From the lush green floor of the valley I gazed toward the encircling dusky blue mountains. Puffy white clouds drifted lazily across the sky, allowing the sun to peek through just enough to make the afternoon comfortably warm. A week earlier the village of Breb, Romania, had been sweltering in a heat wave that caused wells to run dry. But my arrival was timed perfectly – temperatures had moderated to the mid-70’s, perfect walking weather.
With only one paved road, I relied on footpaths that wandered through gardens overflowing with colossal heads of cabbage and fat ears of golden-tasseled corn. Ruby-red tomatoes were bursting their skins and green-black zucchini hung heavy on their vines. Stealthily, I opened a wire metal gate and crept through a farm yard, passing just a few feet from the front door of an old wooden cabin constructed from wide wooden planks, dovetailed together without the aid of nails. I felt like a sneak-thief but the owners of the hostel where I was staying, Babou Maramures, insisted that walking through private property was perfectly acceptable; everyone uses the footpaths, including cows, chickens, and pigs.
In years past, almost every home in Maramures County had an ornate wooden gateway (poarta maramuresana) at its entrance. During my walks around Breb I spied several of these hand-carved portals, which featured astrological symbols, flowers, animals, people, and in one case even a complete tree of life. Unfortunately, as older gates weather and deteriorate they are not being replaced; these days only wealthier families can bear the cost of such an elaborate portal. However every yard still holds at least one tall wooden tub with a heavy wooden lid. In late summer, apples from the area’s abundant orchards are tossed in and left to ferment. The resultant mash is distilled into Tuica, a fruit brandy that has greater than 50% alcohol content, much the same as the Palinka produced from plums just over the border in Szatmár, Hungary.
I strolled down a faint path in the grass between gnarled trees, breathing in the scent of apples rotting on the ground mingled with newly mown hay. The orchard opened onto a broad golden meadow where a farmer and his wife were building a haystack from hay that had been drying on the ground. Using a three-pronged pitchfork carved from a tree limb, the farmer tossed a forkful up to his wife, perched at the very top of the two-story stack. She caught it with a rudimentary wooden rake, threw it on top of the pile, and tamped it down with her feet. I waved and pointed first to my camera, then back at them with a questioning look. They invited me over with big grins. My mind was reeling as I snapped photos. I could work out how the woman got to the top: they started from the bottom and built it up a layer at a time. But how on earth was she going to get down? There was no ladder in sight and we were at least a half-mile from the nearest house. As if reading my mind, the farmer shot me sly look and picked up a long, thick tree limb lying nearby in the field stubble. He leaned it against the haystack and held it steady at the bottom. His wife, who had to be 50 years old if she was a day, shimmied down that pole like a teenager.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d climbed into a time machine and been swept back 1,000 years. Because the soil is too rocky for mechanized farming, most of the planting and harvesting is still done by hand. At the end of each day, men and women return from the fields wielding hand-carved rakes and giant scythes over their shoulders. Fruits and vegetables are picked by hand and carried in wicker baskets that the women strap to their backs.
There are very few cars and the locals either walk or ride in horse-drawn wagons. Even public transportation hearkens back to days of yore. Riding the Mocanita, the last still operating steam train in the region of Maramures, is a real treat. Two small shops in the village sell the few necessities that must be purchased, such as olive oil and batteries, but for the most part theirs is a subsistence lifestyle. They eat what they grow or raise, build homes from trees in the surrounding forest, and drink water from deep wells in their yards. The family cow, which lives its entire life inside a barn, provides milk each day, from which yogurt butter are made. Goat milk is made into a delicious, pungent cheese. Chickens and pigs live in a crawlspace beneath their houses, coming and going freely via ramps leading to small wooden doors in the stone foundation. Most residents have now have electricity and flush toilets, but many of the women still wash their clothes by hand in streams. And when the brutal winters descend, wood-fired ceramic stoves provide the only source of heat.
I’d been tipped off that Sunday was the best possible time to be in Breb, as the locals dress up in their best clothes to attend church. The problem was, which of the two churches – the old wooden church or the newer one, with its towering white and gray steeples? Ultimately, the choice was made for me. Unable to see either church from the footpaths, I followed the sound of bells calling locals to worship service and found myself at the old wooden church, St. Archangels Michael and Gabriel. Only one parishioner had shown up. Stooped over with age, the woman laboriously climbed the hill to the church door and stopped briefly to kiss the icon at the door before proceeding inside.
