Travel to Northern Romania – Episode 488

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Travel to Northern Romania - Amateur Traveler Episode 488

Hear about travel to Northern Romania as the Amateur Traveler talks to Ralph Velasco of about the region that he visited leading a recent photo tour.


We talk about the regions of Maramureș and Bukovina, north of Transylvania. “This area is like taking a step back in time. People are still living in ways that are very interesting.

Ralph and his group flew to the city of Cluj and then drove to the rolling hills and agricultural lands around Budesti. “It is a beautiful part of Romania if not the world. The time of year that we were there which was September was the second harvest of the hayfields.”

“The area has a number of wooden churches. About 8 of them are UNESCO World Heritage sites. They are from about the 1640s. They were built out of wood because at the time they were not allowed to build (orthodox) churches out of stone (by the Catholic Austro-Hungarian authorities). Many have been restored. They are very tall. The churches themselves are very small. You go inside and there are hand-painted frescos and just beautiful interiors.”

“Another reason to visit is the people working the land. There’s not a lot of mechanical tractors so it’s handwork, people with scythes.” Ralph and the group watched the farmers creating their haystacks just as they have done for generations. Little children and older adults all take part.

They visited Sighetu Marmatiei on the border with Ukraine including a wonderful market. They saw no other tourists. There is a museum in a former prison that describes Romania’s communist past.

In nearby Sapanta there is a cemetery with colorful headstones that tell you about the person’s life and even often depict how they died.

They visited an area known for its mushrooms which are harvested in the woods by some of the Gypsy (Romani) people. They visited a gypsy camp.

Ralph also visited monasteries in the Bukovina area from the 1500s. The monasteries are covered with frescos both inside and out.

right click here to download (mp3)
right click here to download (iTunes version with pictures)

Show Notes – Ralph’s Photography
Romania Wiki
History of Romania
Culture of Romania
Sighetu Marmatiei
UNESCO – Wooden Churches of Maramure?
Romani people


Hi there Chris.

I found your podcast a couple months ago, and I’ve been listening to all Australia-related episodes, as I’m planning a month-long trip to the Land Down Under next summer. And I’m writing just to let you know that it’s been quite helpful for my travel planning. Also, some episodes make me wish I had more time to get to visit places like Canberra and the Coral Coast…

I’ve also listened some episodes about Brazil – that’s where I’m from, and it’s always fun to see my country under a foreigner’s perspective. Hope one day you can make a trip to Brazil and get to know some beautiful places of our big country!

Thanks for the best travel podcast I’ve ever listened to! I’ll keep listening to the new episodes and hoping to get to know a lot more of the world!


Travel to Northern Romania - Amateur Traveler Episode 488


Chris: Amateur Traveler, Episode 488. Today, the Amateur Traveler talks about historic wooden churches, colorful gravestones, and the agricultural heritage of Northern Romania.

Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host, Chris Christensen. Without further ado, let’s talk about Romania.

I‘d like to welcome back to the show Ralph Velasco from, PhotoEnrichment Programs. Ralph has come to talk to us this time about Romania or some destinations in Romania. Ralph, welcome back to the show.

Ralph: Hey, Chris, great to be back.

Chris: And you didn’t hear it, but we just referenced last week, the show that we did on Montenegro, but we’ve done a few different shows together. You didn’t hear it because it isn’t out yet at the time that we’re recording this.

Ralph: Right.

Chris: So where in Romania are we talking about today?

Ralph: Well, we’re going to talk about two regions of Romania that are in the northern part of the country. One is called Maramureș, and the other is Bukovina.

Chris: Okay, and why would one go to Maramureș and Bukovina?

Ralph: They’re just fascinating parts of the world. These regions actually flow into Southern Ukraine as well, so not just specific to Romania, but we’re gonna talk about just the Romanian parts. But this area is like just taking a step back in time. The people there are still living in ways that are very interesting. It wasn’t a part of the world I had much knowledge of before I went about a year ago to scout it out for a photo tour that I just led a couple weeks ago. But in my research and planning, yeah, I just thought that it was an extremely interesting part of the world and a place that I wanted to bring a group back to.

Chris: And can we put it on the map in Romania?

Ralph: Yeah, they’re in the northern part of the country.

Chris: So north of Transylvania?

