When you visit Romania, you will delight in discovering a place that is alive with legends, myths and traditions which have been cherished over centuries. Few countries in the world have preserved so many customs or have such love for their folk music and dancing.
The countryside is the heart and soul of Romania, where peasant culture remains a strong force and medieval life prevails, as it does nowhere else in Europe. A young American couple, researching ancient traditional villages in Europe for post-graduate studies, recently moved in with a host family in Northern Romania in order to document a culture unique in the world.
People are happy to meet foreign visitors, often inviting them into their homes for a meal and conversation. For a true introduction to Romania’s traditional villages, consider a home stay. Rates range from $8 to $25 per person including two meals. Rooms are clean and comfortable but some do not have private baths. Most hosts do not speak English.
While there are great Romanian fine artists, among whom 20th century sculptor Constantin Brancusi is probably the most famous, the typical zest for life and almost naive optimism that the world is really a beautiful place seem best expressed in the traditional art and craft of Romanian peasants, extending even to their colorful, unique grave markers. In the “Merry Cemetery” of Sapanta, in Northern Romania, carved wooden crosses are painted traditional blue and embellished with fanciful borders, renderings of the deceased and often anecdotes of their lives. As in most parts of the world, full-time artists and artisans are drawn together, tending to form communities throughout the country, where locales are aesthetically inspiring and economically viable. Bucharest and a few of the larger towns boast a few galleries showcasing work from such artist communities, but most don’t have galleries. A few examples of local artists’ and artisans’ work are shown and sold in town museums, but most is sold in street markets adjoining major attractions. Sellers usually are also the makers and some of them speak English. A conversation with them can reveal fascinating facets of Romanian culture. Works of Brancusi are in various locales, but one of the finest collections is in the city of Targu Jiu, in Oltenia province on the southern border of the Carpathian Mountains. Nearby Horezu is a major centre for ceramics, wood-carving and iron forging and the Horezu Museum of Art showcases some of the best work of past and contemporary artists.
The most readily recognizable examples of Romanian art are the famed painted eggs, especially prominent around Easter time. Painting of real hollowed-out eggs was an integral part of preparations for this festival of renewal. Women and children gathered in someone’s home and spent a day painting and gossiping. Intricate patterns were actually secret languages known only to residents of the regions where they were painted. The oldest known were painted with aqua fortis (nitric acid) on a traditional red background. They’re available in nearly all shops and street markets.
Romanian pottery is still made mainly on traditional kick-wheels with simple finishing tools. Shapes, sizes and patterns reflect the different clays and cultures of diverse areas where are produced. Color glazes and decorations vary from strong geometrics, to delicate florals, animals and humans. There are approximately 30 pottery centers throughout the country, each with its own distinctive style, but the main areas are in Horezu in Oltenia; Miercurea-Ciuc and Corund in western Transylvania; Baia Mare near the northern border, and Radauti and Marginea in Moldavia.
Carved gate in Maramures, Northern RomaniaMaramures is the area to see the art of woodwork. Homes are trimmed in elaborately carved wood, wooden gates and even fences are intricately carved. Historically, in this area, a family’s community status was displayed through the gate – the more elaborate, the more important the family. The “Merry Cemetery” of Sapanta is in this region, open all year long, at all times — it’s worth a visit. Hand-carved decorations in complex patterns hold meanings beyond the purely decorative. Trees of life, twisted rope, moons, stars, flowers and wolf teeth to ward off evil spirits are associated with myths and superstitions. They show up in furniture, spoons, ladles, walking sticks, keepsake chests and other decorative objects, sometimes embellished with paint. Wooden flutes and recorders are also elaborately carved. Most prized are the multi-piped pan flutes, which are now very rare, as few artisans know how to make them and even fewer know how to play them.
At the edge of the street market adjacent to Bran Castle is a peasant cottage with a window behind which an old woman sits at her loom weaving and watching the passing scene. She’ll invite interested visitors into her home, where her English-speaking daughter will explain that she’s 74 years old and has been weaving since she was seven. She still weaves with thread she spins herself from sheep her family keeps in their tiny enclosed courtyard. On view in her tiny weaving room, which is also her bedroom, is a selection of magnificent throws and spreads that she has woven. Not for sale, they’re priceless examples of this enduring way of life.
Textile weaving is the most widespread craft in Romania, handed down from generation to generation, using distinctive family patterns along with those specific to different districts. Looms still are common in homes and women weave and embroider from childhood through old age. The predominant fibers, wool and cotton are woven into rugs, wall hangings, table covers and clothing. Some Romanian weavers and embroiderers still work with threads and yarns they produce themselves, but younger weavers tend to purchase their raw materials. They weave and embroider just about every cloth article used in their homes, from colorful linen and cotton towels to window draperies, bedspreads, rugs, wall hangings, furniture throws and clothing. In a village near Sibiu, part of a bride’s dowry is still a tolic, used to decorate horses of those who ride from house to house issuing wedding invitations.
Popular Costumes – Arges AreaEmbroidery on folk costumes worn for holidays and special occasions (like weddings) follows strict regional patterns and serves also as a sort of secret language known only to people within the different regions. Sibiu uses graphic black and white motifs, reflecting its Saxon heritage; southern regions of Arges, Muscel, Dimbovita and Prahova use red, black maroon, yellow, gold, and silver threads, reflecting influences of the Ottoman Empire. Buzau uses terra cotta; Oas uses green and Moldavia uses orange and the Voronet blue made world-famous by its use on the monastery of the same name. Especially beautiful is cut embroidery on white or ecru linen and cotton, done throughout the country.
While technically textiles, these deserve their own category, because no other textiles so dramatically reflect their regions of origin. As varied as different areas’ attractions, so too are the rugs that are displayed on surrounding fences. Most are flat-weave kilims, probably introduced centuries ago by the controlling Ottoman Empire. Today’s hand-weavers mix traditional vegetable-dyed yarns with commercial aniline-dyed yarns to produce startling accents within traditional patterns and colors. Rugs from Oltenia reflect nature, with flowers, trees and birds. Those of Moldavia have patterns of little branches repeated in rows to create a tree of life. Rugs from Maramures tend to have geometric shapes, resembling those from Turkey and the Caucasian mountains.
Romanian Arts and Crafts – Folk Art – Folk mask
Masks are linked to folk festivals held predominantly in Maramures and Moldavia. Typically made from the hides of sheep, goats or cows, the masks are adorned with fabric, hats, pompoms, metallic bits, feathers, beans, straw and animal horns to represent bears and goats, they’re traditionally worn to welcome in the New Year during a couple weeks in December and early January.
The oldest preserved Romanian glass dates back to the Roman Empire.
Currently, there is a renewed passion for creating art in blown glass and several contemporary Romanian glass artists enjoy world renown.
Most of the professional glass artists are clustered in the northeast, near Botosani. Glass artisans are also employed in factories located in Avrig, Turda and Buzau, turning out molded, hand-carved and hand-blown pieces, many of which are museum quality.
More information on Romanian Crafts:
The non-profit Connecticut-based organization, Aid to Artisans, has published an excellent guide for anyone interested in fine quality traditional crafts. Romanian Folk Art presents recognized master craftspeople, broken down by region. Different regions spawned particular crafts. Woodworkers developed around vast forests with abundance of wood. Weavers and embroiderers came from the high plateaus, where sheep graze.