One of the last truly rural regions of Europe, Maramurs is the land of wooden churches, well-kept traditions, splendid natural landscapes and kind people. As Rick Steves said during his visit to Romania, Maramures is the place “where everyday life still feels like an open-air folk museum.”
We invite you to discover the best 15 attractions you must see when you visit Maramures:
1. The Wooden Churches of Maramures
Wood is the primary resource of the region and has been used since a long time ago by locals to build houses, carve intricate wooden gates and build churches. With almost 100 such monuments made of wood, eight of them were chosen to be part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, due to their inestimable value. Examples of “vernacular religious wooden architecture’’ they are characterized by a mix of Orthodox features and Gothic influences.
The skills of craftsmen are visible in the imposing roofs, the tall, narrow church towers and the fish-like shape of the shingles. The interior paintings are no less impressive: they depict scenes of religious events combined with laic motifs that reflect people’s everyday life and beliefs.
The eight architectural masterpieces, part of UNESCO’s heritage, are:
The wooden church of Barsana was built at the beginning of the 18th century and moved to its current location 86 years later, in 1806. The reason reflects the strong faith of local people: the hill where the church now is used to be a cemetery for plague victims and, in order to give them eternal rest, villagers thought that a symbol of God should be built on the hill.
The quality of the interior paintings is one of the reasons why it is considered by many the most beautiful church in Maramures. Colors of white, red, blue and golden dominate the portrayal of religious scenes, with influences of the baroque style.
Photo credit: cultura-maramures.ro
The wooden church from Budesti dates from 1643 and it is the largest of the eight churches. Its architectural style has a series of unique features, like the 4 small towers the surround the main belfry or the 14 pillars built in order to support the double roof.
Here visitors can admire a remarkable collection of wood icons from the 17th century, as well as a splendid selection of glass icons. The mural paintings are equally worthy of admiration, as it is the chain mail of Pintea the Brave, the Romanian version of Robin Hood, which can be found in the church’s interior.
The wooden church of Desesti was built in 1770 and it is home to a wonderful collection of paintings, all well-preserved. One of the church’s distinctive elements is the presence of people of different nations (Germans, Tartars, Ottomans) dressed in traditional clothes in the illustrations of the Last Judgment scene.
The origins of the Iued Hill Church are surrounded in mystery. It is considered by some historians to be the oldest wooden church of Maramures, dating from 1364, while others suggest the 17th century. There is no doubt, however, that an important document, thought to be the oldest paper written in Romanian, was found in the attic of the church. Apart from its controversial history, what fascinates visitors is the high quality and diversity of colors of the interior frescoes.
Since centuries ago the village of Plopis has been an important center for carpenters and woodcarvers. The talent of the locals is fully reflected in the village’s religious symbol: the church, although small, is renowned for its balanced proportions and beautiful architecture.
The construction of the church started in 1798, with the support of 49 founder-families and it was finalized in 1811. At the base of the altar 49 golden coins were discovered, each pertaining to one of the families.
Photo credit: cultura-maramures.ro
- Poienile Izei
The church from Poienile Izei village dates from 1604 and is home to some of the most spectacular but also terrifying mural paintings: scenes depicting a liar hanged by his tongue or a farmer plowed by two devils for having stolen someone’s land can be seen in the illustration of the Last Judgment.
Built in 1633, this is one of the few churches that survived the Tartar invasion in 1717, as documented by an inscription on the door. It is famous for its asymmetrical roof and carved wooden structures, amongst which the twisted rope decorations stand out. Another unique feature is the existence of the “Elder’s table”, a place where rich people used to sit and offer meals to the poor on important religious events.
Photo credit: wikimedia.org
The wooden church from Surdesti is the second highest religious structure in Romania and Europe, being 72 meters tall. Locals used to believe that the highest the church, the easier their prayers could reach Heaven. The church is made entirely out of oak and has impressive architectural characteristics specific to Maramures: a double-eave roof, the twisted rope motif and remarkable wooden icons.
All these monasteries can be seen in our Maramures and Bucovina private tours.
