Baia Mare to Sighetu Marmaţiei; Two hours to go 60km; Restaurant meal by the gram; Grass mattresses; The Merry Cemetery; Barbecue and Ţuica; Sara and Spidey

Neither of us had much enthusiasm for getting moving early in the morning of the 12th, so we lounged around a bit and then slowly worked our way toward the train station. I didn’t know the train schedule to Sighetu Marmaţiei, so while we walked I was looking for an open wi-fi hotspot. When I found one and checked, the trains I’d found the day before no longer appeared. I was a bit confused and angry over this, because it seemed that we were stranded in the nothing town of Baia Mare, with nothing to do but go back to Cluj. We’d decided to go back to the train station and look for buses when a friendly local approached us. He confirmed the idea as good. He even knew the times the bus left, which was really helpful - there was one leaving in half an hour or so. We hustled down to the bus station and asked for Sighetu Marmaţiei at the information desk, and the nice man brought us to a bus with “Sighet” marked on the windshield sign. We weren’t at all sure it was the right one, but we trusted to fate and got on. The driver was a complete joker who reminded me of the driver from our tour in Morocco - all sudden outbursts of uproarious laughter at his own incomprehensible jokes. He definitely kept us entertained, though. The bus was an ancient rustbucket and the ride was two hours - but the total distance was only 60k. The bus was slow and the road over the mountains was steep and winding. The driver was playing Romanian pop music the whole time, which is far more bouncy and silly than you’d expect - very much like J-Pop.

When we arrived in Sighet - which is what the locals call the town, both because “Sighetu Marmaţiei” is a mouthful and because it means “Sighet in Maramureş” - we knew we had to find the hostel, so again with the wandering around looking for wi-fi. We didn’t know for sure that the hostel had space for us, but we walked for twenty minutes to the far end of town anyway, figuring that the town wasn’t a popular enough destination for its only hostel to fill up. We were right, there was no problem. The place turned out to be a nice country-0style building with fruit trees in the garden. Also they had a walnut tree, something I’d never seen before. The mattresses in the rooms were all stuffedwith grass from the surrounding area, which gave the room a nice sharp fresh smell, even if you could feel nearly every slat of the bed-frame through them. After putting our sleeping pads under them, I decided I was in favour of the grass. I expected Sheryl’s allergies to explode due to sleeping on grass, but they didn’t - go figure.

I wasn’t, though, in favour of the billing arrangement at the restaurant we chose for dinner. It’s pretty rare that we go out for dinner, but neither of us felt like walking ages to get back to the supermarket, and the hostel had no kitchen anyway. There was a menu for this restaurant posted on the corkboard and the priced seemed very low - 2.50ROM for a chicken breast (about CAD$1). When the bill arrived it was a lot higher, though. The menu gave the price for a small amount - 100g - and the actual food was 350g, so the chicken was 8.75RON, for example. In the end dinner was still very cheap though - we both stuffed ourselves for 30RON (about CAD$12) - so I can’t really complain.

The next day we rented bikes from the hostel and rode out to the village of Săpânţa to see the so-called Merry Cemetery. The road was very roughly paved and in terrible condition, especially when it passed through villages. Our arms were aching after a little while, despite the front suspension on the bikes. I realized, too, just how long it’s been since I’ve been on a bike - my butt is not used to the saddle and I’ve completely lost the concrete consistency of a dedicated cyclist’s glutes. I knew it was going to happen, but it still makes me a bit sad.

The houses along the road were all much better-kept than the road, though, with neat front gardens and geometric patterns in the brick that reminded me how close we were to the Ukraine. We were unmistakably in the country, though - there were people cutting grass with scythes and horse-carts everywhere, mostly pulling huge loads of hay, though we did see one caravan pulling wagon after wagon of huge logs.

The village of Săpânţa was about an hour’s ride from Sighet through this kind of territory - alternating villages and stretches of rolling fields. The cemetery itself is something of a work of art. It’s the life’s work of one man, and later his apprentice. The man was a local artisan who crafted all the grave markers by hand, making them in a distinctive peaked-roof slope like a little flat house. Each of them is painted sky-blue and some of them have tin panels on their roofs. They’re all hand-carved and hand-painted, with geometric decorations and a depiction of an important moment in the life of the deceased. Sometimes they’re shown going about their trade, sometimes with something important to them, and often at the moment of their death, which was a bit gruesome. We noticed one person being decapitated, another being shot, and a third being run over by a train. It was at that moment that I began to suspect that the name “Merry Cemetery” was really a sarcastic joke - another example of the black Romanian sense of humour. This was confirmed when we read some of the translations of the inscriptions on the grave markers - each one hand-painted and in verse. They were the gloomiest and most depressing bits of bad poetry I’ve ever read. At that point it all started making me laugh and I understood the joke behind the cemetery. On the way out, we passed the grave of the one responsible - the original carver of the grave markers. His plot was appropriately grandiose, and the painted carving of his face seemed to give us a wink as we left.

The ride back from Săpânţa was no fun at all - hot, bumpy and miserable. It was the early afternoon of a very hot, sticky, cloudless day. When we finally got back to the hostel it was all we could do to eat something before falling on our faces. We lay down for “just a little while” and woke up four hours later. The hostel had a nice stone barbecue spot out the back, and we’d asked to use it that night. It was too late to go to the grocery store at the other end of town, so we made do with some of the little shops in the area. It’s very difficult to get across the concept of aluminum foil when you don’t know the words in Romanian (which turned out to be “foilu aluminum”, so the joke was on us). Back at the hostel our barbecue had turned into a group affair. A Romanian couple from Bucharest were grilling chicken, an Austrian couple from Salzburg were doing stir-fry in a wok, and the hostel manager was grilling mîci, a traditional Romanian lumpy multi-meat sausage (it’s okay for sausage, which is not really my thing). Rob the manager also brought to the table a bottle of Romanian country moonshine (the word for it here is ţuica). This batch happened to be made from apples, we were told, but it’s all the same when there’s that much alcohol involved. I enjoyed it, because I like that sort of thing, and I think a couple of other people at the table did as well. I’m not sure how Sheryl felt about it. She kept drinking it, so she couldn’t have hated it that much, protests aside.

It was a fun, sociable evening and everyone got along well - with one unfortunate exception. The manager’s little daughter, Sara, was an adorable little chatterbox with a cute Transylvanian vampire accent. We told her about our mascot, Spidey, and her father suggested that we bring him down. I did, and brought him out to introduce them. In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have wiggled him realistically as I unveiled him, because she set off shrieking and crying and couldn’t be calmed by anyone - even the Scottish guy who’d been making her laugh all evening. She must have thought he was a real spider. In the end her dad had to take her to bed. I felt hideously guilty - contrary to popular opinion, I don’t actually enjoy terrifying small children. I have to admit I was a little disappointed in her though. I would have thought a Transylvanian kid would enjoy spooky stuff more. Her dad did convince her to come and try again the next day, though, and when I showed Spidey to her (being careful not to wiggle) she said “Oh, he’s really a very cute spider, isn’t he?”, took him off to play hide-and-seek, and from that moment they were inseparable.

Sara and Spidey

Up early in the morning to ride the massive 1km distance to the Ukraine - about which more later.

Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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