Route: Baia Mare – Ocna Şugatag – Bârsana – Sighetu Marmaţiei – Săpânţa – Negreşti-Oaş – Baia Mare.
Directions: Start from Baia Mare and work your way up (north) on National Road 18 (DN18), cross the Gutâi Mountains through Gutâi Pass, then divert on County Road 185 (DJ185) to Ocna Şugatag. Pass the small town, keep the road and arrive at Bârsana village; Bârsana Monastery is a few kilometers outside the village. Now you are on road DJ186, so go north again, until you reconnect with DN18 and then follow it to Sighetu Marmaţiei. The Sighet Memorial is right in the town centre. 20 km further north, on DN19, you will arrive in the village of Săpânţa, with the Merry Cemetery and Peri Monastery. From Săpânţa, just stay on DN19 [your radio will suddenly start speaking in Ukrainian, but don’t worry, you’re still in Romania, although extremely close to the border – 1 km or so], cross the mountains again, this time through Huta Pass, and descend to Negreşti-Oaş. Further down, at Oraşu Nou, break away on secondary road DJ109I, make the junction with DN1C (European Road E576) at Seini and return to Baia Mare.
Story: Maramureş is a geographical, historical and ethno-cultural region in northern Romania and western Ukraine, on either sides of Tisa River. After World War II, the river became the border between Romania and Soviet Union, so the northern section fell under Soviet control and later became part of the independent Ukraine. Today, the name Maramureş (or Maramu, as locals say) is used mostly for the Maramureş County of Romania, the southern section of the historical province.
Geographically, Maramureş is a valley totally enclosed by mountains. The heavily forested slopes offer magnificent landscapes and several natural parks have been created here, to protect wildlife (specimens of lynx, chamois, capercaillie and others) and many caves, gorges, cliff formations and lakes.
South of Tisa River, the population consists mostly of Romanians, with some Hungarians, Ukrainians, Germans, Jews and Gipsies.
Places to see:
1. Baia Mare. Baia Mare, the capital of Maramureş County, dates back to the 13th century, when it was first mentioned in 1329 by King Charles Robert I of Anjou. Almost 700 years old, the city bears the mark of its rich history, in terms of architecture and ethno-cultural mix – with strong German and Hungarian influences. The plaza in the historical centre is a great place to relax and learn about other places of interest in the city: Stephen Tower, Butchers Bastion, churches and museums.
25 km north of Baia Mare, the shores of Lake Firiza (route NOT marked on the map above) provide an excellent getaway from the city, with quiet, shady pine forests for nature lovers and tempting fishing grounds for anglers.
2. Alex’s Fish Farm. 37 km away from Baia Mare, on road DN18, just as you exit the tight turns of Gutâi Pass and before entering the village of Mara, you will find Alex’s Fish Farm. Typical for Romania, the location is not signaled very well, so make sure to spot the waterfall on the left of the road; otherwise, you might mistake it for a simple parking along the way, with some shopping stands.
Once you stop there, you’ll find a delightful eating-house, serving mostly fresh trout from the pools nearby. The wooden benches under the willows, the fish tanks (filled with trouts that trick you in trying to catch them barehanded) and the waterfall create a beautiful décor in which to enjoy a delicious meal.
3. Bârsana Monastery. 32 km further (via roads DJ185 and DJ186), making your way through the hills and villages (take note of the way people fence their courtyards, with gates reaching as high if not even higher than houses), you arrive at Bârsana Monastery.
Built in the 14th century (most likely), the old monastic settlement functioned until 1791, when the Austrian Empire turned it over to the Greek-Catholic church. 600 years since the monastery’s first documentation and 200 years after it ceased to exist, the monastic life was revived in 1993, along with the construction of a new church.
The monastic compound is made of wood, according to local tradition and consists of the Maramureş gate, the belfry, the church, the summer shrine, the house with cells and chapel (with several floors) and a more recently arranged museum that offers a comprehensive image of the Maramureş history, culture and civilization. The community counts 11 nuns and 4 sisters.
The toponymic bârsan comes from the local shepherds growing this breed (bârsană) of sheep, with long, rough, thick wool.
4. The Sighet Memorial. 24 km north from Bârsana (roads DJ 186 and DN18) lies the small town of Sighetu Marmaţiei, known for its prison-turned-museum.
The Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance was open in 2000, after seven years of hard work restorating the former political prison in Sighet. The Memorial aims at restoring and preserving the memory of people, particularly Romanians, which for half a century were brutally subdued by the Communist regime. Each cell has become a museum room in which the main topics concerning communist repression, the destruction of the rule of law, and its replacement with a totalitarian system are traced in chronological order. The Memorial speaks of dark times in human history that not all visitors will relate to. Nonetheless, the grim atmosphere will leave its mark on anyone walking along the old prison’s corridors, recollecting in the Space of Meditation and Prayer or contemplating the sculptures in the inner courtyard.
5. The Merry Cemetery and Peri Monastery at Săpânţa. Săpânţa is located 19 km north-west of Sighetu Marmaţiei, along road DN19, very close to the Ukrainian border. The local cemetery has become famous world-wide due to the vivid colours of the oak-carved crosses (painted in a distinct shade of blue called “Săpânţa blue”) and curious satirical epitaphs engraved on them. The cemetery is the creation of local artist Stan Ioan Pătraş, whose work is carried on today by his apprentice, Dumitru Pop Tincu. Everything began in the mid-1930s and 800 more crosses were erected since then. The line between unique and kitsch is very thin so, please, don’t take photos of yourself posing in front of a cross and post them on Facebook! Already, the throngs of tourists flashing cameras everywhere make you wonder if one’s afterlife would really be peaceful here…
Very close to the cemetery, the Peri Monastery rises 78 metres into the air, thus being considered the highest wooden church in the world. To be honest, the building has a foundation and a first level made of stone and only the spiked roof (54 m) and the other four small towers are made of solid oak wood. Nevertheless, the church is a masterpiece of local traditional architechture and its great figure is a true landmark for Romanians scatered on the Ukrainian bank of Tisa River.
6. Return to Baia Mare. From Săpânţa, the national road DN19 will take you back to Baia Mare. Still, except for the scenery of Huta Pass, there’s nothing much to see along the way. At a certain point atop Huta Pass there’s Sâmbra Oilor, a small and relatively unatractive inn; I suggest you avoid it. You will then arrive in Negreşti-Oaş, a small town where the open-air Etnographical Museum might keep you around for an hour or so. Afterwards, just follow the map and the signs on the road and return safely to Baia Mare.
The entire trip shouldn’t take you more than 6-7 hours.
Notes: Except for Alex’s Fish Farm, I haven’t found anywhere else where to get a nice meal. So, maybe it would be interesting to go the other way around (from Baia Mare to Negreşti-Oaş first), visit and then stop at the fish farm on your way back to cool off.
The eating-house is open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., but avoid busy days like public holidays or Sundays, when the place is swarming with tourists and you’ll have to wait around for a table to become available.
Secondary roads are in fairly good shape. Use them to shorten the distance and enjoy the scenery.
At the Memorial in Sighet, leaflets are available with information in German (mainly) English and French. If travelling in a larger group, you should ask for a guided tour.
Maramureş has a lot more to offer. This is only a small part of it.