2. Merry Cemetery of Sapanta
It is probably the most well-known tourist sight on our list of the best 15 attractions that you must see when you visit Maramures. Unlike most graveyards in the world, the Merry Cemetery of Sapanta has a unique approach to death, seeing it as a celebration of a life that ended rather than a tragic event. It all started in the 1930s when Stan Ion Patras carved his first oak cross. Each cross in the cemetery is painted in a particular shade of blue, now known as “Sapanta blue” and decorated with traditional motifs. On the cross, there is also a picture, meant to illustrate a personality trait or a significant scene from the life of the person who died and a short, witty poem. One of the most famous crosses in the graveyard is that of Stan Ion Patras himself, who passed away in 1977 and left his legacy to his apprentice:
“Ever since boyhood
I was called Stan Ion Patras.
Good people hear what I have to say,
And I will tell you no word of a lie.
For as long as I lived
I never wished anyone harm,
Only good, as much as I could
No matter for whom
Oh this poor old world of mine
It was hard to live through it.”
3. Sapanta-Peri Monastery
This monastery complex lived-in by nuns is home to the tallest wooden structure in Europe, having 78 meters in height. The church was built in 1997 using traditional methods and it is covered in 8.5 kg of gold, making it easy to sport from a distance. The base of the church is made of stone, but the rest of it is built of oak and, as everywhere in Maramures, the exterior wooden carvings are of particular beauty.
Photo credit: trecator.ro
4. Sighetu Marmatiei
Former capital of the region of Maramures, the city of Sighetu Marmatiei, also known as Sighet, is the point of departure for all major tourist attractions in the area. The city itself is known for its rich cultural heritage and the high number of museums reminiscing of the city’s past.
It is also named the Museum of Arrested Thought, as a reminder of the building’s former function, that of prison. During the communist period it was the place where many of Romania’s important figures were arrested and tortured. Now it features a collection of photos illustrating scenes of the prisoner’s daily life and the history of communism. A visit to the cells and torture chambers is also possible.
- The Elie Wiesel Memorial House
This is the place of birth of Elie Wiesel, the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winner who grew up in Sighet with his family before being deported to Auschwitz. In 2002 the museum was opened by the writer himself and features a large collection of photos, furniture and other belongings pertaining to him and the Jewish community from Sighet.
- Sighet Village Museum
The Sighet Village Museum is the open-air section of the Ethnographic Museum of Maramures and was opened in 1981. It has the structure of a traditional village: the wooden houses are placed on both sides of the crooked roads and lead to the church, the symbolic center of the village. The houses show the evolution over time of the architectural styles and decoration techniques used by people.
5. Horses’ Waterfall
It is the highest waterfall in Romania (90 meters in height), situated near the mountainous Borsa winter resort, part of the Rodnei Mountains.
It can be reached either through a 1-hour-walk through the forest or by riding the cable car to top of the ski slope, followed by a short descent through the forest. The water falls in several stages, so it offers magnificent views both in summer and winter, when the water is frozen.
The name of the waterfall is related to a local legend. It is said that at the top of the mountain herds of horses used to graze from spring until fall. One day a bear came and attacked the animals, which jumped of the mountain and fell in the precipice that is now the Horses Waterfall.
Photo credit: haipelanoi.ro
6. The Blue Lake of Baia Sprie
During a visit to Maramures you can’t miss the Blue Lake, unique in the world due to the fact that it changes color depending on the position of the sun and the temperature of water. Thus, in spring the lake is blue, in summer it is dark green with emerald shades and in fall the color transcends into a darker green, even brown.
The scientific explanation for this phenomenon lies in the process of apparition of the lake: it was formed after the collapse of a mine, so the residual minerals are those that influence the color of the water. The lake is a mere 35-minute-walk from the center of the city of Baia Sprie.
One of the only fully functional narrow-gauge steam trains in Europe, Mocanita is sure to offer a fairy-tale like experience. The train leaves from Viseu de Sus and travels deep into the beautiful Vaser Valley, crossing the Natural Park of the Mountains of Maramures.
The views are stunning – the train crosses green forests, steep cliffs and clear waters. The ride lasts for 6-7 hours, depending on the season and includes a stop for lunch in Paltin, where people can take a walk in the nature or admire magnificent views from an observation platform. The price of the ticket varies between 12 and 15 euros for an adult.
A ride with Mocanita is one of the highlights of any tour that goes through Maramures, such as our Best of Romania Tour.
8. Baia Mare
Previously part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the city of Baia Mare reached its most prosperous stage during the communist period. As a result, traces of socialist influence can still be seen around the city, but the old town, recently renovated, is worth a visit. The central square is flanked by medieval buildings and pretty cafes and other vestiges of the city’s medieval times are in close proximity: Stephen’s Tower and the Butchers’ Tower.
