If you are looking for somewhere completely different, but don't wish to travel too far, why not consider Romania? I have travelled there many times and although, I sometimes feel I know the country inside out, there is always something new to discover. It isn't too surprising when you consider what a huge country it is, with so many diverse landscapes from the High Carpathians to the Transylvanian plateau, or the natural paradise where the Danube forms a huge delta as it reaches the Black Sea.
One of my favourite regions is called Maramures - an unspoilt, traditional enclave which I visited last Spring. Maramures lies in the far north, enclosed within the Carpathians bordering the Ukrainian border. I travelled there with my wife, by overnight sleeper train from Bucharest, a thirteen hour journey, but there are other options. There are now excellent value, direct flights with Wizz from Luton to Cluj, the cultural centre of northern Transylvania which is four hours drive, or a very scenic, five hour rail journey from the heart of Maramures. Alternatively, you can fly to the regional capital of Baia Mare with Austrian via Vienna, or Tarom via Bucharest.
We were greeted in the town of Sighetu Marmatiei (Sighet to the locals) by our host, who organised breakfast at a local restaurant, before a leisurely drive along the beautiful Iza Valley to our comfortable accommodation in a private guesthouse in the village of Botiza. We stayed with Mr Iurca, our guide, and his wife who is also the village doctor, and probably the best cook in all of Romania. The food was exceptional, copious, and always varied, tasty and fresh. During the days we took a packed lunch with us as it saved the trouble of hunting for restaurants in what is a predominantly rural region of meadows, woods and high mountains, interspersed with working villages which could have fallen from the pages of a history book.
The most interesting villages are those which lie along the Iza Valley, which extends westwards from the Carpathians, and the Cosau and Mara valleys which descend northwards from the Lapus and Gutai Mountains. The valleys come together at Sighet and flow into the River Tisa. These villages are best known for their intricately carved wooden gateways, and their wooden churches, constructed without the use of a single metal nail. That in Botiza was actually transferred from another village, piece by piece like a giant lego set, over a hundred years ago when the original church burned down. The church in Surdesti, was the tallest wooden structure in the world for two centuries, until new churches were recently erected at nearby Barsana and then Sapanta. Some of these churches have fascinating frescoes, in particular the orthodox church in Poienile Izei, an hours walk from Botiza. These depict the Fires of Hell and the Final Judgement. Another fascinating place is the Merry Cemetery in Sapanta, where the gravestones are carved and painted to depict the life of the deceased, in a bizarrely comical manner.
Maramures is an ideal place to escape and relax. We walked through meadows filled with thousands of wild flowers, even though it was still early in the year, sat under haystacks in the afternoon sun gazing over vistas of terraced strip fields, orchards heavy with fruit blossom and ancient woodland which is still home to bears, wolves and lynx. Even the villages have a special tranquility. People are friendly, cheerful and hospitable and it is not unusual to be invited inside for a drink. Life progresses at a relaxed pace: We observed shepherds with flocks of sheep, horses pulling carts and ploughs, traditional wedding processions, water wheels which drive threshing machines and fulling mills, and ladies weaving textiles on traditional loom. Botiza is well known for its handmade carpets, in the subdued shades of natural vegetal dyes.
Our English-speaking host was an excellent guide with an amazing knowledge of the Maramures, its traditions and history. He drove us to various places when we were not out walking by our selves: the unique steam-hauled forest railway in the Vaser Valley (a full day) and the high Rodnei Mountains where swathes of purple croci were flowering as the snow line was receding.
Needless to say I can't wait to return. Drop me a line if you are interested in a tailor-made Maramures holiday. It can be combined with other regions, or with alternative accommodation - delightful family-run hotels and pensions in towns and mountain resorts for example.