ROMANIA: THE SLOW-DOWN

DAILY MAIL Who’d have thought a Deux Chevaux could happily off-road along deeply rutted tracks, over foot-high boulders and negotiate steep mountainsides?  If it’s the real deal sporting eight legs rather than the four wheels on some tinny French car, then anything’s possible.

The two handsome chestnut horses pulling me behind on a large bouncing hay wagon seemed able to traverse just about any obstacle.  Welcome to local transport Maramureş style.

Maramureş stretches from Transylvania to the Ukrainian border and is rapidly becoming something of an unlikely hot-spot.  High society interior decorator Nicky Haslam has recently bought a farmhouse in the neighbourhood and Prince Charles has been quietly singing the praises of the area for ages.  I can testify why.  The countryside is ludicrously pretty and the peasant way of life beguiling.

Rolling hay meadows filled with rare wild orchids and buttercups stretch up into wooded hills, the pace of life doesn’t get much faster than the two nags giving me a lift and the sense of getting away from it all is overpowering.  It’s easy to fall under the Maramureş spell.

I’d been in the region for two days when I found myself clinging to the cart – we were headed up the mountains to visit some shepherds.  It’s extraordinary that this peasant way of life exists in the twenty-first century – Maramureş is one of the few places left in Europe where it still does – and visiting it is like time travel.  I felt I’d gone back a hundred years when I met the four shepherds hunched under a temporary bower of hazel twigs milking sheep.  Their dogs, big fluffy blighters, eyed me warily.  Although it was me who was cagey – and for good reason.  These hardy mutts are bred to fight off wolves (an on-going problem for the shepherds), and no matter how cute they might look, they’re certainly not for petting.

The shepherds got their job done quickly, poured the milk into a wooden barrel, strained it, added rennet and in an hour had the basics of cheese.  I was amazed at how quickly this cheese-making malarkey took; naively I’d imagined it taking days.  Work done, it was time for lunch: sarmale (cabbage leaves stuffed with spiced mince), doughnuts and the local brew – apple brandy.

I was offered this lethal draught time and time again.  Breakfast?  Then why not have brandy?  Lunch?  A mid-afternoon nap?  Then I obviously needed a noggin of this…  The 50% proof hooch was resistible; I actually wanted to preserve my brain, not pickle it.

But the liberal libations are a sign of welcome; wherever I went the hospitality, and brandy, shone through.  Unbelievably Breb, the tiny village in which I stayed, has 40 mini distilleries tucked away in back gardens – it’s patently very self-sufficient.  The village also has its own blacksmith and farriers; it even has a weaver who makes brightly coloured traditional fabrics.

Evidence of her work can be seen all over – including the comfortable accommodation I got to stay in.  Vivid rose motifs on wall hangings and cushion covers made it feel as if I were staying in a romantic gypsy caravan.  The building is traditional; a small cottage made from rough-hewn planks of oak slotted together like a giant jigsaw puzzle.  But you’ll be pleased to know its authenticity goes only so far; the loos are modern, the kitchen fitted, the furniture comfortable.  You’re not expected to live the tough life of the locals.  Even so, it put me in mind of The Little House on the Prairie or Little Red Riding Hood.

That sense of legend and fairy tale popped up everywhere, nowhere more so than the Merry Cemetery – an oxymoron if ever there was one.  The small village of Săpânţa is home to this most intriguing of places; brightly painted and elaborately carved wooden grave markers affectionately display the lives of those who have died.  The inscriptions are supposed to be humorous, but I reckon they lose something in translation.  Even so, it’s a lovely afternoon out.

Visits to other churches in the region shouldn’t be missed; there are some splendid icons and beautiful cool, dark interiors – and the tinkling of bells on a Sunday morning is captivating regardless of your religious bent.

Opportunity for retail therapy is, however, scarce.  There’s a small weekday market in Sighetu Marmaţiei – Maramureş’ county town – where you can pick up souvenirs and local handicrafts including wooden plates and lace doilies the size of loo mats.  The Thursday market in Ocna Şugatag, a small town 15 minutes’ drive from Breb, should be on everyone’s itinerary.  You’re unlikely to buy anything there (unless you’re in need of wooden farm implements) but that doesn’t matter.  You’ll be bowled over by the experience of a truly old-fashioned horse, cattle and pig trading bazaar.

This colourful sense of authenticity is fascinating.  In Budeşti; a nearby village, there’s a Heath Robinson-esque waterwheel that powers a threshing machine that would belong in a museum over here.  I’m still amazed this ancient technology is alive and well.  And like the waterwheel, one of the highlights of my trip was one of the most simple.  I spent an afternoon with a local woman called Lenuţa as she busily prepared a traditional supper for me and a couple of other tourists.  She made huge quantities of bread baked in an outdoor oven and conjured up a feast on an antique range that looked like it had it had been transplanted straight from Mrs Beeton’s kitchen.  But while Lenuţa’s supper was lovely, you won’t be visiting this area for haute cuisine; the food in local restaurants is basic.

Even so, it’s good value for money.  Local prices (Romania hasn’t joined the Euro yet) will come as a pleasant surprise – a slap-up meal out shouldn’t set you back much more than a tenner a head.  To my mind the best local eatery was at a nearby trout farm, an enterprising restaurant of peasant-style wooden shacks perched beside a lake positively popping with fish.  The food is well cooked and the local wines are as cheap as the accompanying chips.

But strangely for a place that’s so rural and out-of-the-way, there was never a moment that I felt in need of more to do.  It’s very kid friendly, provided your children enjoy the great outdoors, and if the weather is less than clement – I had marvellous sunshine during my stay – there are other attractions in the nearby small towns that should soak up a rainy afternoon.

And if you want a change of scene, there’s always the opportunity of firing up the original Deux Chevaux and lazily clip-clopping your way through the countryside…

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