9. Prislop Pass
This mountain pass linking the regions of Maramures and Bucovina is the highest Romanian mountain pass from the Eastern Carpathians, situated at an altitude of 1416 meters. 50 kilometers long, it offers breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape, dominated by the Rodna Mountains. This is also the place where a famous annual festival is held – the Traditional Music and Customs Festival “Dance at Prislop”.
10. Breb Village
Breb Village is the emblematic place for all things that represent Maramures: wooden houses, a 16th-century church, hospitable people and one of the region’s most famous craftsmen, the woodcarver Petru Pop. Here you can experience the local culture by walking around the village, meeting the locals and hearing their stories and taking part in traditional activities like working the land or picking up vegetables in the garden. If lucky, you can even attend a traditional wedding and witness by yourself the local customs and rituals.
If you want to get a glimpse of what authentic Maramures feels like, we recommend you to read the book Along the Enchanted Way by William Blacker, which tells the story of an Englishman that traveled to Romania in the early 90s and fell in love with the country’s charm.
11. Pietrosul Rodnei Peak
A hidden gem on our list of best 15 attractions in Maramures, Pietrosul Rodnei (2303 meters) is the highest peak in the Eastern Carpathians and the perfect choice for all those who love spending time in nature. The hike is long, taking approximately 8-9 hours both ways, of medium difficulty, but worth all the effort.
A beautiful glacier lake, with crystal clear water awaits on the way, one third from the peak. Needless to say, the views from the top are unforgettable – you are fully surrounded by mountains: The Maramures Mountains to the north, the Tibles Mountains to the west and the rest of the Rodnei Mountains to the east and south.
Photo credit: HereIHike.com
Horinca is not a place to visit, but it is one of Maramures’ symbols. A drink with an alcohol content of over 40%, it is usually made of plums, pears or apples. In Maramures, every guest is welcomed with a glass of horinca, but don’t be fooled, it is not reserved for special events. Here the drink is part of everyday life, as proved by a local saying: “in heartache and pleasure, both, people drink”.
Haystacks are another proof of the simplicity of life of people from Maramures. They build them by hand, without the help of machines, the way people did hundreds of years ago. The process itself is fascinating to watch: a person, usually the man, picks the dry hay from the ground and using a pitchfork carved from wood, tosses it on top of a pile.
As the pile becomes taller and taller, the other person, usually the woman, sits on top of it and tamps it down with her feet. After a long afternoon, the last step is extricating the wife from the top of the haystack – not an easy feat, taking into consideration that it is not unusual for some haystacks to have over 4 meters in height. If it all goes well, she ends up in the warm embrace of her husband.
14. Crafts and traditions
There is no better place than Maramures to discover authentic Romania, as people still keep their traditions and customs passed down from generation to generation. Men are true masters of woodworking and woodcarving, building houses, objects of decoration and the famous wooden gates. They also practice pottery and make hats out of woven straw. They decorate them with colorful beads and flowers and use them as part of the traditional folk costume. Women, on the other hand, weave – they make rugs, towels, embroidered cushions and use them to adorn their homes.
Maramures is also home to some of the most famous craftsmen in Romania: Daniel Les, a potter from Baia Sprie, Toader Barsan, a woodcarver from Barsana and Gheorghe Opris, an artisan and excellent story-teller from the village of Sarbi.
15. Christmas traditions&caroling
What better time than Christmas to bring to life long-kept traditions? Especially in Maramures, this is a time of joy and celebration. The festivities start on December 20th, known as Ignat day, when people from rural areas kill the pig whose meat is later eased for cooking the Christmas meal. In the next days, wooden houses are beautifully decorated, delicious food is prepared and carolers dress up in traditional costumes and visit every house in the village. In exchange of their performance, they receive gifts, such as nuts, apples and home-baked goodies.
An excellent way to witness the Christmas traditions from Maramures is to attend the Festival of Customs and Traditions from Sighetul Marmatiei. Or you can take part in our Winter Photo Tour of Romania during Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
As they say, some places are meant not only to be seen with the eyes but also felt with the heart. One such place is Maramures, and we hope we managed to show you that – it is not by mistake that Maramures was at some point mentioned by National Geographic as one of the world’s Best Trips or that the Huffington Post included an entire article about Maramures on their blog.
Our best 15 attractions to see when you visit Maramures will help you discover the region through the eyes of a local, so look no further – come experience the country in one of our private tours, during which we can include a stop to all your favorite places!