Not wanting to intrude, I left when the service began and quickly retraced my steps to the new church, just in time to see the rest of the community pouring out the front doors. The women were a study in monotones, wide black skirts puffed up with underlying layers of white crinoline, topped by blinding white blouses with puffed sleeves and elaborate collars decorated with eyelet stitching. Sensible flat black shoes and a black floral head scarf, which provided the only splash of color, completed their outfits. The men were dressed in more modern trousers and muted striped shirts, but topped their outfits with a ridiculously small straw hat shaped like an upside-down bell that was entirely too small for their heads.
After the churchyard cleared out, I strolled through the adjacent cemetery, examining elaborate carved crosses topped with semi-circular tin roofs that stood at the head of every grave. I was puzzling over the dichotomy between the monochromatic apparel of the locals and the riotous colors of the headstones when I turned a corner into to the rear yard of the church. There, amidst weed-choked older crosses, stood a young woman in a purple T-shirt, bright floral on black skirt, and wild black checkered lace hose. Her only concessions to the local fashion were her flat black shoes and plain ivory headscarf. I felt a certain kinship with her. My family thinks I’m a bit crazy to have walked away from a good career to travel the world, barely scraping by financially. I sensed that she, too, walked her own path and was delighted when she allowed me to take her photo.
Tourism in Breb is still rare. Very few of the locals speak English, though they are friendly and welcoming and do their best to communicate however possible. One afternoon I was strolling down the main road and said “good afternoon” in Romanian to a ruddy-faced woman standing at wooden gate to her family compound. “Angol (English)?” she asked. “Nu, american,” I replied. She stepped over the threshold and motioned for me to follow. Within was her house and barn, plus two lovely guest rooms that she rents out for about $12 per night. We hit it off and before I knew it I’d agreed to come to dinner the following evening, at a cost of 20 Romanian leu (about $6 USD). The delicious vegetarian meal (soup, pancakes stuffed with jam and honey, cheese-stuffed peppers, a fresh tomato and cucumber salad, and fresh-baked bread) was shared with a Norwegian couple who was staying in one of the guest rooms. Afterward, Maria’s son tried to start a conversation. Because I speak Spanish and Romanian is also a Latin-based language, I was able to figure out that he had worked in Italy for a number of years and spoke fluent Italian. I switched to Spanish, which is similar enough to Italian that we could understand each other and we had a three-way discussion, with me translating into English for the Dutch couple. I never cease to be amazed by the human ability to communicate in the most difficult circumstances.
Fortunately, the owners of the hostel and campground where I lodged speak both Romanian and English, so it was easy to find my way around Breb once I arrived, but getting there takes some doing. I was lucky, in that my friends Zsuzsa and Ambrus from Panyola, Hungary, wanted to go camping for the weekend, so they drove me to there. When it was time to leave the owner of the hostel, Matthias, drove me up to the main road to flag down the minibus to Baia-Mare, where I could catch a bus to Cluj-Napoca. Moments later, a car with Michigan license plates stopped to ask for directions! Inside were three men, one who still lives in Romania and two who had immigrated to the U.S. in the mid-80’s. They now live in Ann Arbor, Michigan but return every year to visit family. This time they decided to ship a car over, which they woud drive during their vacation and leave behind for future use.
Matthias asked them if they’d mind taking me to Baia Mare, which was on their way, and they were happy to do so. The two U.S. citizens, one a retired pig farmer and the other a long-haul truck driver, were, quite simply, astounded to see me. “If you’d asked me if I would ever meet an American woman traveling alone in the remote northern area of Transylvania, I would have bet it could never happen,” one of the men said. I just laughed and said, “I get that a lot.” In the end, I was the one most fascinated. The two had fled Romania during the Communist era and one of them told me what it was like to arrive in the U.S. “I still remember walking into a K-Mart for the first time and being stunned by all the products, by the choices you had.”
People I meet along the way are the true rewards of travel, but the best experiences inevitably happen in out-of-the-way places that haven’t yet been impacted by tourism. Breb definitely qualifies.