road Trip

Romania Road Trip – Part 1: Bucovina & Maramures!

Derek Romania 42 Comments

Romania Road Trip
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…

Focsani

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!

Wedding in Focsani

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…

Bucovina

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.

Vatra Moldovitiei 2

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.

Sucevita Painted Monastery, Bucovina

Voronet Painted Monastery, Bucovina

(Vila Crizantemaif you’re ever in Bucovina, I can highly, highly recommend this guesthouse!)

Maramures

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.

Bucovina Countryside

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.

House in Maramures

Bucovina, Romania

Here’s where we ended up while in Maramures…

WOODEN CHURCHES
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.

Ieud Wooden Church Maramures

Rozavlea Wooden Church, Maramures

Carrying on to the…

MERRY CEMETERY
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)…

Merry Cemetery, Maramures - Happy

While I was alive / I was liked by everybody / Just like a baby swallow / I lived 80 years / Here is where I rest/ Pirsoie is how I was addressed / While I lived in the world / I liked many things / To drink and to live well / With a handsome man by my side / May you live dear Darvai / You’ll keep crying after me / For as long as you will live / Because you won’t find anyone like me

———-

Merry Cemetery, Maramures - Horses

Ever since I was a child / I liked horses very much / With horses I worked hard / And I earned a lot of money / I helped my nephews / They didn’t show any gratitude / They didn’t sing nor cry after I died / Didn’t even come to my grave / But my niece Teodosae / May Holy God look after her / Because she put a cross above my head / Buried me next to my mother / And I left life at 82

———-

Merry Cemetery, Maramures - Tuica

Here is where I rest / Braicu Toader is how I was addressed / While I lived in the world / I liked way too many things / To drink and to live well / And with women by my side / Oh how dear was life to me / While I could still kiss / And as I grew older / Those things turned against me / Cause I left life at 73

———-

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.

Merry Cemetery, Marmures - Bicycle

Merry Cemetery, Maramures - Bartender

Merry Cemetery, Maramures

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.

Memorial of the Victims of Communism

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?

Chestnut Festival Baia Mare

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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Comments 42

  1. Deanna

    Hi Earl, could you please delete my 3 posts/comments at the top of this thread?
    I did not post them in that order at all, one was a response to another comment posted by Bama, I clicked on reply under his post and then typed it, then the middle one was a correction to a misspelling in that post addressed to Bama.
    The way they are now, they make no sense so please delete them, I hate to leave my name attached to such nonsense.
    Thanks.
    This is a private request to you, so no need to publish it.
    Thanks again.

  2. Deanna

    Hi Earl,
    A bit of trivia here: my Mom used to be the Manager/Accountant of Butoiașul cu Bere in the late Seventies and early Eighties when it was state owned. 🙂
    About the Chestnuts Festival of Baia Mare (my home city in the past): at first there were chestnuts all over the place during that festival but in the past 5 years or so, the sweet chestnut forests of Maramureș with some trees being as old as 500-700 years, got infected with blight – known as Cryphonectria parasitica – it’s usually fatal to sweet chestnuts. It causes bright brown cankered bark, in contrast to the greenish normal bark and the disease, imported from Asia, had killed most of Maramureș chestnut trees. The only treatment is repeated vaccination of the trees, one by one and that costs so much, they cannot afford it I’m afraid. The same happens in France and all over Europe with the sweet chestnut plantations/forests.

  3. Deanna

    [In response to Bama’s comment below] Bama, I’m from there originally although I live now in Australia, but the paintings on the Moldavian churches’ walls are not bucolic scenes, they are scenes from the Holly Bible depicting mainly the after life = hell and paradise. Those frescoes also contain portraits of the princes and kings of Moldavia together with their extended families at the time when these rulers erected those churches within the monastery walls. The tradition was that after each successful major battle in the war against the invading Ottoman Empire (the ottomans being today’s Turks) the ruler would erect one new church as praise to God and Jesus for helping them win that war/battle.

