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Steve and Emma's Travel Tales

Steam Trains and Wooden Churches in Maramures

ROMANIA | Monday, 3 May 2021 | Views [41]

The next morning we had time to look around Gura Humor, even if we hadn’t had time, we could have looked round as it only took a few minutes There was absolutely nothing to see in the town so we headed to the bus station to get the bus to Vesus de Sus. There was not much happening at the station either but a friendly lady told us there was actually a bus due to our destination and we could buy a ticket off the driver. A minibus turned up at the allotted time and we hopped on board a virtually empty vehicle and settled down for the trip.

It turned out to be a cracking journey as we passed through villages with traditional houses, most of them painted with fancy designs, along rivers and through forests before heading over the Prislop Pass. The mountain scenery was stunning and there was plenty of snow capped peaks, the area really was amazing and looks like Switzerland, not that we have ever been there but you get my point. We stopped for lunch in a lovely small village and then continued on the trip before being dropped in Vesus de Sus 15 minutes early.

We had booked a couple of nights at ‘Pension Agnes’ and it was a short walk down a not so promising track behind the hospital. We needed not to worry as the guest house was set in a lovely garden next to a river with greenery all around. We were warmly welcomed by the hosts Agnes and Dan and were shown to a lovely large room with a terrace. After settling in we were invited for a welcome drink which turned out to be the ubiquitous ‘palinca’ – home-made spirit, and this was definitely of the strong variety, but we had had worse. Everyone comes here to ride the old logging steam train and Dan gave us the tip to head to the station that day to pick up the tickets we had bought on line in order to avoid the queues the next morning. He even pointed us in the direction of a short cut and we enjoyed a nice stroll to the station and picked up our tickets just before they closed for the day. We wandered back into town via a different route and had a potter round. Not the most exciting town but set in a great location surrounded by hills. We had a couple of beers on a terrace of a bar on the main street enjoying the late afternoon sunshine and then a pizza in a restaurant before heading back to the guesthouse. Luckily Dan is a big football fan so he was staying up to watch PSG v City in the champions league. We joined him for a couple of beers while watching City come from behind in Paris to bag a first leg lead. Good night.

We were up early the next morning to take a trip on the Mocanita Narrow gage railway. This is an old steam train that was used and is still used to transport logs down the valley from the forests. They also run tourist trips part way up the valley and we were told it is very popular. We got a spot on the left-hand side of the old wooden carriage which we were told has the best views, being on the side that is next to the river. It was quite busy but we had a 4 seat table to ourselves and settled in to enjoy the trip.

 The train soon hooted and blew steam before chugging out of the station. There were lots of old trains and you could see that it is still a working concern, especially as you pass vast stacks of logs at the side of the tracks. Obviously, not great that the forest is being logged but I guess we all use trees in various forms so we can’t get too much on our environmental high horse. Hopefully they are also replanting and making the area sustainable. The amount of smoke coming out of the wood-fuelled engine wasn’t good either for the planet but we decided to just enjoy the ride. The journey soon got scenic as we headed up the valley along a river and through forests. It really was a lovely trip and it took about 2 hours to get to the break point. We had an hour stop for a picnic and a brew by the river while the train turned round and we retraced our tracks back to Vesus. At the end we had a mooch around the station looking at some of the old locos they have on display before heading back to Pension Agnes.

We decided to try the Agnes’s home-made food that night and it turned out to be a great call as the samarles and Maramures stew were delicious. Agnes and Dan are so nice, speak excellent English and we had some nice chats. They insisted we try a tasty dessert and plied us with home-made cherry brandy which was surprisingly drinkable before we crawled off to bed.

The next morning after a filling breakfast, our car and driver turned up to take us on a tour of the wooden churches of Marmures. Dan had kindly got in touch with the driver and organised a day trip to drop us in Sighet after taking in the wooden churches of Iued and Barsana and the ‘Merry Cemetery’ at Sapanta. We set off as the rain was starting to pour but we were looking forward to another great trip. Afterall, I hadn’t seen a church for 2 days and was having withdrawal symptoms. Our driver was another nice guy, not a lot of English, but with his poor English and our even poorer Romanian we got along great. After being pulled over by the border patrol and being searched for contraband cigarettes from the Ukraine we soon reached Ieud. It is not far from Vesus but the driver had to ask a few locals the way to the wooden church. Turns out he has never visited before and was as impressed as we were. The actually church was amazing and how they built them without nails is beyond me, but then again putting up a shelf is beyond me. The setting, surrounded by rolling hills, even on a gloomy day was incredible too. A nun turned up and opened up the church so we could view the paintings inside. They definitely like to paint around these parts but I’m glad they didn’t paint the outside here. I like the wood look. After looking around for a while in this quiet moody spot, we were the only people there, we headed on to our next destination.