Ralph: Yes.

Chris: Okay.

Ralph: Yup, they’re two regions in the northern part of the country. And Maramureș is northwest, and Bukovina is northeast.

Chris; Okay, thanks. Now, what kind of itinerary would you recommend for these regions?

Ralph: We spent about eight or nine days just in this part of the country. We did include other parts, Bucharest and Transylvania, on the entire trip. But we’re just gonna talk about these regions today. We flew from Bucharest to a town called Cluj that’s about an hour flight. And that just saved us a lot of time instead of driving with a group. So we flew and drove a few hours to a town called Budesti. This is a fairly small village, but there are some nice hotels there. It’s an absolutely gorgeous part of Romania, if not the world, rolling hills, beautiful agricultural lands.

The time of year that we were there, which was September, first two weeks of September, was the second harvest of the hayfields. So when I was there scouting a year ago, we where there the same two weeks. So let’s just call it the first two weeks of September. And when I was going to bring the group back this year, 2015. we were talking about doing it in October, the actual trip. And talking to my guide and tour operator, he said, “You know the hay harvest only lasts a short window of time, and it’s probably not going to be happening in October.”

And so I said, “Well, then we absolutely have to move the trip to the same first two weeks of September.” So like I said, it’s the second harvest because in June, so late spring, is the first harvest. Now, last year they had a fairly wet summer, so the harvest was wonderful in September. This year, they had a pretty dry, hot summer. So that window of time was shifted a little bit. So we didn’t see quite as much of the hay harvest, which was a real highlight this year.

Chris: Okay. Now, I’m curious. Ralph, as we’ve talked about before, runs photo tours. And that’s what you were talking about in terms of scouting out the trip when you went there the first time. But you run trips all over the world, so what drew you to Northern Romania in the first place? Why did you think that this would be a good place to even do a scouting trip?

Ralph: Initially, we were approached by the tour operator. And this often happens. So they find out where we lead trips to, see that we don’t go to Romania and say, “Hey, have you ever considered coming to our country?” We get that a lot.

Chris: I’m assuming you turn a lot of those down, though, too.

Ralph: Yeah.

Chris: So they sent you some piece of information or some photo or whatever that got your attention.

Ralph: Absolutely. So what I was gonna say is that we get that a lot and then for the ones that do have any kind of interest, we’ll start to dig deeper and ask for the tour operator to send us a suggested itinerary. Of course, we’ll do a lot of research online. The tour operator will send us some pictures. We’ll talk to them, Skype with them. And so going back and forth, we determine whether or not this would make a great trip.

My overall criteria for a great trip is variety. If I could put it in one word is, does the destination offer variety? And by that, I’m certainly thinking of photo opportunities. But also for my trips, which I call more cultural tours than photo tours, is, what’s the food like, the people? Is there agriculture? What are the photo opportunities? Is there plains and mountains? What’s the variety? Can we experience a lot of different things in the same location?

Chris: Okay. Won’t you go back to your itinerary now that we have that context?

Ralph: Sure. So we flew into Cluj. We took like a sprinter van for our group, about 10 of us, which fit comfortably into a sprinter van, that smaller van that allows us to get into smaller places, as opposed to some big bus or something. So we’re in Budesti, which is a really nice small village. There’s a lot of rolling hills and agriculture around the area. There’s a small little town. Many old wooden churches, this area has about 100 wooden churches. I think there’s eight of them that are UNESCO World Heritage sites. And we visit two or three of them. So they’re from about the 1640s.

And it’s interesting about these churches in that they were built out of wood because, at the time, they weren’t allowed to build churches out of stone. So no one thought that these churches would last 3, 400 years, although, they have. So you’ve got these amazing structures made completely out of wood.

Chris: And when you say they weren’t allowed to, do you know who wasn’t allowing them to build out of stones?

Ralph: I’m not sure if it was the government or the religious leaders at the time. But yeah, they weren’t allowed to build them out of stone, so they built them out of wood. And no one expected them to last 3, 400 years. Some are in very good condition. Of course, many have been restored. But these churches alone are one really great reason to visit this area. They’re very tall. The steeples are super tall. The churches themselves are very small. You go inside, and there’s hand painted frescoes and just beautiful interiors, very dark. Some of them, the windows have been changed because they pointed out some of the original windows and there may be like six inches square. Today, there’s bigger windows that they’ve incorporated since then.

What’s funny is, though, the one near Budesti that we went to, the guide had to call the key holder in advance of our arrival so that she could come from her home and open up the church for us. We had the place to ourselves. There’s a wonderful cemetery that surrounds it. So we were able to get inside, photograph outside. But those churches alone are one really great reason to visit the area.

Chris: I have an answer to the question that I asked earlier is, you didn’t mention, but they are Orthodox churches. And it was the Catholic Austro-Hungarian authorities that didn’t allow them to build stone Orthodox churches at the time. So that makes a little more sense.

Ralph: Excellent, okay. So other reasons to visit are really the people working the land. There’s not a lot of mechanical tractors and things like that. So it’s mostly just handwork, people with scythes cutting down the hay, with wooden pitchforks gathering the hay.

Speaking about that, number 1, I really didn’t ever really know what hay was. I never really thought about it. I never thought about it, right? To me, hay is straw that you might see in a barn here in the states. But there, what hay is, it’s a mixture. There could be 50 different species of flowers, legumes, all grasses, all kinds of stuff.

So this land is set aside, and often, this land has been in the family for generations. At this time of year, I said there’s these two windows of time. So in September, the second harvest, you will see some fields that still have yet to be harvested. And if you go into them, there’s lots of flowers and things. And so they’ll cut that down, let it dry. Then typically the women will come in, and they cut it down in the morning when it’s wet and gooey. Then they’ll flip that over maybe middle of the day so that they can dry the lower parts of it. And then they’ll put it into a circle around a large, maybe 20-foot tall poll that’s stuck into the ground. And then little by little, they’ll take that hay and bunch it up against that poll. And someone will get on top of that hay. And as people below are pitchforking it up to this person, they’re gathering it towards that poll and stomping it down.

And the idea is that this is meant to hold over the animals for the winter. So it’s just an interesting tradition that they have, and you’ll see people from little children pretending that they’re helping to older folks in their 70s and 80s. It’s just something that you do. And I learned that there’s this brain drain from the countryside to the big cities like Bucharest. So even children of these families that are living in Bucharest, the big city, will come back at this time of year to help out. You just do that. That’s sort of expected. And it’s the same with the potato harvest.

Quick story, we were at one location. There was this woman. It was just a beautiful day. This older woman, probably in her 80s, was rolling up wool into balls to make sweaters and things. So it just seemed like the perfect job for this lady, sitting in this wonderful gazebo and rolling balls of twine. My guide was talking to her, and she started crying. So I didn’t say anything at the time. And later, I’m with my guide, and I said, “Why did that lady start crying?”

And he said, well, she was upset because she has diabetes. And I saw her legs and her ankles were sort of deformed, and you could tell that she did have some problems with her feet. And she was so upset that she couldn’t be in the fields with the family and that she had to be doing this job that she started crying. And that’s how special it is to them to be a part of that tradition.

Chris: Excellent. Where do we go next?

Ralph: There’s another little town called Breb, which is just outside of Budesti. And it’s just winding lanes. There’s a very large church there. It’s in a valley. You could see it from a far distance. But it’s great to just walk these little one- and two-lane roads. There’s another wooden church there, a little hotel that we stay at.

The food in Romania is absolutely phenomenal. The portions are over the top. There’s a lot of great soups and stews. So I can’t recommend the food highly enough.

We also went to a town called Sighetu Marma?iei. I’m sure I’m butchering that name. This is a much larger town, and it’s right on the border of Ukraine. Here, there’s a wonderful market that we visited. And I didn’t see one other tourist in this area. But walked through and our group had some free time. Everyone walked around. And me and a couple of the people stopped in on the baker and talked to some different vendors. This one baker that we stopped in was a fairly young woman, maybe 30, 35 years old. And somehow, it came out that she spoke Spanish. And I speak Spanish. I don’t speak Romanian. So we actually were able to have a real conversation. And turned out that quite a few Romanians have spent a lot of time in Spain. I found at least two or three other people in that town that I was able to have a conversation with by speaking Spanish.

Chris: Well, then I’m curious. I know you don’t speak Romanian, but Romanian being a romance language, do you find you can understand some of it, at least in the written form?

Ralph: Very little.

Chris: Okay.

Ralph: It is considered, obviously, a romance language. Once in a while, I heard hints of Italian, but really not much.

Chris: Okay. Well, it is, obviously, a derivative of Latin, so that would make sense.

Ralph: Yeah. Also in Sighetu Marmatiei, there’s a museum that’s a former prison. It’s very interesting to learn about Romania’s communist past. You can walk through this prison and see some very interesting ways that the prisoners lived. There’s some great displays there, much of it in Romanian.

Another reason to visit that town. Nearby, something that I did on my scouting trip, was a town called Sapanta. I believe that’s Sapanta, not sure how you pronounce it.

Chris: Right there in the border with Ukraine.

Ralph: Right, that’s a little further west. And there, the main draw is these wooden headstones that this particular man carved out of wood. Back when when most people didn’t read, he would carve out the person’s life on a wooden headstone.

Chris: Interesting.

Ralph: And if he was a womanizer, they would show a picture of him with several women. It ‘s very comical.

Chris: I suppose the wife does get the last word if the husband dies first.

Ralph: Yeah, right. If he was a drinker, there would be all kinds of beer and palinka. Palinka is the local brandy. It’s a hooch. They make it out of pears and apples. Like a walk down these roads and you’ll see trees, just apple trees and pear trees just dripping with fruit. And I loved just picking them right off the tree and eating them right there.

There’s these particular places. Now, I don’t know that it’s actually legal, but there’s not really anyone that’s getting people that are doing this. But if you’ve got a lot of apples or pears from your land, you can bring them to this one co-op place where this man will turn it into palinka. Then his payment is a percentage of the result. So he might get 10 or 15% of whatever the output is. So I thought that was an interesting little tradition that they have.

Chris: I have been distracted I will say while you’ve been talking about this. Looking at some of these amazing tombstones that you mentioned sometimes that are showing how the person died, some macabre, but bizarre and interesting, fascinating.

Ralph: Yeah, it’s a neat, neat place. So from Maramureș, we went over the mountains there and into Bukovina. But along this border between the two regions is an area in the mountains that’s well known for harvesting porcini mushrooms. And so the people that typically will do this are the Gypsies. And one misconception that I think a lot of people have is that Romania is made up of Gypsies. And it’s really just 3% of the population is Gypsy.

Chris: Oh, I didn’t know it was that small, okay.

Ralph: It’s very small, very small. So you don’t see a lot of them around. There are some small pockets of them in different areas. But in this region of the mountains, so it’s along that border between these two regions, Maramureș and Bukovina, that at this time of year, the Gypsies will come and set up temporary camps. And they will be the ones that go out into the forest and pick mushrooms for maybe three, four months, whatever the season is. They will gather them, and then someone will come by and purchase them from the Gypsies, a wholesaler who will then wholesale them to someone else probably. And then they eventually end up on the tables of some of the finest restaurants in Tuscany and France and probably all over the world.

Chris: Interesting.

Ralph: But these camps are very interesting. So we pulled over this time on my scouting trip, and we got to meet the people and see how they lived. They live in very humble shacks that are made out of wooden plastic. But their extended families, mostly cousins and second cousins and things, so this particular group that we met on this trip was probably 30 or 40 people of an extended family. But these mushrooms are just outstanding, and you’ll see them certainly on plates there in Romania. But I just thought that this was a neat thing for the Gypsies that will do this and set up these temporary camps.

Chris: And by Gypsies, we mean the Romani people. So while you were talking about that, I was looking up and Romania has the second largest population of Romani by percentage as you mentioned, second to Bulgaria, which I didn’t realize. And then in terms of the top countries, in terms of significant portions of populations, the top country for the Romani, for the Gypsy people, is United States, followed second by Brazil in terms of the diaspora, which both of those countries caught me by surprise.

Ralph; Yeah, that is surprising. And their origin is from India, which I did not realize either.

Chris: Right, right. Interesting.

Ralph: So as we left this mountainous region and made our way into Bukovina, so that northeastern part of Romania, which, again, folds into Southern Ukraine and even Moldova, here, it’s a little bit different. We had the chance to meet some wonderful people there. We had a chance to go to this blacksmith’s house, to his workshop. And when I was on my scouting trip, he was pounding out horseshoes. And it was 2 young brothers, probably 19 and 16. And the 19 year old pounded out 4 horseshoes in about 15 minutes. And he stacked them up. And he’s doing this all by hand, of course. And he stacked them up next to each other, and they were absolutely perfect. They were all the exact same size. And then this year, when we were planning to go to his same workshop, he had gotten a job to go actually shoe some horses. So he wasn’t at the workshop. He was on site at a man’s place where he was shoeing the horses. We got a chance to see that. And that was pretty interesting too.

I think I gave you some pictures, and I could just tell that he was just really well-built. And I found out that he’s actually going to college to learn to be a fitness instructor.

Chris: I would think blacksmithing would help with that a lot.

Ralph: Yeah, exactly. So I knew that he had these really strong arms, and so I said, “Hey, show me you muscles.” And so he’d give me this big old bicep, and I think I gave you a picture of that, but really great people.

So what I try to do whenever I’m able to come back to a country, which I do have the luxury of doing often, is bring back pictures from the previous trip. And so I brought him those pictures back, and he was super happy. I try to do that as much as possible.

Chris: Excellent. Where else do we have to go?

Ralph: Yeah, the town that we stayed at is a town called Vama, which actually means “customs house.” So years ago, it was an area that they would collect taxes from people passing through this region. And it’s just a postcard town. In the morning, there is beautiful mist that just lays in the valley. There’s several churches there. So we go out for an early shoot and try to capture that. There’s just great little lanes to walk through and photograph and see how people are living, watch the people harvesting potatoes and just whatever it is that they’re doing.

We have dinner at a wonderful lady’s house. It’s almost like a museum. And so we have dinner in this big room that’s just got all these artifacts from 2, 300 years ago. And she makes this wonderful meal for us. The palinka is definitely flowing. And so those are the kinds of experiences that I like to incorporate into my trips, where we can actually get into people’s houses, see how they live, see how they work. And the Romanian people are just so open to doing that and having visitors.

And our guide was telling us that Romania is such a blend of people. At first, you had the Hungarians, then the Austro-Hungarians, then the Ottomans. They’re just used to foreigners. And so the people are very open to having foreigners visit and welcome to being photographed. They’re very open to being photographed. They’re typically not looking for any tips or anything. So I’m often asked, “Did you have to pay for these photographs?” And one thing that our guide did for us, he said, “You don’t have to pay the people.” If there’s ever a situation where I do feel like we need to give them something, he asked me to bring anything that had American flags on it. It could be pens. I brought just toothpicks that had American flags on them. And he said, “Let me hand out those things, and I’ll do it when I feel that it’s necessary”. The only people that he said on a regular basis will expect to be paid something are the Gypsies. So he made it very easy on us. We didn’t have to think about it. He just took care of it, which I thought was excellent service.

Chris: Interesting.

Ralph: The other thing that you’ll see a lot of in this region is the whole process of milk. And what I mean by that is, of course, we see the people out there harvesting the hay for the animals. Then you’ll see the, typically, ladies milking the cows. Then there is the man or the woman sitting by the side of the road with their one container of milk, waiting for a man on a horse cart to come by to collect that. Then he’ll bring it to a co-op where they will distribute the milk and sell it. I’m sure the money flows down to the original farmer. To get to see that whole process and how it’s done so, what I would call, primitively…

Chris: I would go with traditionally but…

Ralph: Yeah, traditional, yeah, traditionally. Seeing those processes like that is just great and just the reason that I travel.

Chris: One thing that occurred to me as I was looking at some of the pictures that you sent and you talked about how the fields, there wasn’t a lot of equipment. It’s interestingly, I noticed this in my recent travel too, that even just flying over a country, you can tell whether or not they’re mechanized. And the pictures that you sent of the fields from Romania, looking at one from Sadova, for instance, there are these thin strips of fields. They tend to be much longer than they are wide. It’s just really characteristic of somebody who is using manual harvesting techniques, versus if you’ve flown over the middle of the United States, for instance, and these very square fields and the fields are very large tends to be much more characteristic of somebody who is using automated equipment, who is using tractors and combines and that sort of thing. So even just flying over it, you can easily tell what level of mechanization there is in farming typically.

Ralph: Right, and you know the fields and tracts of lands are much smaller.

Chris: Yeah, they just have to be. They just have to be. We noticed that when we flew into Bosnia recently, in Sarajevo. I was surprised how it was quite clear that most people are using manual harvesting techniques. Interesting.

Ralph: I think, overall, the reasons to visit this area is just to feel like you’re stepping back in time a bit, but you still have got the modern day infrastructure that makes it more comfortable for us. So you’ve really got the best of both worlds.

Chris: Now, you sent me one more picture that you haven’t talked about and that’s some of the monasteries.

Ralph: Yeah, the monasteries, the ones that we visited were in the Bukovina area. One was in Sucevita, and Moldovita was the other one. And these are monasteries from the early 1500s. There are frescoes both inside and out.

Chris: Yeah, the outside was really surprising.

Ralph: Yeah, which is unusual. And of course that goes back to when people were illiterate, and they’ve got these Bible stories from both the old and new testament that they’ve drawn out and tried to tell the stories of the Bible visually so that these people could understand. And then the interiors of these churches are very small but extremely intricate, lots of detail, and very dark, difficult to photograph, but well worth visiting.

Chris: Yeah, it looks like they would be. They’re fascinating to look at.

Ralph: Yes, fantastic, absolutely. And these are UNESCO World Heritage sites as well. And you’ve got these nuns that are walking around the area. They do not want to be photographed. But there is one picture I made with one of the nuns walking around with this long…what looks like a 2 by 4. She’s got it in one hand. It’s probably eight feet long, and it’s over one shoulder. And then she’s got a wooden mallet in the other hand. And she will bang on it, and that’s a call to prayer.

Chris: Almost like a bell. Interesting.

Ralph: It is. Yeah, so that’s a really neat traditional thing that they still do to this day. And spoke to some of the nuns. Many of them spoke very good English. Some of them fairly young. So just need to be in that environment with them where they live.

Chris: And it looked like from the pictures that these were probably Orthodox monasteries.

Ralph: They are Orthodox, yes.

Chris: Okay, excellent. What surprised you about the area when you first went there?

Ralph: I guess I keep coming back to how modern the infrastructure was. I expected it to be a lot rougher to get between these areas, and it really wasn’t a problem at all. The food surprised me, just the quantities of food are just incredible.

Chris: Well, in an agricultural area, you’re used to feeding farmers, so I wouldn’t be surprised. What kind of dishes for instance stand out in your memory?

Ralph: Certainly a lot of mushroom dishes based on the mushroom especially at that time of year.

Chris: Sure, it makes sense.

Ralph: Lots of stews, really hearty soups, many in bread bowls. Certainly lots of potatoes. But very, very hearty food, and good beer.

Chris: And good beer, okay. What’s one warning you would give about somebody who is going to that area, one thing they should know before they go?

Ralph: You should drink bottled water.

Chris: Oh, interesting, okay.

Ralph: Yeah, one of the things that we talked about, that infrastructure, is being aware of water. Can people drink the water out of the faucet there? Many of us did, had no problems, but other people did and did have some problems. So very early on, we said, “Hey, just drink bottled water,” which we provided, and it’s very available. And so just be aware of the water.

Chris: Excellent. All right, as we start to wind this down, before I get to my last four questions, what else should we know before we head to this area?

Ralph: Romania is very accessible. Flying into Bucharest, or even Cluj, you can fly directly into Cluj from Frankfurt and many of the major hubs in Europe. I don’t know why, but it just seemed like it was so far away. But it’s just very, very accessible. And so you’ve got this very out of the way place in one sense that’s very accessible.

Chris: Well, and you say far away. And then I ask my typical question, which I didn’t ask you, when did it seem very familiar? And when did it seem very unfamiliar, very remote?

Ralph: Yes, certainly, flying into Bucharest, which is a big city…It’s called Little Paris. But then even flying into Cluj. Cluj is a fairly good-sized town. I did spend some time there on my scouting trip, decided that it wasn’t something we needed to include on the actual trip. That was very familiar, some really nice little old towns and great restaurants and things. So that to me was familiar, especially having spent a lot of time in Europe.

When I felt the most unfamiliar was going into these regions where I’m seeing the people working in these very traditional farming ways. Pulling over to the side of the road, we’d see some people harvesting the hay, cutting it down. We’d pull over and start talking to them. Many, if not all, were open to our photographing them. And just smiley, happy people.

I mentioned that you see little kids to older folks, even pregnant ladies out there. So there was this couple, man and his pregnant wife, and I made a comment to my guide. I said, “Boy, you would never see a pregnant woman working the farm in the U.S. these days.” And he said, “Well, you guys, people go to Lamaze class and do all these other exercises and yoga. Here, they harvest hay.” I said, “Okay, that makes sense.”

Chris: Well, I’m pretty sure that some of our grandmothers are probably out there on the farm still working as they had. I think my grandmother’s mother had 16 kids. So she was pretty much always pregnant as far as I can figure out.

Ralph: Well, that’s what I mean. It’s like being back 5 or 100 years, but it’s today.

Chris: Right, exactly. The most beautiful spot you were, where were you?

Ralph: The place that really just stands out is that place near Budesti in Maramureș, these beautiful fields of haystacks and the mountains in the distance, the morning mist, green fields, brown haystacks. To me, that just sums it up.

Chris: Okay. One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in this region in Romania.”

Ralph: I mentioned the palinka earlier and, boy, they enjoy their palinka. That’s something that you’ll see at all hours of the day. It’s one of those things that everyone’s offered whenever you come to someone’s house. You’re offered the palinka. There’s a nondescript bottle sitting there and bunch of little tiny shot glasses, and everyone gets one. So to me, that was great.

Chris: So palinka, it’s not just for breakfast anymore?

Ralph: Exactly. And back in Maramureș, it reminds me of this man. I talked about the people there who everyone brings their fruits to them. And then this man will make the palinka for you for a percentage. They’ve got this hat that called a clope, C-L-O-P-E, and it’s a really interesting looking hat. It’s very tiny. It sits on the top of the man’s skull. And then it’s got a very colorful ornate ribbon that goes down the back of it that I think I sent you some pictures of. And you’ll see the men in that region wearing that all the time. Many of them you could tell are very old and well-worn, the hats that is.

Chris: Possibly true, the men as well.

Ralph: Yeah, exactly. But what reminded me was that this man was always wearing the clope hat.

Chris: And finish this sentence, you really know you’re in Romania, specifically in…What are the two names of the areas again?

Ralph: Maramureș…

Chris: Maramush…

Ralph: …and Bukovina.

Chris: …and Bukovina when what?

Ralph: When you’re driving down the road and on either side, there are rolling hills with beautiful haystacks and meticulously maintained fields that have just recently been cut down and now they’re formed into these haystacks that are drying, and maybe you pull over to the side of the road and start talking to these people, and they’re just so open, very few of which speak English, so it’s great to have our local guide and tour operator along to translate, but very open to telling us and answering any questions that we had, just beautiful people.

Chris: Okay. And if you had to summarize the region in three words?

Ralph: A living museum.

Chris: Interesting, okay. Excellent, Ralph, I started to introduce you the first time around as being from That is not the name of your website anymore, but it used to be when you were on here last time. Where can people read more about your travels and maybe even sign up for one of your tours?

Ralph: Sure, if you go to, people can look there, and you look for Tours, and there’s a little dropdown. You’ll see all the trips I have coming up. The website is being updated over the next couple of months. So it might look different the next time you come back. But there’s all kinds of great trips I have coming up. And Romania, we’re doing again next year, those same two weeks, first two weeks of September.

Chris: Excellent. And certainly, if you go to Ralph’s site let him know that you heard about him on Amateur Traveler. Ralph, thanks so much for coming and sharing your new found love for Northern Romania.

Ralph: Very good, thank you so much.

Chris: It is the community. We have the final details including the price for next year’s trip, next year’s trip to Cambodia, which will start April 1 of 2016. And the ground transportation costs $775, air fare not included. Go to to see the detail. That is a private Facebook group, and you will have to get permission to join.

Got an email recently from Polo who said, “I found your podcast a couple of months ago, and I’ve been listening to all Australia-related episodes as I’m preparing a month-long trip to the Land Down Under next summer. And I’m writing just to let you know that it’s been quite helpful for my travel planning. Also some episodes make me wish I had more time to get to visit places like Canberra and the Coral Coast. I’ve also listened to some episodes about Brazil. That’s where I’m from. It’s always fun to see my country under a foreigner’s perspective. Hope one day you can make a trip to Brazil and get to know some beautiful places of our big country. Thanks for the best travel podcast I have listened to. I’ll keep listening to the new episodes. Hoping to get to know a lot more about the world, Polo.”

Polo, I agree with you. I definitely want to get to Brazil sometime, not sure when it’s going to happen. I only got to South America for the first time this year. So there’s a lot of places in the world I have not been. Although, I just recently traveled to my 11th new country this year. So it’s not that I’m not trying.

With that, we’re going to end this episode of The Amateur Traveler. Again, remember the trip to Cambodia. If that is one of the places you haven’t been, you can come with us. If you have questions, send an email to host at as Polo did or, better yet, leave a comment on this episode at You can follow me on Twitter, Pinterest, or Instagram @chris2x. And as always, thanks so much for listening.

Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.

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Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine.

6 Responses to “Travel to Northern Romania – Episode 488”

John Belyea



I thought that Ralph did a fabulous job describing the incredibly beautiful Maramure? region in Northern Romania. Our family visited the area in 2009 and we too were struck by the lack of mechanization and dependence on manual labor and farm animals for all aspects of agricultural production. We saw multi-generational families working in the fields with homemade scythes and wooden rakes with horse drawn wagons being used to transport almost everything.

The wooden churches were special and we particularly enjoyed the vivid frescoes in the church at Desesti which were painted in the late 1790s.

A couple of things that we enjoyed that were not mentioned include the elaborately carved wooden doors and gates you find in many of the villages and trees adorned with with pots and pans indicating that there is a daughter available for marriage (still true today!).

We stayed in a small B&B run by Ioan Pop in the village of Hoteni. Also known as Popicu, Ioan is a national cultural treasure who is one of the best known folk musicians in the country. Not only will you be served hearty local fare (and potent, homemade p?linc?) while staying there but you’ll also be treated to impromptu performances. Hoteni is a perfect spot to base your explorations of the region from.

Independent travel is the way to go when in Maramures. You’ll need a car and nerves of steel navigating roads that can have extraordinary sized potholes and you’ll be challenged by very aggressive drivers.

Keep up the great work.

John Belyea



I got an email from John:

I thought that Ralph did a fabulous job describing the incredibly beautiful Maramure? region in Northern Romania. Our family visited the area in 2009 and we too were struck by the lack of mechanization and dependence on manual labor and farm animals for all aspects of agricultural production. We saw multi-generational families working in the fields with homemade scythes and wooden rakes with horse drawn wagons being used to transport almost everything.
The wooden churches were special and we particularly enjoyed the vivid frescoes in the church at Desesti which were painted in the late 1790s.
A couple of things that we enjoyed that were not mentioned include the elaborately carved wooden doors and gates you find in many of the villages and trees adorned with with pots and pans indicating that there is a daughter available for marriage (still true today!).
We stayed in a small B&B run by Ioan Pop in the village of Hoteni. Also known as Popicu, Ioan is a national cultural treasure who is one of the best known folk musicians in the country. Not only will you be served hearty local fare (and potent, homemade p?linc?) while staying there but you’ll also be treated to impromptu performances. Hoteni is a perfect spot to base your explorations of the region from.
Independent travel is the way to go when in Maramures. You’ll need a car and nerves of steel navigating roads that can have extraordinary sized potholes and you’ll be challenged by very aggressive drivers.

Keep up the great work.


Alex B.


Really interesting look at a country that is sometimes (other than Bucharest) overlooked. I wish the host seemed more interested. Several times in this episode Chris would say, “Oh, hey, I wasn’t paying attention because I was looking this up.” I’m sure the host’s intentions are good but I think he should wait until the end of the episode to look up/clarify something (i.e., as an added section of the episode).

Chris Christensen


Sorry Alex. I have been doing this show for almost 17 years. I can’t promise I will change the format.

Alex B.


Hi, Chris. Thank you for your reply. I wasn’t asking you to change your format. I just feel–and I’m trying to use constructive criticism here–you could be more respectful to your guests. That’s all. I’ve never been a guest on the show but I think I’d feel underappreciated if I felt the host was not paying attention. Just my thoughts.

Chris Christensen


Understood, I assumed that was the spirit in which it was intended

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