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Experience Europe as it once was in rural Romania

Experience Europe as it once was in rural Romania
Romanian youths wearing traditional peasant dress wait to perform at a county fair in Romania's Maramures region. Traditional clothing is still worn for church or special occasions. (Anne-Marie O'Connor)

A young English writer passing through Romania was captivated by the farmers who welcomed him into their homes and invited him to share the customs and celebrations of a country filled with folk art, storks' nests and fairy-tale castles.

William Blacker stayed — for eight years — and wrote "Along the Enchanted Way," a heartfelt 2009 memoir of the Romanian backwater that lured him from the hustle and bustle of modern life.

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On a recent trip to Romania, I began to understand the temptations of a land of medieval towers and stone fortresses that seem to have stepped out of "Hansel and Gretel."

It began with an urge to explore off-the-beaten track Europe, an urge my husband and I shared with another couple. The four of us gathered in Bucharest for a week-long trip by train and car through the hinterlands of Romania.

Since its people toppled the Communist regime in 1989, