Country life
The countryside is the heart and soul of Romania, where peasant culture remains a strong force and medieval life prevails, as it does nowhere else in Europe. A young American couple, researching ancient traditional villages in Europe for post-graduate studies, recently moved in with a host family in Northern Romania in order to document a culture unique in the world. People are happy to meet foreign visitors, often inviting them into their homes for a meal and conversation. For a true introduction to Romania's traditional villages, consider a home stay. Most hosts do not speak English. From the province of Moldavia, head westward along a good, but mountainous, road to Romania's most traditional region, Maramures. The drive takes about five hours with no stops, but this is virtually an impossibility, especially for photographers. Picturesque villages (notably Ciocanesti, whose houses covered with painted flowers and geometrics make it arguably Romania' s prettiest village), spectacular mountain scenery and a unique museum smack in the middle of nowhere The Museum of the Tree Roots (Muzeul Radacinilor) with a bizarre exhibit of figures sculpted from tree roots all beg inspection. Gawking becomes even more demanding once Maramures is reached. Maramures is Brigadoon land where the way of life has changed little over the centuries. In late afternoon, old women sit outside their gates coaxing coarse wool onto spindles. Many still favor traditional dress, meaning white frounced blouses, striped woven panels covering full black skirts, headscarves and ³opinci,² a sort of leather ballet slipper from which heavy yarn criss-crosses over thick socks. On Sunday, such dress is practically de rigueur, even for little girls. No trip to Maramures is complete without a look at the Merry Cemetery of Sapanta, a 20-minute drive from Sighet. Here, colorful folk art pictures and witty words carved into wooden headstones immortalize the deceased's foibles, occupations or family problems. No translations, but the pictures tell much of the story. An old woman bakes round loaves of bread, a young person bends in scholarly fashion over his books, one man is shot by soldiers while another tends his flock of sheep.Beauty assumes many forms. For most travelers, the enduring traditions of Maramures and the magnificence of Bucovina's painted monasteries will define two of them. Painted Eggs The most readily recognizable examples of Romanian art are the famed painted eggs, especially prominent around Easter time. Painting of real hollowed-out eggs was an integral part of preparations for this festival of renewal. Women and children gathered in someone's home and spent a day painting and gossiping. Intricate patterns were actually secret languages known only to residents of the regions where they were painted. The oldest known were painted with aqua fortis (nitric acid) on a traditional red background. They're available in nearly all shops and street markets. Cermamics Romanian pottery is still made mainly on traditional kick-wheels with simple finishing tools. Shapes, sizes and patterns reflect the different clays and cultures of diverse areas where are produced. Color glazes and decorations vary from strong geometrics, to delicate florals, animals and humans. There are approximately 30 pottery centres throughout the country, each with its own distinctive style, but the main areas are in Horezu in Oltenia, Corund in eastern Transylvania and Radauti and Marginea in Moldavia. Wood Maramures is the area to see the art of woodwork. Homes are trimmed in elaborately carved wood, wooden gates and even fences are intricately carved. Historically, in this area, a family's community status was displayed through the gate - the more elaborate, the more important the family. The "Merry Cemetery" of Sapanta is in this region, open all year long, at all times - it's well worth a visit. Hand-carved decorations in complex patterns hold meanings beyond the purely decorative. Trees of life, twisted rope, moons, stars, flowers and wolf teeth to ward off evil spirits are associated with myths and superstitions. They show up in furniture, spoons, ladles, walking sticks, keepsake chests and other decorative objects, sometimes embellished with paint. Wooden flutes and recorders are also elaborately carved. Most prized are the multi-piped pan flutes, which are now very rare, as few artisans know how to make them and even fewer know how to play them. Textiles At the edge of the street market adjacent to Bran Castle is a peasant cottage with a window behind which an old woman sits at her loom weaving and watching the passing scene. She'll invite interested visitors into her home, where her English-speaking daughter will explain that she's 74 years old and has been weaving since she was seven. She still weaves with thread she spins herself from sheep her family keeps in their tiny enclosed courtyard. On view in her tiny weaving room, which is also her bedroom, is a selection of magnificent throws and spreads that she has woven. Not for sale, they're priceless examples of this enduring way of life. Rugs While technically textiles, these deserve their own category, because no other textiles so dramatically reflect their regions of origin. As varied as different areas' attractions, so too are the rugs that are displayed on surrounding fences. Most are flat-weave kilims, probably introduced centuries ago by the controlling Ottoman Empire. Today's hand-weavers mix traditional vegetable-dyed yarns with commercial aniline-dyed yarns to produce startling accents within traditional patterns and colors. Rugs from Oltenia reflect nature, with flowers, trees and birds. Those of Moldavia have patterns of little branches repeated in rows to create a tree of life. Rugs from Maramures tend to have geometric shapes, resembling those from Turkey and the Caucasian mountains. Masks Masks are linked to folk festivals held predominantly in Maramures and Moldavia. Typically made from the hides of sheep, goats or cows, the masks are adorned with fabric, hats, pompoms, metallic bits, feathers, beans, straw and animal horns to represent bears and goats, they're traditionally worn to welcome in the New Year during a couple weeks in December and early January. Glass The oldest preserved Romanian glass dates back to the Roman Empire. Currently, there is a renewed passion for creating art in blown glass and several contemporary Romanian glass artists enjoy world renown. Most of the professional glass artists are clustered in the northeast, near Botosani. Glass artisans are also employed in factories located in Avrig, Turda and Buzau, turning out molded, hand-carved and hand-blown pieces, many of which are museum quality.         
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