April 10, 2016: The Wooden Churches of Maremures

Today we woke up in Baia Mare, the capital of the northern county of Maremures which is grouped with Transylvania for administration purposes but is actually not a part of Transylvania proper.  For those in America, Baia Mare is, as a city, about the size of Syracuse, New York.

We are staying in Room 101, the apartment, at the Hotel Diafan right on the main square of the city.  It was a cloudy day that looked like rain when we woke up.  The mountains outside of the city had thick clouds pouring over them.

Dominica and I had breakfast at the hotel, delicious cheese and mushroom omelets and coffee.  We are impressed with the food and the service and hope that we can do dinner here at the hotel this evening.

After breakfast we gathered the kids, loaded up the car and drove to the east out of the city to head from Baia Mara out into the country to explore the famous UNESCO Wooden Church sites.  The drive east to the first city went surprisingly quickly.  I figured, based on the driving last night, that we would be on the road for a  while but we actually turned off early and were headed south on the small roads into the country in almost no time.

The drive around northern Romania, out in the country around Maremures, was really pretty.  Quaint villages, misty mountains, cute architecture.  We enjoyed just the drive itself quite a bit.  This is a very nice area and quite different from the area that we are living in around Baita.

We made several wrong turns and explored the back country lanes behind many a little town.  We found one church, basically by accident, that turned out to be one of the old wooden churches that had been damaged, as wooden churches are wont to be, and was the old wooden steeple and roof raised up and put on top of a modern stone building and in use for this morning’s service.  It was a neat find and not an UNESCO listed church and not even one of the ones that Wikipedia lists.  Apparently this region is just loaded with them if you know where to look.

It did not take us too long to find the first of the villages with the wooden church, although getting to the church itself was a bit confusing and although these are UNESCO sites they are not at all well labeled and it seems obvious that they are not large tourist attractions.  We got to the biggest of all of them and the parking lot for it could only take a dozen cars at most.  We were the only people here, today.  It was a gorgeous site, though.  We parked and walked up a nicely managed little area to the church itself and took a lot of pictures.  The church is locked up but you are really only there to see the outside of it, anyway.

We probably put in about half an hour at the first site.  It was very nice.  These churches were built by the Romanians here hundreds of years ago during the Hungarian occupation when building stone defensible structures was forbidden, probably for military reasons, so the locals who traditionally did all of the work in stone, turned to wood and made these really ornate and historically important churches to celebrate their religion in a way that was allowed for them.  The dark wood has stood up well to the centuries and would remind you of the famous Norse churches.  They really fit neatly into the misty countryside up here, too.
There was a meadow down below the church and I went down there to take pictures and noticed a barely visible, rock outlined path going through a big meadow and off towards another village.  In the distance, in the mist, I could see the next of these churches.  There must be a walking trail that connects there.  Very cool, indeed.  It was too far to walk with the kids, or with Dominica, so we used the car to drive to the next village to see that one.

At the next village, the church was in use when we arrived.  These are real churches, of course, and some of them are actively used for church services and it is Sunday morning, after all.  We arrived at this one right at one o’clock and people were staring to come out.  So we sat in the car until nearly everyone left.  Dominica and the girls decided that they wanted to stay in the car and just see it from there.  So only I got out and walked around the grounds and took pictures and got up close to the structure.  It, like the first, was quite impressive.

One of the things that is interesting about these churches is that many of them have ridiculously large steeples.  The churches themselves are not large at all.  They are actually quite small.  This one, on its back wall, got so narrow that it was no wider than the span of my arms finger tip to finger tip.  But the steeple is both massively wide and tall going many times the height of the church itself.  Very interesting design.

These two are the two churches that are closest together.  Getting to these was easy and I am pretty sure that these are the two that are the most visited.  Likely by a huge margin.  The drive to get to these was pretty easy as well.  It is up in the hills but not hard driving for me to do as the driver and not too bad even for Dominica and the girls who easily get motion sickness from the car.  These part was easy.

Going on towards the next village took us from an easy drive into big mountain roads and a lot of twists and turns.  The driving got hard, nothing terrible but a lot of work, and it really started to bother Dominica.  It was really cool, though, because we got into the core of the famous “peasant landscapes” that people talk about.  We found the world of roaming sheep, big old hay stacks, no cars and nothing has changed for hundreds of years.  This is a region where nothing has changed in forever, things are as they always have been, but with cars driving through from time to time.  It is a gorgeous region, partially because the sheep graze it all over so it looks like a golf course going on for miles.

We stopped and found the third of our wooden church towns.  This one had the church right on a main road so it was very easy to find.  It also had a bus load of Romanian school kids, probably around fifth to seventh grade levels, all over it.  So it was a quick stop as the kids were everywhere and, as you would expect, they had very little interest in the church itself.  It made it hard to take pictures because at least one of the boys intentionally moved in front of you if you tried to take any pictures and in general kids were lounging everywhere at the site just waiting until they could get back on the bus to leave.

We continued along our loop to find the little village of Breb.  This is the home of the family who wrote Somewhere Different which Dominica loved reading and, coincidentally, I completed reading on this very day.  It is a little village past the churches, but on the loop of them, high up in the mountains in the midst of the peasant farming region.  It is an incredibly picturesque spot.  Dominica had tried to get a reservation for this weekend at their hotel that is located in Breb but they had no rooms available for this weekend which is why we ended up staying in Baia Mare instead.

We got to Breb and managed to track down the Village Hotel.  There were several pensiune in town but to get to the hotel we had to drive through town and up a gravel road that, Dominica always the worrier, thought that the car could not make it up.  But the drive was fine and we managed to find the hotel which is not a hotel in the traditional sense but really a collection of out buildings as part of their theme is to let you stay in a real, traditional Romanian peasant home.  So they have three actual peasant cottages like you see around the landscape.