The next stop was at Barsana, which turned out to be a large complex of wooden buildings all in traditional style although only dating back to the 1990s. There were more visitors here but it could not be called over crowed. Unfortunately, the rain was still steadily falling so we headed back to the car and moved on to Sapanta. Now I think we can add the ‘Merry cemetery’ at Sapanta to the list of bizarre tourist attractions in Romania along with the salt mines in Turda. It’s a very popular attraction too as there were crowds of people milling around when we arrived. All the graves have brightly coloured painted markers with portraits of the occupant depicting their occupation. Now, this is my kind of graveyard, why does it have to be depressing and morbid? The markers also have funny ditties written on them but without a translation they were lost on us. Probably the only cemetery I have been to which has a souvenir shop, sadly they had sold out of snow globes.

We were just lamenting our disappointment at this being our last church of the trip when our driver had one last church up his sleeve, Peri Monastery, just a kilometre the other side of Sapanta. Now again this wasn’t a ancient church but it did boast the world’s tallest wooden tower, so how could we not take a look and bow out with a record breaker before being dropped off at the apartment we had rented for 2 nights in Sighet.

The apartment was great, spacious with a kitchen and a balcony to sit on if the rain should ever cease. We were also right next to the small pedestrian area which housed a few nice looking restaurants with tables spilling out onto the pavement. Our first task the next morning, before looking around town was to secure bus tickets to get back to Timisoara on Easter Sunday. Get that sorted in half an hour no problem. We walked to the bus station to find it deserted and padlocked. According to the timetable helpfully posted on the wall outside, a bus was leaving in 5 minutes. Now this didn’t look promising. We phoned the number on the wall but could not communicate our needs. Walked to another bus station down the street but that too was abandoned, so back to the original bus station and more attempted calls. A taxi driver saw us struggling so he tried to help and with a mix of Russian and German we got our point across and he kindly called the bus company to be told ‘ don’t be stupid, of course there are no buses tomorrow, it’s Easter Sunday you muppet’. Or words to that effect. He said he could take us to Baia Mare in his taxi tomorrow afternoon, after church of course, and maybe we could get transport from there. Luckily, I had plan B up my sleeve, so we headed to the train station handily located across the road. We managed to book a ticket to Timisoara via Cluj for the following afternoon. It would take 17 hours instead of 7 on the bus but we would get back in time for work on Tuesday. The train set off at 4 pm and we had a sleeper booked for the Cluj to Timsiaora leg, told you that was the way we rolled these days.


So, 2 hours later, we are ready to look around the town of Sighet which is located just across the river from the Ukraine, in fact my phone thought I was in the Ukraine and wanted to charge me roaming rates. The town is pleasant enough but the main thing I wanted to see was the Communism museum located in an old prison. It had started to properly rain again now so a perfect time to visit a museum? Well of course it was, but every tourist in Sighet had the same idea and there was a large line outside the prison. I guess covid restrictions meant they couldn’t just let everyone in so we decided to head back to the apartment, 100 yards away, for lunch and try our luck later. We didn’t have any luck later as the queue was longer after lunch and the rain harder, but I was determined to visit the museum and it was shut the next day so we joined the line. We eventually got in and paid the 15 lei (£3) entrance fee and we were given a booklet with information in English. This was fantastic as most of the information on the exhibits is in Romanian. The museum tells the story of communism in Romania until the uprising in 1989 as well as the uprising against communism in Hungary, Poland and Germany etc. It also serves as a memorial to all the people who were killed under the communist regime. I find this period of history really interesting and there was an incredible amount of information, photos and artefacts from the period set out in the cells of the prison. The booklet had just enough info for us and we found the visit really educational and moving. The rain finally abated and we managed to have a meal outside with a couple of beers in the evening sun.


As the train wasn’t until 4pm we were a bit stuck the next day, luckily the owner of the apartment said we could check out late so we chilled at the apartment in the morning. We managed a quick walk down by the river between showers and looped back into town to see if we could get a bite to eat. Being Easter Sunday everywhere was closed. Luckily we had guessed this could be the case and had stocked up at the supermarket for our journey back to Timisoara. The train left on time and we enjoyed a very scenic ride through the mountains as the sun set on our trip to this remote corner of Romania, definitely one well worth visiting but we may come back in the summer time for the next visit to hopefully enjoy the stunning scenery in better weather.


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