Maramures: are there alternatives to wood harvesting?

spinning wool in maramuresMaramures region, in northern Romania is one of the best preserved rural areas in Europe. It is situated in an isolated area, between mountains and on the border between Romania and Ukraine. That’s why a unique culture developed here and is largely preserved until today. People make a living from raising animals and working the land and most importantly from wood harvesting. No wonder that traditionally houses were built from wood and so were the churches – truly impressive quaint constructions laid in picturesque locations among mountains, hills, forests, orchards and haystacks. Seven of these churches are now UNESCO world heritage site. On important religious occasions locals still go to church in beautiful traditional costumes, red and black being a distinctive combination, man wear wide white pants and straw hats in summer, women wear green-toned knee-long wide skirts.

As an alternative to wood harvesting  and due to its authenticity the region is getting more and more visitors from abroad. But there are still places that will make you feel like you traveled back in time. One of them is Grosii Tiblesului village, at the end of a road, from where the mountain starts. In the 17th century when Austrians, ruling Transylvania, came to this region they were surprised by the size of the trees here. Using the German word “grosse” meaning large to name the village and by combining it with the name of the nearby mountain, Grosii Țiblesului came out meaning the large trees of Țibleș Mountain. It would take 4 people to surround with arms opened some of the beech trees from here and you can still find 300 years old fir trees. Of course wild life is rich here as well: bear, deer, wild boar, wolf, marten and lynx can be found here.

Currently a World Wild Fund (WWF) project aims to preserve the natural habitat and to open opportunities for locals to make a living from something else than harvesting wood. And small scale, responsible ecotourism is one of the options.

Carpathian brown bearThrough the project, hiking trails are being marked, bikes are made available and there is an observatory where it is likely that you’ll see wild brown bears as they come in the evening to the feeding areas. You can also go on nature interpretation walks and learn about animal behavior, plants and their importance in the ecosystem together with a nature conservation specialist. Summer months are also great for picking up berries and the famous porcini mushrooms that you can dry and take back home.

In the village there are still many craftsmen especially coopers producing chairs, sculptures, furniture, forks, spoons and shingles. Women still weave and a small gypsy minority makes wicker baskets.

The peasants own animals and here you can find a herd of 2-300 water buffaloes, spectacular animals which especially in summer bathe in mud. Their milk and cheese are even better than the one from cow. In places like Italy the famous mozzarella is made from buffalo milk.

In the summer months you can also give a helping hand to mowing and gathering hay, gardening and repairing the wooden traditional houses.

So, I hope you have seen that there are many alternatives to wood harvesting in Maramures. We have included a few days in Groșii Țibleșului in one of our suggested itineraries to Maramureș.

Authentic Romanian villages

authentic village of viscriI aim to contribute to keeping rural Romanian heritage alive as villages are going through a fast process of modernization. Tourism can play a catalytic role in preserving the authentic Romanian villages.  I’ve found role-model villages having done this successfully and these are 3 of them.

Viscri – is a village built by German Saxons and which has a fortified church declared UNESCO Heritage site. A major conservation project is under way. Houses are being renovated keeping the traditional look, blue is the preferred color and windows have wooden frames. Mihai Eminescu Trust is the foundation running the project, HRH Prince Charles of Wales being a great supporter. He even owns two houses in the village. 20 Romanian, 70 Germans and 400 gypsies live here. Cows and carts go up and down the main road,  there are sheepfolds nearby and charcoal makers and in the warm months hundreds of tourists visit and stay overnight in the village. Traditional occupations such as brick making and knitting are being revived.

Another of our authentic Romanian villages is Rimetea.  It is inhabited by Szeklers and it received the Europa Nostra Award in 1999. Since then it is under conservation: houses are renovated keeping their authentic look and the preferred color is white. There is a small museum about the identity of the Szeklers and of iron mining. There is a person who can teach you how traditional furniture is made.  The conservation project was led by the Transylvania Trust with funding from Hungary.

The village of Ciocănești is also nicknamed the living village museum as here the houses and clothes have the same decorations as the painted Easter eggs, famous for this region. It is surrounded by mountains, a river winds through and in the nearby forests  the enigmatic “huțuli”, or people of the forest, live. Unlike the other two villages, there is no conservation project. The locals simply understand it is good to keep their heritage alive and it is benefic for attracting tourists and an income they can live from.

If you get to visit these authentic Romanian villages you can stay in rural guesthouses keeping a traditional architecture and you will experience true hospitality of the locals. Most food comes from the garden and local animals.

In the near future we want to have a more active role in such rural heritage conservation initiatives. For now we’re learning how it can be done and contribute by bringing travelers to those places and giving them as an example to other villages and pension owners.

Please click on the links to see examples of trips including Ciocanesti, Rimetea and Viscri.


Romanian Christmas Meal

For Christmas there are a lot of traditional dishes specific to our country. We are going to tell you how a Romanian Christmas meal looks like.

In rural Romania as in other Eastern European countries it is common that families sacrifice a pig a few weeks before Christmas. It is an old tradition with its own ritual. The good thing about it is that people eat meat from home-grown animals and also prepare the meat products by themselves so they are sure it is of good quality.
So let’s give a few names and then we’ll talk about each of them: sarma, caltaboși, tobă, cozonac, polenta, palinca.
You’ve probably heard of “sarma” already as it is common in many Eastern countries. It is a dish very popular in Mulsim countries as well, cooked differently. In Greek for example it is called dolma while in Russian it is golubci. The basic ingredients are minced meat, rice, tomato sauce and sour cabbage, the mix being rolled in cabbage and then boiled. In Romania it is the main dish for Christmas and it is usually served with sour cream.
,,Caltabosi” and ,,Toba” are other dishes that are part of a Romanian Christmas meal. „Caltaboși” are starters – imagine it as pate in the shape of sausage; it is very good with mustard. . For „toba” (the name actually  means drum) the mixture is made of chopped pieces of meat and fat, which are then boiled; it may sound like sausage but the taste is very different. All these are great with palinca (plum brandy) and especially sarma and fried sausages go well with mămăliga (polenta).
A traditional desert is cozonac. A decent translation for it is sponge cake and this one brings some of the best memories from childhood for me, when grandma was baking and I’d eat it warm. Home-made wine goes great with this one.

The deliciousness of these dishes comes from the way they are cooked: at home from local ingredients – the best our beautiful country can offer at this time of the year.

While this Romania Christmas meal may sound heavy, in small quantities you can enjoy all these dishes. Of course, nowadays fresh salads and fruits are available so you can balance your diet this time of the year. The second or third day after Christmas we usually have a sour vegetable soup just to give the organism some time to breathe before cooking traditional dishes for the New Year.

Dec 16 – the day the 1989 Romanian revolution started

The 1989 Romanian revolution started on the 16th of December in Timisoara, the city I now live in. Every time I am here on this date, I feel cold shivers down my spine thinking of this day, 22 years ago. I feel enormous respect for the people who then revolted against the communist regime and consciously or not put their life under threat. Romania is still struggling and often people feel like another revolution is needed and I keep wondering if I would be one of those starting it, again, from here, from Timisoara, from where history was already written before.

But I leave this doubt aside and I want to share with you how I experienced the 1989 Romanian revolution. When it started I was only 6 and I was still at kindergarden, one week before winter holidays. I was with my parents in Caransebes, 100 km away from Timisoara. A few days after Timisoara, Caransebes was one of the next cities to revolt. My father being in the army, he was asked to enroll and was allowed to carry guns in the city and even bring it at home. I thought it was a toy but my mother was really frightened and was asking him to leave it by the entrance door. In one of the first nights we heard intense shooting from the airport area, we had no idea what was happening. It turned out that soldiers were ordered to shoot the sheep and donkeys on the hills as to not create any distraction, so they did. The next day my mother took us to our grandparents, in a village another 100km further from Timisoara. There nothing happened, we were watching the revolution live on TV as it was unfolding. My mother returned to Caransebes and since the whole building we were living in was occuied by families with the man in the army, there were only women left in entire building and they all barricaded in a flat on the third floor. My father, specialized in tanks, was asked to take a tank out in the city and contribute to keeping the population calm. The military, unlike the police and secret services was with the population and helped them so even after Ceausescu was killed he would still patrol the city by tank.

The most frightening word then was “terrorist”, this is how  the people who were shooting civilians, usually at night, were called. I’ve never heard a public explanation of who those terrorists were, but it is clear to me that they were Romanians, probably from the police or Securitate. I came across  this term again in 2001 with the terrorist attacks from New York but the meaning seemed to me very different.

By Christmas the 1989 Romanian revolution was finished with the execution of Ceausescu and as New Year approached, optimism and hope for a better future grew. But as with any revolution I doubt it was totally genuine and that what came next was what people really wanted.

Here’s an interesting video telling about the context of the revolution.

Ho Ho Ho! … caroling customs

As Christmas is approaching, I’d like share with you about some caroling customs in some of the regions of Romania.

In Transylvania, it is common to carol “with the goat” . It is a custom practiced by men only. This type of caroling involves a man dressed in a goat, a musician and third man called the dumb, who is dirty with soot on his face and dressed with a lot of old clothes.

Initially, in Maramures, only boys went caroling, this being a test for them in the community. After the First World War girls joined the carolers too. The caroling is carried out in stages, according to age. First are the preschool children who do not learn carols, but they say some short wishes and they receive nuts, apples and coils. Then there are the school children, who sing short carols and they are also received with apples, coils and nuts. Only after that, the group of boys comes caroling, this being the most expected group, especially in the houses with unmarried girls. The boys are reworded with wine, meat and coils.

In Bucovina, around Christmas, people use to recover or to return any borrowed things back to their owners as they believe it is not good to have borrowed things during the holidays.

These are some of our Romanian caroling customs. If you are interested in having a similar experience check our Maramures Tour: Traditional Christmas Vacation.

Video: Carol from Maramures

From Transylvania to London and back

Last week I went to London with the main purpose to understand how Transylvania is seen from there and initiate cooperation with like-minded organizations.

I have to share the interesting stories of two Londoners, Jeremy and James.

Jeremy, after a long and successful entrepreneurial career in the clothing industry traveled to South Transylvania, fell in love with the place and decided on the spot to buy a house in the village of Crit, and so he did; he wants to turn it into a bed and breakfast so we spoke about it. I asked him why he wanted to do that, he said that it just felt right, he loved the place and how rustic it was, surrounded by wonderful scenery with hills and forests.

James, was working in New York on Wall Street and came to Romania for 4 days, first 3 days were wonderful; on the last day everyone ripped him off, at the hotel, cable car, bus and taxi! So he left with a bitter feeling but sweetened by the memories of the first days. So he saw this as an opportunity, an amazing place but still rough and where if services were of quality and fair, it can provide interesting traveling experiences. He decided to find something rare to focus on so he chose the ice hotel at Balea Lake; so far, all travelers were happy with the services and the project continues to grow, relaying on locals. In February for example, they will organize two weddings for British couples at the ice hotel.

These are two positive examples but I came across of other British with similar inspiring experiences, some of them actually moved to Romania. In reality they are few such people but they really cherish what they found. And I hope Transylvania will stay like that, discovered by few curious travelers who truly appreciate it.

On the last day, walking along the Thames I took a picture of the London Eye and couldn’t help notice the blue, yellow and red colors of the Romanian flag reflected in the water, a sign that it was time to go back home 🙂

Photography workshop impressions

Chris from Belgium and Enis from Turkey share with us their Transylvanian experience during a photography workshop organized on July 20-24.

“I had a wonderful time in Romania and enjoyed the beauty of the country but especially the people with whom I had amazing meetings, which I won’t forget.

The services of Authentic Transylvanian Tours were excellent, from the welcoming at the airport, to the drop off at the bus station. I loved the pension, the hospitality of the host and the food.

I hope to come back one day.”

Chris from Belgium


“Being interested in photography, this trip definitely had an impact on my experience and I learned a lot being there with Sorin Onisor and Daniel from Authentic Transylvania Tours.  In no moment I felt like a tourist or a guest, it was like being with friends that I know for a long time.

Thanks for this amazing experience; I hope to see you again in Transylvania again in the future.”

Enis from Turkey


Please check the photos taken by the workshop participants here. Also, take a look at our next photography workshops in Transylvania, Danube Delta and other regions of Romania.

A testimonial

“Discovering Transylvania with Via Transylvania was and will remain a memorable experience. Not only I had the opportunity to discover the wonderful scenery and the beautiful mountains of the region but I have also been able to get in touch with local people, proud and happy to show us the wonders of their land. Tasting the milk that we had directly milked from the cow, celebrating Easter following the Orthodox tradition, climbing steep mountains, finding out traditional techniques of making coal from a genuine woman, following the paths taken by the gold miners under the Roman Empire, discovering the history that has shaped the region over centuries, these are some of the memories I would keep from my journey in Transylvania. I have also enjoyed the people I traveled with and the bonds we have created, which have added a sense of community and belonging throughout the whole trip. For sure, I would not change the experience I had in Transylvania for any other journey”
Aurelie, from France, living in Luxembourg

A testimonial from our first tour in 2011

One of our guests was kind enough to write a nice testimonial about her experience in Transylvania. You can also check pictures from this trip here.

“I spent wonderful five days on a tour of Transylvania. Everything was great but there were some things that were even better! Firstly a visit to a real traditional farm placed just on the top of the mountain. It was an amazing experience to milk a cow for the first time in my life. I loved the fact that we saw all the household animals and had an opportunity to taste fresh milk, homemade cheese and cream.  The other remarkable experience was to see the “ceremony” of baking bread in an old, traditional furnace. The owner of the pension we were staying at, explained us how they are baking it and invited us to see.  I should also mention climbing on Szekler’s Rock, a beautiful  mountain in Rimetea. A pretty hard exercise to get on top of it but the view justified that effort. The atmosphere in Viscri was also something not-to-be-forgotten. Visiting beautiful old fortified church and then going on a “căruța” ride (horse-drawn carriage) to the coal manufactory, meeting a really pleasant lady that is producing it and listening to her story. The last but not the least, I appreciated the “Rosia Montana case” tour. It was great to see and hear all the sides of the conflict: gold miners, company that want to take advantage of gold from the mountain and an association that is preserving it. All in all, the trip was remarkable and crazy, definitely worth to experience it. I fell in love in Romania!”


Opole, Poland

The Hunyadi Castle from Hunedoara

The Hunyadi Castle from Hunedoara is an important place to visit if you come to Transylvania. This castle treasures in its forcible walls so many legends, myths and its stones hide so much history for each path chosen.  The placement is a relic of the Hunyadi dynasty, being offered in 1409 to John Hunyadi’s father, Voyk, by Sigismund, king of Hungary, as severance.

The castle was restored between 1446 and 1453 by his son John Hunyadi. It was built mainly in Gothic style, but also has impetuous Renaissance architectural elements. It features tall and strong defense towers, an interior yard and a drawbridge. Built over the site of an older fortification and on a rock above the small river Zlaşti, the castle is a large and imposing building with tall and diversely colored roofs, towers, myriad windows and balconies adorned with stone carvings.

It is believed that the Hunyadi Castle from Hunedoara  is the place where Vlad III of Wallachia (commonly known as Vlad the Impaler) was held prisoner for 7 years after he was deposed in 1462. Near a 15th-century chapel in the castle is a well 30 meters deep. The legend says that this fountain was dug by twelve Turkish prisoners to whom liberty was promised if they reached water. After 15 years they completed the well, but their captors did not keep their promise. It is said that the inscription on a wall of the well means “you have water, but not soul”. Specialists, however, have translated the inscription as “he who wrote this inscription is Hasan, who lives as slave of the giaours, in the fortress near the church”.

In February 2007, the Hunyadi Castle played host to the British paranormal television program “Most Haunted Live!” for a three-night live investigation into the spirits reported to be haunting the castle. Nobody was able to detect exactly what is happening for centuries in this castle.