With more than 13,000 villages, the Romanian countryside remains a picturesque spot unique in the world, which has preserved intact millenary traditions. The atmosphere in these unexplored corners of heaven is remindful of the pastoral ambience of long-gone centuries, when people fully believed in a higher authority and lived their lives in a harmony imposed by the undisturbed rhythm of nature. Not much has changed in rural Romania, which now attracts thousands of tourists eager to discover local customs, feasts and crafts and to capture the spirit of the yesteryears in a truly authentic environment.
If you’re one of them, start your trip in the north to immerse in two lands of legend, famous all around the world for their well-kept traditions and handicrafts transmitted to the future generations: Maramureş and Moldavia. Different but similar at the same time, these two regions have acquired growing popularity as tourist destinations due to their representative types of churches – the wooden churches of Maramureş and the painted monasteries of Bucovina – included on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Far away from the maddening crowd of the cities, the villages hidden in forested valleys or behind high mountains in these two regions are the best places to discover the rural lifestyle and the Romanian traditions. Christmas and the New Year will bring suites of carollers and masked characters (such as Bears, Goats, Stags and even Centaurs), ready to spread the spirit of the celebration, while Easter will come with skilfully painted eggs and long religious processions. On these occasions, entire communities will proudly wear the national folk costumes, usually made at the traditional weaving loom and then manually embroidered. They will wear them just like they do it every Sunday to church, to traditional fairs, to the horă (peasant party where people dance folk round-dances, such as horă, sârbă, brâu and bătută) and to the şezătoare (regular gatherings where people work and have fun narrating stories and legends, telling jokes and riddles).
A journey through Maramureş will show you the miraculous metamorphosis of the wood in the hands of the skilled wood carvers, whose chisels create true chronicles of the rural life. The gates of Maramureş will rise in front of you as proofs of the carver’s farseeing imagination, which combines geometrical shapes with anthropomorphic motifs, solar disks, crosses, trees of life and other meaningful symbols. You will find wood – in other forms and with other meanings – in Săpânţa, the village that hosts the unique and spectacular Merry Cemetery. The peasant art in all its forms – handmade fabrics, carvings, pottery, masks, naïve paintings, icons – are an articulation of the rural spirituality through which the peasants express themselves, their beliefs and their values. After stepping inside their house, the peasants from Maramureş will welcome you with a glass of homemade horincă (a version of ţuică, the Romanian national drink) and with delicious food. This region is one of the country’s areas where agro-tourism largely developed in the past years, in an attempt to share with tourists from all around the world that joy of living that is so typical for the peasant civilization.
In Maramureş, there are also many customs waiting to be explored by curious tourists. In the villages on the valley of the river Mara, spring comes with Tânjaua de pe Mara, an ethno-folkloric celebration of the most hard-working man in the village – the first to go ploughing the field. A suite of young people takes him through the village until they reach a river, where the village’s elders pray for the fertility of the land. A similar feast, called Udătorul, is held in the Șurdești village on the second day of Easter. After the church service, the first man to have gone ploughing that year is taken to the river, where he is soaked in water. This ritual is followed by a party thrown by the man himself, where the entire village is invited. The Dormition of the Mother of God, celebrated on August 15th, and the Day of the Dead (Luminaţia), held at the end of October, are observed across all the villages in Maramureş, but they have a stronger religious component, rather than a social one.
People are the engine of the villages in Maramureş, but their charming presence would impress us far less if it weren’t for the monumental natural environment in which they act and react. Don’t leave the region without hiking in the Rodnei Mountains or taking a mocăniţă ride. This picturesque steam train, among the few in Europe that still work, will take you in a 42 km long unforgettable journey through the valley of the river Vaser.
Just as it played an important role in the lives of the people from Maramureş, tradition holds a special place in the hearts, minds and everyday activities of the Moldavians. Considered to be among the most authentic and original representatives of the Romanian ancient customs, the people from Moldavia have preserved, along the years, a traditional social structure and a mentality consistent with the ancient autochthonous values. Occupying a special position in the Romanian Orthodoxy, the Moldavian village seems to be a blessed place situated at the intersection of two worlds: the earthly and the spiritually.
Here, tradition is a form of life, also anchored in the sphere of the pagan mythology, as can be seen in the calendar of folk feasts and celebrations. One of the best times to visit Moldavia is the end of June, when it takes place the pagan celebration of the Midsummer Night’s Festival – better known as the Feast of the Sânziene –, also associated to the Orthodox feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. In the popular belief, the Sânziene are nocturnal deities taking the form of beautiful women who sing, dance, bless the newly wedded women to have babies and help cure the people’s diseases on the night between June 23rd and 24th. On this day, young girls make flower bouquets and chaplets that they then place at the houses’ doors, windows and gates for good luck and to banish the evil spirits.
Combining religious, natural, cultural, historical, artistic and ethnographic celebrations and attractions, Moldavia offers something to see and things to do all around the year. It attracts through the simplicity of its every corner of every village and through the naturalness with which people make the traditional way of life their own. From the skilled hands of the Moldavian craftsmen come out objects that are – more than artefacts, museum items or souvenirs – part of the peasants’ everyday life. The unequalled black pottery from Marginea and the sheepskin jackets from Fundu Moldovei are just two examples in which the production of household objects has been transformed into art. If you want to take an overall look at the unique ethnographic heritage of the Moldavians, you can visit the Village Museum of Bucovina, the museum of folk art in Târpeşti, 10 km from Târgu-Neamţ, which exhibits authentic traditional tools, folk costumes, old icons, folk masks and wood and stone sculptures, but also numerous villages that are considered real scale museums.
Trying to define Romania’s countryside, we can say that it is the place where nature and man have shook hands and live together in a harmonious symbiosis. It is far from being an obsolete spot on which the passage of time has put its print, but rather a place that breathes with energy and an inexhaustible joy of life.