May 25, 2015
After a good breakfast we said goodbye to our hosts and then we were on the road again, bound for Breb in Maramureș. From Sucevița we headed past the monastery and over the Ciumârna Pass, where we had come the other day. The toothless man with the painted wooden eggs was still there, but we didn’t stop. We followed Highway DN17 for a while; it was one of the main highways in the area so its condition was good. As usual we passed through numerous small villages, which made slow going.
When we reached Highway DN18 we turned onto it, heading for Prislop Pass. This road was not nearly as good as DN17, and we passed several work crews vainly trying to fill the potholes. One of the first villages we came to was Ciocănești, where the houses were decorated with geometric Hutsul patterns on the sides. But that was the only place we saw houses like that.
The road to the pass became more twisty and turny as we climbed, and when we reached the pass we paused there for a rest. There was a ski area here, and a couple of mountain hotels, but mostly a shiny new monastery. The main buildings were finished but workers were still busy building the large ceremonial entrance gate. We looked at the monastery and the views for a short while, but decided to continue down the other side to look for a lunch spot because it was cool and windy at the pass. It didn’t take long to find a picnic site with a table and a good view.
On our way down we met a very large flock of sheep, with their shepherds and dogs guiding them up the road. It was easiest for us to stop and let them go around us, rather than risk hitting a sheep or lamb. Here the road was much smoother, but the village of Borșa with its associated ski facilities must have been twenty kilometers long. Eventually we passed into the lowlands and after driving through a thunderstorm and heavy rain neared the village of Breb.
The roads around Breb all seemed to be in various stages of construction, and between horses and carts, people, and construction machinery the going was even slower than usual. We had been following a Google Maps printout but it was a bit confusing, so we turned on the iPhone app to see how far we had to go. Not far, really, but the app’s instructions differed from the map! Following the voice on the phone we took a slightly longer route which included driving down a one-lane track from the village of Hoteni. As luck would have it we met a tractor pulling a loaded hay wagon! Luckily we passed each other without incident but it was a tight squeeze.
Once in Breb it was easy for us to follow the signs to the Village Hotel. There was nobody at the reception office when we arrived, but one of the staff arrived shortly and showed us to our room. We were upstairs in the main house and would share the kitchen with anyone else who happened to be staying there. As it turned out the double room downstairs would host Adi and Bianca, a Romanian couple. They spoke good English and it was interesting speaking with them and getting their take on life in Romania.
We were surprised to find out that breakfast was included in our room rate, and that we were signed up to go out for dinner at one of the houses in the village. Both of those were good things as we hadn’t stopped to buy any food. We walked down to the house at 7:15 pm with our fellow guests. Besides Adi and Bianca there was a couple from London. Dinner was noodle soup followed by sarmale (cabbage rolls) and sausages, which were all very good. Dessert was doughnuts and after some discussion among the Romanians it was decided that they were “gogoș”.
Back at our little house we had some tea and chatted with the others while listening to the rain pouring down outside.
May 26, 2015
We slept very well last night and didn’t go down for breakfast until about 9 am. In the refrigerator were bins labelled for each room, containing butter, cheese, and yogurt. And there was a sharing section containing eggs, juices, and some condiments. Luckily for us the cupboards also contained cereals, pasta, rice, and basic vegetables so we would be able to make our own dinner. Adi and Bianca were there too; their plan was to look around a bit and then head home. Their mode of transportation was a motor scooter so they were hoping for no rain.
After breakfast we gathered up some clothes to be washed. For 20 lei a load would be washed and dried for us, so we thought that was a good way to catch up with our laundry. Then we got into the car and headed out, this time following the better way out of the village. Our plan was to visit the “Merry Cemetery” in the village of Săpânta, one of the most famous sites in the area. So we drove to the border town of Sighetu Marmației (universally referred to as “Sighet”) and beyond, along the road parallel to the Tisa River with Ukrainian villages visible beyond.
The Merry Cemetery is a different sort of cemetery. It was started in the 1930s by Stan Ioan Pătraș, who decided to do things differently. Instead of dour stone crosses with only birth and death dates, there are brightly painted wooden panels with paintings of scenes depicting something in the life of the deceased. This could be a lady weaving or a man driving a tractor, for example. And below that is a little poem written about the person. Although the Romanian text was mostly beyond our ability, you could tell a lot just by looking at the picture. The cemetery was absolutely full of graves, with very little space between them. Even Stan Ioan Pătraș is buried there, having written his own poem.
The main colour of the panels is Săpânta Blue, symbolizing hope and liberty. The other colours, green (life), yellow (fertility), and red (passion) are obtained from natural pigments used by the women of Săpânta to dye wool. The graves were on three sides of the very large church, which was being reconstructed. We went inside to look, but the painted interior was hard to see because it was mostly behind the scaffolding.
We went across the street to look at the souvenir stalls; most of them had similar wares but one had some woven wool rugs. The lady sitting there was spinning wool from a large bundle of carded wool; she showed us some of the blankets and rugs and told us they could be washed outside and left to dry. We ended up buying a doormat-sized rug. As we left we saw Adi and Bianca just arriving—there was a bit of a rain shower but fortunately it didn’t last.
Back in Sighet we found a free parking spot and then set out to find the Memorial Museum for the Victims of Communism and the Resistance, a highly-recommended museum. It was frustratingly hard to find using the map from the Rough Guide but on our third try we found it.
The museum is housed in one of the Communist-era prisons which were used to hold political prisoners. The displays take up three floors and are actually in the prison cells. We paid our admission fee and were shown to an English-speaking staffer who gave us an English-language guidebook which explained each of the displays. Considering that the museum was almost entirely in Romanian, this book was extremely helpful. It chronicled the history of the prison and its inhabitants through the Communist years, and it took us about an hour and half to go through all of the displays. It was very sad to read about what happened to so many people who were imprisoned and tortured for their views.
Luckily the sun was shining when we left the museum, as it cheered us up and made us realize how lucky we are to live when and where we do. We had heard that there are still Romanians who are nostalgic for the “old days” when everybody had a job and the country would support you for life. That seemed terribly naïve to us now—they had forgotten about all the evils which had to take place to make that possible.
We bought a bit of food at a supermarket and headed back to the hotel, where we cooked up some pasta and vegetables. We also made a fruit salad from the fruit which is also part of the kitchen’s provisions. A simple but filling dinner.