We were hungry for lunch and were hoping that with the name hotel they would be able to accommodate as the word hotel implies a restaurant in Europe (and really, just about anywhere, even in the US.)  The place, however, was closed up and empty.  They said on their website that they were open year round but there were no guests and no reception or anything so we are guessing that they are still closed for the season.  It seems unlikely that they are out of business as Dominica saw the ability to make reservations later in the year.  So they just were not open now.  There was no restaurant there so we figured that we would not have been able to have eaten anyway.  We took a few quick pictures to prove that we had been there and we left.

We tried the big, new pensiune in the middle of town which looked really nice but found that they only did breakfast and dinner and could not do lunch (so they cannot offer a full pension there, only a half pension, which is a bit odd.)  Not easy to do things in this neck of the woods.

Dominica looked at the map and decided that the loop ahead of us was going to be far too many mountains and winding roads for her.  The road to get where we were now was bad enough and she was not looking forward to returning that way but the road ahead looked even worse.  So instead of seeing the fourth church we turned around at Breb and took the path back the way that we had come which went very quickly as we were not stopping in every town trying to locate an out of the way historic wooden church.

We looked for lunch options along the route back but really there was nothing.  One of the things that we have already learned about Romania is that small town restaurants are a rarity.  Stopping casually just anywhere to grab a bit to eat in the middle of the day is much harder than one could guess.  It just is not a thing that people do.  Maybe as the tourist industry develops and the country enjoys greater prosperity it will start to creep into the culture.  In most of Europe you can eat just anywhere, just like in the States.

We ended up just driving all of the way back to Baia Mare, parking the car at the hotel and eating in town.  We had wanted to eat dinner at our hotel anyway, so we just went for a very early dinner.  We asked if we could eat outside at the outdoor cafe on the piata rather than upstairs in the restaurant proper and they said of course.  The upstairs restaurant is very fancy and right next to our hotel room and has great views of the piata but being outside on a gorgeous afternoon with fresh air is much better, especially with the girls.

Dinner outside was really amazing.  Dominica and I were both very impressed with our meals.  I got a Hungarian fish and dumplings meal that I loved.  It was two fried fillets of fish, covered under a mound of sauteed vegetables and the dumplings were something akin to a potato based pasta with cheese like German spatzel and dill.  Luciana tried my dumplings and proceeded to eat a large portion of it as it was basically mac and cheese and she said that it was one of her favourite foods, ever.  Dominica had a really good salad with cod on it that she really liked as well.  We are loving the Hotel Diafan. If we return to Baia Mare we will certainly stay here again.  The location is just perfect and the hotel setup is just right for us.

While Dominica and I finished our dinner the girls got up and ran around the piata playing tag.  One of the many benefits of sitting outside.  This gave them some time to stretch their legs and burn off some of the energy that they have stored up while riding in the car last night and today and seeing wooden churches which does not excite them very much.  They had a nice time and we enjoyed getting to just sit in the cafe while they wore themselves out.

I asked at the desk where we could find a playground and the front desk said that there was a big municipal park right across the bridge from where we were, so ten minutes on foot was all.  That would be perfect.  We have been looking for a playground for the girls and that would be a great way to wind down for the evening.

We walked and found a massive park with a huge mall and all kinds of things including a massive ethnographic museum there.  The playground was at the far side of the park so even though the walk to the park was fast the walk through it took some time.  The playground was really meant more for older kids and really little ones, an odd mix.  There were some obstacle course things like what I had as a kid at the Genesee County Park and neat rubber coated hills that we think might have been for skateboards or something.  There were no swings.  There was a slide for very little kids and a few other things.  And a broken trampoline that was very dangerous.

We stayed for probably an hour and the girls had a nice time.  Dominica and I sat on one of the rubber hills and relaxed for a bit.  The girls wanted us to constantly help them with one of the big kid activities after another, though.  They did have fun and they did get some exercise so we were pretty happy with coming out.  There were a lot of people in the park, more than we would have guessed.  Tons of people just out for a stroll or skateboarding on the mall.

We left and walked back to the hotel and went around the piata.  We found a chocolate store that also had gelato so we stopped there.  Dominica, Liesl and I got gelato and Luciana got some chocolates.  This is a good combination store for us since Luciana does not like ice cream.  The gelato was quite good.

It was nearly dark so we turned in.  The girls wanted downtime to just relax and use their Kindle Fires and play with their toys.  Dominica was tired and done walking.  I got everyone settled and then set off for a bit of a walk on my own.

I went to the piata and since I did not have a good idea of how to get around the city so I radiated out from the piata in a star pattern only going in straight lines off of the square so that it was always easy to come right back to the centre.  I discovered some nice areas and that there was an amazing piata one block away from ours with the big church for the city along with a really neat archaeological site underneath the old church that they have made a really nice display of.   I will be bringing the family over here tomorrow.

Altogether I did about ten kilometres of walking on my own this evening after dropping off the family at the hotel.  It was a nice walk and gave me a good feel for the city.  It’s a nice town, I like it here.

Back to the hotel it was time for a  shower and then off to bed.  Tomorrow we are going to do breakfast here in town, walk a small amount and see the area directly around the piata and then get in the car and drive back down to Baita.  Our goal is to be on the road and out of Baia Mare no later than one in the afternoon.  If we make good time driving in the daylight then we should be comfortably back to our village in around three hours getting us there at four in the afternoon.  Tomorrow is a Monday so I want to be back in the mid-afternoon so that I can get my writing and posting and stuff done as usual.

This has been a nice trip and we are glad that we got a chance to see Baia Mare and Maremures County.