    2. The Merry Cemetery crosses of Săpânța are not a centuries old tradition like the churches inside those monasteries fortified walls, it has been started when I was a kid by a funny local villager by the name of Stan Pătraș.
    He was initially a carpenter with the ability for rhyming and who also made crosses and coffins when required. One day he made such a cross probably for someone with good sense of humor and it caught on.
    If he wrote a limerick and painted the cross brightly, the customer paid better for being ‘different’, so some started ordering their crosses while still alive and approved the lyrics, others died unexpectedly and the family had to approve or disapprove the lyrics, etc.
    Nobody in Romania paid any attention to what was happening in that cemetery as communist regimes try to detach themselves completely from religion and its ceremonials and even suppress them.
    But one day about 45-50 years ago or so, a camera crew from Japan stumbled upon that cemetery accidental and the rest is history.
    Stan Pătraș became an international celebrity, a well off man and took a couple of apprentices to teach them the spirit of his trade.
    And this is the story of that unique in the world, one of a kind cemetery, few km away from the city where I was born.

  4. Joseph

    Hey Earl.

    Can you please do a post about how your travel is affected by the Schengen Agreement? I know it limits travel for backpackers, and you seem to be a real fan of Romania and Central Europe. I believe you may even have a residence there, or did at some point. Is the SA really a nightmare for backpackers?

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Joseph – It’s not really a nightmare…it’s quite simple. Travelers can only stay in the Schengen area for 90 days out of any 180 days. After they use up their 90 days, they need to be outside of the area for 3 months before they can return. However, there are plenty of countries, such as Romania, that are not part of the Schengen area, so you could go to the Schengen area for 3 months, then travel to Romania, Moldova, Bulgaria, Serbia, etc., spend 3 months in those non-Schengen countries, and then return to the Schengen area after that.

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  6. Nikki

    Does it count as a road trip when you’re on bikes? It totally does, which in that case, my best road trip experience would definitely be cycling around the Netherlands. We were sleeping in a one man midget tent, hardly any possessions on us and had no clue where we were going or what on earth we had gotten ourselves into! We had bikes with pannier bags, and we used spring chord to strap our backpacks to the back of the bikes. It 2 weeks of cycling and camping around the dutch countryside from city to city, meeting the most amazing people, seeing beautiful parts of Holland, and gaining substantial amounts of muscle mass, (quads the size of barrels). Best 2 weeks ever – would definitely recommend it to everyone!

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  8. Margaret

    Earl. This trip and all your others sound just amazing. I’m road tripping down the east coast of Australia and working in my blog. Here’s too future success and forever travelling.

  9. Victoria@ The British Berliner

    I love this post Earl as Romania is such an unknown but intriguing country! I really find the headstones interesting and a really cool idea and as well as the funny chestnut festival (I hope that’s not too weird!).

    I have 3 greatest road trips. The 1st one was a 6 week trip around Eastern Europe with my then boyfriend, who became my husband a few years later! That was our 1st big trip together, and we survived! Our road trip was to East Germany, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. This took place in 1994 which was 5 years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall!

    The 2nd road trip was a another 6 week journey around the Federal Republic of Germany, 6 weeks after our only child was born in 2002. We spent time visiting the German side of the family and of course, travelling around the whole country. We covered the Baltic Sea area, the North Sea, East Germany, the Black Forest, Heidelberg, Trier, which is the oldest city in Germany, and of course, Munich, Cologne, Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, the usual places. It was a lovely road-trip, and our baby was just fine.

    The 3rd road trip took place in America in 2011. We were in America for a month and took a road-trip around California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. It was our 1st time in America, our son was 9 years old and we “did” all the National Parks in the region, the Grand Canyon, LA, Vegas, San Fransisco, Santa Barbara, Disneyland, the lot. It was a fabulous time and we hope to do it again in 2015, but on the East Coast. Great times!

  10. Christine @thetraveloguer

    Romania has always seemed like such an interesting place to visit. I would love to spend the day in the communism memorial. Those tombstones are so interesting, I’ve never seen anything similar. 🙂
    My favourite road trips are when we travelled around the North Island in NZ, and when I went from San Francisco to San Diego with my family when I was a kid!

