Dismount from the horse-drawn cart and tip your chauffeur in cigarettes. You’ve found one of the last places where rural European medieval life remains intact. Where peasants live off the land as countless generations did before them. Where tiny villages, steeped in local customs and history, sit among rolling hills and dreamy landscapes. Where the word ‘cappuccino’ elicits a bewildered stare. Even Romanians joke that nothing has changed here for 100 years – welcome to Maramureş.
The last peasant culture in Europe is thriving here, with hand-built ancient wooden churches, traditional music, colourful costumes and festivals. Villagers’ homes are still fronted with traditional giant, ornately carved wooden gates, and ear-smoking, 100-proof ţuică (plum brandy) stills percolate in the garden, tended by a rosy-cheeked patriarch. Discovering this part of the world is a time-travel adventure, verily stunning Western visitors.
The region was effectively cut off from Transylvania by a fortress of mountains and has remained largely untouched by the 20th century (and the 19th century, and the 18th century…). It escaped the collectivisation of the 1940s, systemisation of the ‘80s and the Westernisation of the ’90s and as such is living history.
Medieval Maramureş exists in the Mara and Izei Valleys. Eight of its churches – in the villages of Bârsana, Budeşti, Deseşti, Ieud, Plopis, Poienile Izei, Rogoz and Surdeşti – are on Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites.