At the conclusion of the International Puzzle Party in Belgium, Dick and Kate Jones had a delightful visit August 11 and 12, 2002, in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, with Zdravko Zivkovic, and then took a night train to Budapest to meet up with the tour group of twenty other IPP participants, organized by John Rausch, headed for a week in Romania.
A very comfortable chartered bus and a very personable and knowledgeable tour guide, Dan (pronounced "Don") Comanescu, conveyed us through the villages and towns of Maramures (pronounced "Mahrahmooresh"), a mountainous province of Romania virtually untouched and unspoiled by the world's progress of the last four centuries.
Kate's knowledge of Hungarian came in handy a couple of times. Many Romanians, especially near the border with Hungary, are of Hungarian descent or at least speak the language.
The well-planned itinerary included hikes through villages, rides in horse-drawn carts, treks through high meadows, watching a sheep-milking, a picnic under the trees, a drive through Transylvania, and a three-day stay at a farmhouse in Hoteni that had been remodeled into a comfortable lodge.
Our host and owner of the farm lodge, Mr. Popp, is also a famous musician and entertained us with Romanian and Hungarian folk music. Vigorous virtuoso violin playing was reminiscent of gypsy music, although gypsies are not generally well thought of in these parts. A high point of one evening was when maestro Popp danced a spirited csardas with Kate. "Popp," by the way, is a prevalent family name in the area. About half the tombstones in cemeteries we visited bore that name.
Mainly agrarian, the people enjoy a self-sufficient life close to the earth, with vast and fertile fields of crops and orchards, and with oxen, horses, sheep and poultry living in close proximity to their homes. Almost everything is built of wood, a plentiful resource of the region. Each farmhouse has its own well and an ornate wood gate.
The inhabitants, especially the women, are frequently seen in colorful native garb. Electric wires are everywhere, as are gas tanks for cookstoves and heating. So behind the facade of rural innocence there is an infrastructure of modern energy supplies. A satellite dish here and there hints at the presence of some TV and even Internet access.
A major focus of village life are the churches, built of wood and lavishly decorated with paintings of holy icons and with carvings along every beam. We visited many such churches, some of great antiquity, as well as a very modern cathedral being newly dedicated on the day of our visit (see picture below). The ancient wood churches of Maramures are among the 730 greatest marvels of the world.
Because of the high humidity and abundant rain fall, the wood roofs have to be protected with tin or other metal shieldings. Even the fences have little metal roofings to keep the wood from rotting. See picture above.
The prevailing religion of the region is Eastern Orthodox. Crucifixes carved in wood adorn many street corners. The long Communist occupation and its practice of collectivization and atheism appear to have had little or no effect in this province.
The puzzle collectors in the group were especially captivated by a woodcraft style that closely resembles a burr puzzle, with several pieces of wood notched sticks or rods interlocked to form a knot or ball. These occurred in many sizes, from tiny ones attached to sticks the size of a wooden spoon that might have been tools for carding wool, to huge ones that stood like pillars or hung from gates (see picture below). The collectors purchased many of these items as souvenirs.
And oh, the food! Our tour guide had arranged for three great meals a day, skillfully weaving in sightseeing adventures between meals. Fresh-baked bread and rolls, cheeses and lunchmeats and jams for breakfast, with fresh fruit, milk, juices and tonic or mineral water, were served whether we stayed at a 5-star hotel or a simple farm house dormitory.
Plain tap water was almost unheard-of and had to be requested specially. "Water" meant either flat or carbonated mineral water served in bottles. Our tour guide took much trouble to supply the bus with cases of bottled regular water. In fact, he was altogether heroic in seeing to our varied needs and desires.
Lunches and dinners were always a culinary treat as five or six courses made their way past our hungry mouths and eyes. Superlative soups, salads, egplant dip, meats, tasty vegetables and delirious desserts became a daily ritual we easily became accustomed to. And the native alcoholic beverage, a clear, water-like and fire-tasting fluid pronounced "tswika" (spelling optional), a plum brandy, was consumed in generous quantities. Its special virtue no hangover!
Our nostrils also got a good workout, from the irresistible food smells to the aroma of barnyards, the fresh scent of mown hay stacked in dome-like piles, the traffic fumes, the bodies innocent of soap, the ubiquitous cigarette smoke, the clear mountain air in the dewy mornings.
One farmhouse we visited in Sarbi had a large waterwheel, ingeniously constructed to flow water through a basin for washing rugs and blankets. They also had a still for making the famous tsuika brandy. Such visits by tourists appeared to be part of their routine and livelihood. See their house below.
The bus' "restroom" was not in service, so the travelers had many opportunities to sample the local facilities, including serviceable outhouses with proverbial corncobs and discarded sheets of homework paper in lieu of toilet tissue. We took to carrying our own. Even the best hotels had only crepe-paper on rolls. The plumbing outside of larger cities was not willing to flush paper, as we soon found out; special receptacles were provided for it.
Our guide seemed to know everyone everywhere, and he directed us to some fine craftshops for browsing and buying native handiworks, from carvings to carpets, leather bags and coats to pottery and toys and puzzles. It became a challenge to pack all the goodies into existing and finite-capacity luggage. Kate's solution was to buy an extra leather satchel just for the souvenirs.
One of the most remarkable sites we visited in Sibiu was an outdoor museum of wooden dwellings of ancient Transylvanian vintage, brought from various parts of the country and displayed like an actual village, showing how people then lived and worked. All these artifacts were made only of wood. A one-lane bowling alley, carousel, mill, oil press with tree-size threaded wood screws, and homes with tiny rooms and low doorways (people were shorter then) evoked a time in history that was an important stage between the nomadic and our cyber-age. There was much skill, intelligence and ingenuity evident in the tools and construction methods of those early inhabitants.
Their trees must have been an enormous size, judging from the width of the boards and beams. The roofs were very tall and steep, not only for the snow to slide down but because the smoke from heating and cooking had to go up and out through narrow slots, used in lieu of chimneys. The insides of the ceilings were blackened from all the smoke, preserving the wood and curing the meats that would be hung in that space.
These roof slits are a familiar sight on roofs even in the cities, where they look like eyes. We visited a citadel built on a hilltop in Sighisoara, birthplace of Dracula. and stayed in a hotel at its foot, requiring a brisk climb from where the bus was parked, on ancient cobblestone roads. That entire part of the city is a storybook landscape, with little houses built on steep hillsides like a three-dimensional puzzle or an Escher illusion, with steps and stairs going maze-like in all directions. Peeking through open gates gave a view of inner courtyards also built on many levels. Some of us climbed up the turret of an old church in the town, with a fantastic view all around.
It was altogether a remarkable and memorable trip, made even more enjoyable by the camaraderie of our travel companions.
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