Sighetu Marmatiei: Rural Romania at its best

Sighetu Marmatiei, or “Sighet” for short, is a small town in the far north of Romania. It’s the kind of place where all the bars close at 10 pm. Where there are four places to eat and two of them are kebab stands. It’s the kind of place where you feel like you stepped off the train into a different century.

 

A traditional house near Sighetu Marmatiei
A traditional house near Sighetu Marmatiei

 

Hardly any travelers make it out here, and town has a very off-the-beaten-path vibe. The good news is, unlike most of remote Eastern Europe, travel in this region is pretty easy. The only problem is it’s a long way from the nearest big city, so you need time. But you won’t regret making the effort to get here.

 

Sighetu Marmatiei: The town at the end of the train tracks

 

My welcome to Sighet occurred around 11:30 pm, when my train stopped at the end of a track. There was no station, just a patch of dirt where people stand waiting for the trains. When you get off the train, you have to cut through the grass to get to the street.

 

My directions to my hostel said “walk to the center of town.” I was concerned about the vagueness, but everybody who got off the train was going the same way.

 

Next, the directions told me to turn down a side street across from the petrol station. Then from there, turn down a long driveway. Again, no problem — there was only one petrol station and only one driveway.

 

When I got there, the house was pitch-dark. The door was wide open. Reception was abandoned. I turned on a light to see a note from the owner that said “grab a bed anywhere, I’ll talk to you in the morning.” Friendliest hostel ever.

 

Bargain for your new cow or bucket of moonshine

 

Sighetu Marmatiei is the biggest town in the remote Maramures region. It’s a commercial hub. But commerce in this corner of the country mostly revolves around farm life. So in addition to the typical fruit and veggie markets, Sighet has a large livestock market.

 

Horses for sale at the livestock market
Horses for sale at the livestock market

 

It’s a surreal experience. Pigs scream as their owners lift them into trucks by their hind legs; oxen drag cement blocks to prove how strong they are. Horses pull carts filled with baby cattle. The noise level is insane.

 

Meanwhile, a few vendors sell home-brewed moonshine out of giant tin vats. That’s what you can buy at the livestock market — cows and moonshine. Prices negotiable.

 

Getting around the Romanian way: Hitching a ride to Sapanta

 

Sighetu Marmatiei is conveniently located for day-trips to surrounding towns. But the only method of transport in this area (if you don’t have your own car) is hitchhiking.

 

Since the locals rely on hitching, getting a ride is pretty straightforward. You walk to the part of town where most people wait for rides. You get in line with everybody else. Then, as cars pass, they stop to fill up their empty seats. Once you’re at the front of the line, you wait for a driver going your way. You hop in and pay the driver the comparable bus fare.

 

The easiest and most interesting village to hitch to from Sighetu Marmatiei is called Sapanta (pronounced Suh-punt-ah). It’s home to the Merry Cemetery — a cemetery filled with hand-painted wooden crosses, each depicting the person buried there at a key moment in his or her life. Below that is a short, humorous poem written in the first person.

 

Tombstones in the Merry Cemetery
Tombstones in the Merry Cemetery

 

If you can get a ride, it’s well worth going. The cemetery is fascinating, funny, and unique. A lot of the men are pictured drinking beer or smoking cigars. Others are pictured tending to their crops or livestock. The women are shown praying or cooking (although one was shown crashing a tractor into a tree!). Walking around and looking at the tombstones, you get a real sense of the community here that places such strong value on each of its members.

 

Also in Sapanta is the largest wooden structure in Europe — a traditional wooden church. It’s a 3 km walk outside of town, along a road lined with typical wooden gates signifying family farms.

 

The history and the culture

 

Beyond the allure of experiencing authentic rural Romania, Sighetu Marmatiei offers travelers a few chances to learn more about Romanian history and culture.

 

The prison museum is a must-visit for anyone interested in post-World War II politics. It tells the story of the crackdown on academic thought during Communist rule.

 

Elie Wiesel was born in Sighet. You can visit the home he grew up in, which has been restored as a small museum.

 

Just outside of town, the Village Museum offers insights into the way of life in rural Romania. You can see how people construct their homes, maintain communal economies, and raise children — all in a gorgeous setting in the hills.

 

An imitation of a wooden church at the Village Museum
An imitation of a wooden church at the Village Museum

 

Ready to get started?

 

Sighetu Marmatiei is out on a limb, far from most other places of interest in Romania. It’s possible to get here by train from Bucharest, but easier from Cluj Napoca. Even that is an 8-hour trip. There is one semi-official minivan to Suceava that leaves from behind the gas station every day — and it’ll sometimes drop you in Gura Humorului without warning instead.

 

I stayed at Cobwobs Hostel — great location, great people. I believe it’s now under new management and the owners don’t speak English, but you’re unlikely to find anything more convenient or with such good facilities.

 

Food can be a little challenging in Sighet — the larger supermarkets are pretty far outside town. There are kebab stands throughout the city center. A couple of the bars serve good pub food. In a pinch, most guesthouse owners will cook you a meal for a few dollars.

 

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