The golden glow of the sun against the soft pastel houses; residents going about their business, tending the chickens, their vegetable gardens or sitting on the front porch can make an unforgettable scene. In villages and in the countryside, on lands dominated by ancestral castles, old fortresses and peaceful monasteries, life moves a little slower and follows ancient rhythms of tradition and culture.
It’s not unusual to see a farmer bringing his fruits to the marketplace in a horse drawn wagon or to encounter a village festival where the locals perform ancient rites of planting and harvest dressed in colorful traditional costumes. Cold, pure well water beckons the thirsty traveler from the roadside. Men kiss women’s hands in a courtly greeting unchanged for hundreds of years. Lush vineyards, first planted by Dacians – ancient inhabitants of Romania, yield fine wines.
In Transylvania, you will find villages clustered around ancient Saxon citadels, edifices that often enclose exquisite churches built by German settlers from the 12th to the 16th centuries.
A lovely half-hour drive south of the medieval city of Sibiu takes you into the pastoral landscapes of Marginimea Sibiului, one of Transylvania’s best-preserved ethnographic areas. Located at the foothills of the Cindrel Mountains, Marginimea Sibiului (meaning Boundaries of Sibiu) encompasses a string of 18 traditional Romanian villages *, rich in architecture, history and heritage.
Age-old traditions, customs and celebrations, as well as the traditional occupation of sheepherding, have been carefully passed down from generation to generation in the villages of this area. Rasinari, dating to 1204, is the oldest, followed by Talmaciu (1318), Orlat (1322) and Saliste (1354). Saliste claims the oldest church, housing beautiful interior frescoes (1674), while Poiana Sibiului’s wooden church was built in 1771. Painting on glass has been a tradition for 200 years in these villages. The Museum of Painted Glass Icons in Sibiel exhibits the largest collection of painted glass icons in Europe – more than 700, as well as furniture and ceramics.
* The 18 villages are: Boita, Sadu, Raul Sadului, Talmaciu, Talmacel. Rasinari, Poplaca, Gura Raului, Orlat, Fantanele, Sibiel, Vale, Saliste, Gales, Tilisca, Rod, Poiana Sibiului and Jina.
Villages in the Apuseni Mountains are even more remote and lost in time.
If you wish to discover local life and preserved traditions, one of the main points of interest is the Aries Valley, where the beautiful villages of Albac, Garda, and Arieseni are located.
Skilled artisans, the Motzi people, carve musical instruments, hope chests and houses from the local wood, the spruce. In Patrahaitesti, a little mountain village, you may hear the famous Bucium (“Alps horns”), which are used for generations in the Apuseni Mountains.
The road from Bistrita to the Painted Monasteries of Bucovina runs east through the Bargau Valley and across the Tihuta Pass which peaks at 3,840 feet. The Bargau Valley encompasses some of the most beautiful unspoiled mountain scenery in the Carpathians with picturesque traditional villages located in valleys and on hillsides, ideal bases for hiking, riding or discovering their vivid tapestry of old customs, handicrafts and folklore. Explore the traditional villages in the Bargau Valley: Livazele (5 miles northeast of Bistrita) with its small folk museum called the Saxon House (Casa Saseasca) displaying Saxon ceramics, woodcarvings and folk dresses; Josenii Bargaului (10 miles northeast of Bistrita), a traditional center for black and colored pottery, and Prundu Bargaului (15 miles northeast of Bistrita), the site of the first paper mill in Romania, opened here in 1768.
Some of Romania’s most beautiful countryside is found in Bucovina, whose rolling green hills nestle villages and monasteries in their valleys. Horses, decked with red-tasseled bridles, travel country lanes, as villagers crows churchyards in traditional folk dress on Sundays and holidays. Bucovina remains the heart of craft mastery in Moldova. A felt mill in Vama serves the villages women, who bring their homespun wool cloth to be thickened for heavy coats against the harsh winters.
The village of Marginea, located just 7 miles northeast of Sucevita Monastery, is renowned for the black clay pottery crafted here, said to preserve a centuries-old Gaeto-Dacian technique, passed on from generation to generation. Winter festivals abound, with caroling bands of merrymakers dressed in handmade masks and costumes celebrating the New Year.
Barsana – Maramures, Romania
Maramures is an area of the country known for its timeless tranquility. In late afternoon, old women sit outside their gates coaxing coarse wool onto spindles. Many still favor traditional dress, meaning white frounced blouses, striped woven panels covering full black skirts, headscarves and opinci, a sort of leather ballet slipper from which heavy yarn criss-crosses over thick socks.
On Sunday, such dress is practically “de rigueur”, even for little girls.
Baia Mare is a good starting point for visiting some of the area’s traditional villages: Iza, Viseu, Mara and Cosau. The villages of this remote Northern region are known for masterpieces of elaborately carved wooden roadside gates leading to family homes. The knots and sun designs of these traditional gates come from ancient pagan motifs. Popular motifs include grapevines, acorns, twisted rope, sun symbols, crosses and forest animals. The villages of Barsana and Oncesti have, perhaps, the greatest number of impressive wooden gates. Ciocanesti (in Bucovina region) is known for its houses covered with painted flowers and geometric paterns.
Behind most of the traditional carved wooden gates of Maramures, old orchards’ ripe plums become homemade tuica, a strong, potent brandy offered to all guests in thimbleful glasses as a traditional welcome.
Also unique to this region are the local village churches, made of wood and dominated by magnificent Gothic spires. Hardly a village lacks its own small wooden church dating to the 17th and 18th centuries. These are exquisite, high-steepled jewels with multiple gabled roofs, all of a pattern yet each distinctly unique. Seeing at least a few interiors is a must as many frescoes remain in good condition. If time is limited, the interiors at Ieud, Bogdan Voda and Poenile Izei are recommended. The latter depicts some highly original torments for such sins as sleeping in church. Although churches are usually locked, ask any passerby for the key-keeper by pointing at the door and saying cheia (pronounced kay-ya), meaning the key.
The spiritual philosophy of the people of Maramures is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Sapanta – a 20-minute drive from Sighet. The town folks’ ancestors considered death as a beginning, not the end, and this faith is reflected in the carvings in the town’s unique Merry Cemetery. Blue wooden crosses feature a carved scene and humorous verses that endeavor to capture essential elements – both the good and the imperfections – of the deceased’s life. Even without benefit of translation, visitors can appreciate the handiwork of sculptor Stan Ion Patras, who began carving these epitaphs in 1935, and his successors. Patras’ house in the village is now a fascinating museum. Sapanta is also home to several wooden gates and one of the region’s tallest wooden churches.
Village experiences are made even more authentic by staying in a private home, a monastery or a guesthouse. Most accommodations in Romanian villages offer comfortable rooms, running cold and hot water and western-style toilets.
They are often also remarkably low in cost.
If journeying out to rural Romania is not on your itinerary, you can also get a taste of this vibrant and exotic culture by visiting one of Romania’s museums dedicated to rural life: the Village Museum and the Museum of the Romanian Peasant in Bucharest and the ASTRA Museum of Rural Civilization in Sibiu. Real landmarks of rural architecture –homes, churches, schools—are set in tranquil parklands just beyond the city center.