  11. Karyn @ Not Done Travelling

    Earl I loved this post, because I had no idea there was so much to see in Romania. I have to confess that out of all of Europe it’s one of my least-researched places, so I didn’t know most of this stuff existed.

    Gotta love those gravestones! I actually think it’s a really nice touch, to celebrate the person’s life with colour and light-heartedness. I think I’d rather be remembered with a poem than with some sad inscription.

    The Memorial to the Victims of Communism looks like it’d be very sobering, though. (And such a juxtaposition to see it right underneath your description of the Merry Cemetery). The pictures of those status makes me sad; I can only imagine there’d be many more things like that in the museum there.

    And your description of the chestnut festival makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside, lol. Who cares that there were no chestnuts, any excuse for a party! haha

    I love road trips in general. I agree with you – the freedom is the best thing about it. I’ve driven throughout much of Eastern Australia on road trips and I love seeing a sign for something quirky and going, “Let’s check that out!” and then taking 3 hours enjoying this new random thing you discovered. 🙂

  12. Ryan Biddulph

    Hi Earl,

    Absolutely awesome.

    My grandfather was Romanian – from Transylvania – and he had so many stories to share with us during his lifetime. From robbing corpses when he was a kid to grab money for food, to the calls he was receiving back in NJ after they killed “the monster”, Ceausescu, to the fine little garlic flavored meats we ate on the grill, that we all loved and gushed over.

    Great memories. I want to visit his homeland one day and since I’m a 1/4 Romanian myself, it’d be fitting. So tough for me to leave the tropics though. Loving Fiji so much.

    The Romanians are warm, kind people. This I know from my grandpa, and from his sisters, or my mom’s aunts, who’d visit here and there, to see their brother in NJ. They spoke virtually no English but they’d have gifts and smiles for us, and it’d be so fascinating to here their stories translated.

    So much history, and culture, and even though I’m a teetotaler I’d have to try that blueberry liquor, because it sounds beyond amazing. I’m a sucker for any good, flavorful drink here and there, especially if it gets the thumbs up from a world traveler like yourself.

    Thanks so much Earl. Tweeting soon.

    Signing off from Savusavu, Fiji.

    Ryan

  13. Bama

    The painted monastery reminds me a little bit of a temple in Luang Prabang which is adorned with paintings depicting bucolic scenes of Laos. I was caught by surprise to read the translations of those tombstones in Merry Cemetery. I wonder if those were written before the death of a person at his own will, or they were written by the dead people’s families. Either way, it’s quite fascinating!

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Bama – Deanna replied to your comment with some more interesting information about the cemetery and churches but for some reason it didn’t show up as a reply. Might want to check out what she said!

  14. Kristin

    What fun to follow your trip around Romania! I was a Peace Corps volunteer there from 2007-2009, and visited some of the same places. Your photos and commentary are drawing me back again, I can’t wait!

  15. Grace Q

    The Bucovina monasteries pictures brought back good memories of your tour last year. I am so glad I went. Going on a road trip too with friends to see the Christmas Markets in December. Three women in a little car driving across three countries in the winter makes for lots of stories to tell later.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Grace – You have no idea…when I went to the guesthouse that we stayed at in Bucovina, they were so happy and remembered everything about the group. It was incredible, they remembered the meals, where people were sitting at the table, where everyone was from. Definitely let me know how your upcoming road trip goes, should be wonderful I’m sure!

  16. Mark

    Presently I’m walking the Camino in Spain, and have the pleasure of walking with a great couple (Loana & Mihai) from Romania. They have encouraged me to visit their great country & may after your post.
    Thx Derek

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Mark – Great to hear and you really should head this way whenever you can, maybe not in winter though! In the summer, it’s such an ideal destination…I’ll actually be offering a tour here in May 🙂

  17. Katie @ The World on my Necklace

    Romanis really does look like such a beautiful corner of the world. My favourite museum to date was the Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius which is housed in the old KGB Headquarters – so very sad but absolutely riveting. I have done so many amazing road trips but I think the most incredible was probably 3 months driving in a van around Europe, free camping along the way.

