Even so there has been a rise in tourism and general development, in particular with main roads, infrastructure and restoration work, in this region, known as Máramaros by Hungarians. Transylvania is still the wilds and a step back in time – not that it matters, as this is a very refreshing and attractive feature. Shepherds and sheep, horses and carts still lead the way along the narrow, dusty lanes into the wilderness valleys. Alongside cars 'n' cows, they compete for supremacy at sunrise and sunset. Local people still work the land the same way as their ancestors. There is no avoiding these aspects of life regardless if you are a first timer or a frequent visitor. Traditional ways and values still live, as does the traditional dress worn by young and old alike for social occasions, festivities, family engagements and church events.

If you enjoy photography and active tourism, Transylvania in all its splendour is the promised land. Weathered wooden architecture awaits, alongside pillared haystacks dotting the landscape. It is possible to sight eagles, wolves and bears, though it's far easier spotting storks, whose young occupy their nests atop many lamp-posts and pylons.

There is much to be said about this way of life, as compared to the faster, overly progressive pace elsewhere.

As for opting for bed-and-breakfast accommodation, rather than hotels, this is a far better way to meet the locals and get close to their scene. These days, tourism, forestry and skiing are the basis of the local economy in Maramures.

When heading this way, the prominent capital, Baia Mare (ex-Nagybánya, meaning Large Mine) with its newly restored town centre will certainly come to attention. As its name in Hungarian suggests, this was a rich mining town for gold, silver, copper and lead. Once within its perimeter, it is easy to access and orientate oneself to the many sights. One of our first ports-of-call was the remarkable "Cimitirue Vesel", which translates as "The Merry or Cheerful Cemetery", in a small town called Sapanta (ex-Szaplonca), 80 kilometres northwards on the main Number 18 and 19 roads.


Not knowing how credible, alive or overrated this unique attraction was going to be – and with the impression the "Cheerful Cemetery" signposts gave along the way – "Monty Python" sprang to mind until eventual arrival. But on a more serious note, the cemetery is a wonder, as well as a life-time achievement of local legend and folk artist, sculpture, painter and poet Ioan Stan Patras, 1908- 1977, who respectfully created this, within the surroundings of an Orthodox church.

He applied traditional folk art to lively, colourful inscriptions, capturing humour, drama, tragedy and plain everyday life in brief biographical chronicle form, on oak headstone ornaments, of those who had deceased within his lifetime. Ioan Stan Patras also had apprentices, who in turn passed on his knowledge and skills, as these symbolic creations carry on today.


What makes this cemetery stand out from others is its undeniable sense of cheer rather than sorrow, which is certainly an attempt to look at death differently. The Cheerful Cemetery proves to be a rich, central monograph of the lives and souls from this immediate area. The humour is mild, respectful as well as perhaps naive within this rich treasury.

Another outstanding feature is found nearby by proceeding eastwards to Viseu de Sus (ex-Felsővisó), which hosts Europe's last real functioning forestry railway line. Built in 1932, during its peak this and similar trains made their way into the nearby mountains to collect timber logs and deliver them to the local sawmill. Unfortunately, in fairly recent times all these trains except the one have been made redundant and the lines abandoned.

The remaining train operates by burning wood for steam, and is now a regional attraction. The mini train ride saunters on a narrow-gauge line for only a few kilometres with its clanking carriages, to an open valley leading to wild forested areas, devoid of roads and villages. Check local tourist information for further information.

"There are too many wooden churches in Maramures and we don't want to see any more!" howled my children in protest towards the latter part of the holiday. Perhaps this is true, as there are many and definitely worth seeing (for my wife and I, anyway). Some of these vintage delights date to the 17th century and really set the scenery alight.

With some, there are chances to look inside. To do so, look for any notices, perhaps on a nearby door or gate. There may be a phone number to call for a key, and hopefully someone will appear to assist. But if driving around the hills and valleys becomes too much, then perhaps opt out for the marvellous architectural outdoor "Village Museum" in Sighetu Marmatiei (ex-Máramorossziget).

This may prevent the family squabbles that occasionally prevail en-route due to excessive heat, sun, flies, mosquitoes, dust and general disorientation caused by not enough ice cream for the kids and not enough caffeine for the grown-ups to get through the day.

There are various Maramures World Heritage itineraries available, and these can be picked up at any tourist bureau. So when the kids have fallen asleep, continue the drive and follow these glossy, informative guides to these architectural gems at leisure, and really get a spiritual sense of these distinct bygone treasures. The children will appreciate this eventually.

Local people are most welcoming, and there was a great sense of community spirit everywhere we went. Everyone seemed to look out for one another and hospitality prevailed. When it comes to Christmas, there is a special tradition of letting out a part of one’s house to the neighbourhood, and the locals then ascend, pile in, congregate, sing songs, drink pálinka, catch up on the news and gossip, before moving on to the next house.

A strong characteristic feature of Maramures is how wood lives structurally, symbolically and spiritually, as regularly proven by the architecture with its geometric floral folk motifs representing the sun, moon, stars and so forth.

Another distinctive side of the region is that despite its past as part of Hungary, it does indeed have a Romanian majority. With this in mind, the language, architecture and culture are clearly different, defining the area as perhaps more oriental than expected. Certainly this is so compared to the more Hungarian home-from-home Székely Land region of Romania, with its far bigger Magyar population and influences.

See The Budapest Times: https://www.budapesttimes.hu/2017/10/30/change-not-too-much-szekely-land

The northern stretches of Maramures directly face the River Tisza and Ukraine. To cross the border, make your way to Sighetu Marmatiei with passport and have a pleasant stroll across a wooden bridge to Solotvyno. I went to the sleepy border town in search of a Kvas drink and to have a quick look around, after which I returned the same way with my large bag, declared the lot to the officials to be on the safe side, and returned to the family base.

I recommend travelling to Maramures by car, as it is a pleasant, easy-going drive, albeit long. But it is advised to check border control websites to avoid long delays.

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