Maramures, Romania – Transylvania may be the creepiest place on earth, but it’s also the first place on my trip that I really fell in love with. I arrived by train a few hours before dawn and slept on the station platform. Around 5:30 the sun began to rise—the largest, pinkest sun I’ve ever seen—and a train whistle echoed down the tracks running west. An hour later I was slumped in a carriage with my head in the open window as the train lurched into meadows of dry, yellow grass. In the distance sharply-steepled churches crouched on low hills, their gilded metal roofs glittering in the early sun. As the train got up to speed a hefty old gravestone glided past my open window and the date read “1863.” Wow, I remember thinking, Transylvania is actually sort of spooky. And it only got spookier…
I’d arrived from Hungary, in Romania’s empty western plains. Cradled by the Carpathian Mountains which cut through the country’s middle like a giant scythe, this region is known to the world as Transylvania. I had come to see the painted monasteries of Bucovina, which I’d read about in Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, but I had a lot further to go. The 500-year-old monasteries, whose exteriors are covered every inch in brightly painted Biblical murals, are hidden deep within shadowy beech tree forests in a distant northeast part of Romania known as Moldavia. Since I needed a car to get there, I decided to take a circuitous route. The plan was to wend my way through Transylvania to the Ukrainian border—a region called Maramures (mara-MOOR-es)—then continue east across the Carpathian Mountains to Moldavia. The entire trip would take a week or two, max.
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By late morning my train pulled into the university town of Cluj, and I treated myself to a large English breakfast at a busy café. The waitress was young and talkative. When I quizzed her about the Romanian language she laughed and said that she spoke Hungarian.
“I’m not Romanian at all,” she corrected me. “I’m Hungarian.”
She had lived in Cluj all her life—a hundred miles beyond Hungary’s southeast hinterlands—yet she insisted she was “not Romanian at all.” It was the first hint that Romania had known a complicated history of shifting borders and mingling ethnic identities, not unlike the stories I’d heard in the Balkans.
I rented a Chevy Cobalt from the small airport outside Cluj and set off north. The roads were surprisingly good—none of the potholes or horse carts that travelers had warned me are common in this largely rural country. In recent years the government has campaigned to get the horses off Romania’s roads, and they have largely succeeded. Even several hours into the drive I felt like I could have been in northern Michigan. But the peasant lifestyle was still ubiquitous in the country’s remote rural parts, and that’s where I was headed.
In literature, Transylvania is a land of freak thunderstorms, curious people, and dark superstitions. And in typical tourist fashion, I arrived in Romania with a copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In it Stoker writes: “Every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some imaginative whirlpool.” Shortly before dusk, as I drover further and further north, I began to feel the tug of that whirlpool.
The weather was the first thing to change. As my little car struggled to climb the hills of dense forest that insulate the remotest parts of Maramures from the south, thunderclouds darkened the sky and heavy raindrops began pelting the car. Spindly pine trees shook and scarves of fog whipped across the road. I rounded a bend and a little boy stood roadside watching as my car passed (I half expected his head to spin or pop off—surprisingly, it did not). Only ten minutes into the storm I crested a small range and the rain ended as abruptly as it began. The dark clouds were ripped open by gashes of sunlight and the wind stopped. Tall black churches appeared, sharp as daggers kniving at the sky, and houses peeked out from behind tall gates of thick wet carved wood. This was Maramures and it was a different, darker place.
Photo: A Maramures churchyard during a thunder storm.
I was too spooked to get out of the car, so I took photos from the window. Shortly before reaching the Ukranian border I passed a house with a sign advertising rooms for rent and decided to stop for the night. A lumpy old woman greeted me and showed me to a small room upstairs, warm and pleasant. I unpacked the cheese and wine I’d brought from Cluj as the wind picked up again, lashing the window with curtains of rain. I sat by the window alternately reading from John Harper’s journal and writing in my own. After half a bottle of rich red wine I put myself to bed and dreamed of strange landscapes and bizarre Boschian people.
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The next morning I visited Merry Cemetery in nearby Sapanta. The cemetery is remarkable for its gravestones—large wooden panels trimmed in blue paint and decorated with folk-art images. Often the images portray the deceased busy at the craft or skill for which they were known: weaving, churning butter, or repairing a church window. However, nearly as often the graves depict the manner in which the departed had been dispatched: a slip on a staircase, a kick from a horse, an errant saw blade. Most astonishing is the number of headstones portraying people being punted, twisted, or flattened by speeding cars. Brutal stuff, like a person—flat as a ginger bread man—gripped beneath the wheels of a Nissan. In an region where horse carts had until recently been as prevalent as cars, it made sense that pedestrians might be unprepared for the hazards of automobiles.
Photo: Tombstones in the aptly-named Merry Cemetery.
Photo: This depiction of an automobile death is not unusual in Merry Cemetery.
I spent the rest of the day driving the surrounding countryside, following rutted dirt roads as far as my little Cobalt could go and searching out remote churches and villages. I passed dozens of homes with giant wooden gates, twelve feet high or more, towering and wicked in appearance. I passed vertical steepled churches with aluminum or cedar roofing, jagged like spears threatening the sky. I winked or waved to wrinkled old folks sitting on stoops. And everywhere—everywhere—I saw people carrying scythes as they made their way to work the fields of dried grass. Once, a young girl bicycled past my car with a large curving blade protruding above her rear tire, where she had fastened the creepy thing. I did not wave.
In the later afternoon I saw particularly beautiful gate and pulled over. It was twenty feet tall, with pillars of intricate rope carvings. Heavy metal chains hung decoratively from the doorway, and several meters behind the first gate stood a second of arching black wood. While I was admiring it, a stocky fellow of about forty walked out and greeted me in English. Teo and was a gate-builder, and he said his father had built the gate above our heads. He offered me a tour of his workshop, a large pavilion in the enclosure behind the gate. Beneath the pavilion were intricately carved wooden beams and panels surrounded by wood shavings. Teo said he had built many of the gates in the area and explained the deep symbolism of the ropes, suns, and other objects they depict.
Afterward, Teo invited me into his house and brought me to a small front room. As he pushed open the heavy door I saw an old man sitting very still on a tiny stool. He was whittling away at an 8-inch peg, and the entire room was filled with three-foot mounds of yellow, coiled wood shavings. In fact, there was nothing in the room except this little old man and the shavings. Teo’s father looked up with a leathery face and smiled.
Teo translated as his dad asked me the usual questions. How do you like Romania? Why are you here? How long will you stay? Do you like Romanian women?
I told him I was from Washington D.C. Coincidentally, Teo’s father said he had recently been to D.C. to display his gates at the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival (the summer festival displays art from around the world and is a highlight of living in Washington D.C.).
Photo: One of Teo’s many gates.
Afterward, I thanked them both for sharing their work and headed back to the car. It would be getting dark soon, and I didn’t want to be outside when my lumpy old landlady closed the gate to her house.
More on Romania in a later post…