  18. Mike

    For me, the definition of freedom is an open road and a full tank of gas. One of my favorites was a cross country tour across Cuba in a Lada rented from a Cuban government agency. We meandered from Vinales in the far west to Baracoa in the far east over two weeks.
    Public transit is very limited there, so at major intersections along the highway police are positioned to pull over any vehicles with open seats, and allow passengers to board. For tourists, accepting passengers was optional, but we were happy to have a chance to meet locals, and learned much from the many people we gave rides to. Just don’t pick anyone up with little baby chicks hidden in their bags, they can create a little havoc if they get loose!

  19. Jaskaram Khalsa

    Yay! Thank you sooooo much for taking the time to write of your experiences and posting such beautiful photos. They make me happy. I have not been to Romania but, what a lovely place it is. Perhaps one day I will find myself there. Loved the painted monasteries and the Merry Cemetery. Love it. Looking forward to part two.

  20. Shirley Hollick

    We feel the exactly the same about the freedom in having our own transportation. The first photo on this post is absolutely gorgeous! We travelled through a good part of Europe this spring, and now Romania is on our list for next time. Croatia impressed us a lot this time, and Hungary. Keep up the good work!

  21. emily

    being a fan of road trips, this post touches my heart! the year my husband and i were married, we unexpectedly adopted a dog whose needs kept us from our original travel plans of several months in southeast asia. having saved all the money and taken the time off, we decided to switch gears and drive cross country with our dog. inspired by family and friend’s locations and desirable destinations, we mapped out a route to california. it was truly a most incredible adventure full of laughter, good food, spontaneity, and new experiences!

  22. Michele

    Amazing road trip so far! I’ll have to do the same the next time! We’ll be in UK/Europe again within the next couple of years. My daughter wants to go after bachelor’s degree, before school starts for her master’s. Maybe we’ll finally catch up and have that drink we’ve mentioned a few times! 🙂

  23. Thomas

    Hey Earl,

    I’ve been following your blog for a while now and finally decided to comment.

    I’ve been planning an eastern europe trip, hopefully getting it going in the summer of next year. I will have to make this one of my stops along the way. How long did your road trip last? And where did you end up staying (accommodation) along the way?

    Safe travels,

    Thomas

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Thomas – Thanks for commenting! As for the road trip, it lasted two weeks as that was all the time I had but we did move quite quickly. If you have three weeks, it would have been much more relaxed. As for accommodation, we stayed in a combination of pensiune (guesthouses) and hostels. There are plenty of both all over the place and you can expect to pay anything from $12 USD for a dorm room in a hostel to $35 USD for a great private room in a really nice guesthouse.

  24. Renuka

    I, too, LOVE road trips! Romania is beautiful beyond words or imagination! Look at the churches and monasteries! Gasp… I envy you! It is definitely on my wish-list whenever I embark on my European trip.

  25. Carolyn Dickson

    Amazing! I’d love to go to Romania, and according to these pictures, Maramures is the place I definitely want to go to!

  26. Bram

    My greatest road trip so far was up the Australian west coast. I drove from Perth to Monkey Mia and Shark Bay, passing Kalbarri National Park on the way, and back. The west coast of Australia is nothing like the backpacker-overrun east coast. It’s quiet, remote and calm. Loved it!

  27. Katie

    I LOVE road trips! My hubby and I drove across the US and back for our honeymoon 6 years ago. I’ve also taken road trips through Costa Rica and Mexico. I love the independence of it, especially when you happen upon festivals like the chesnut one you went to. It’s so fun, and you just can’t do that without a car.

  28. Kieran

    I was in Montenegro in 2012 in a town called Kotor, I had plans to stay for a few days then fly to Belgrade. Got to a hostel and met some travellers who told me they were hiring a car and there was a spare seat if I wanted to come. I thought it through for about one minute, then decided to go and cancel my flight to Belgrade. It was the best decision ever, we cruised around Montenegro visiting little towns, insanely beautiful national parks and staying at locals houses. Spontaneity is the best part of traveling!

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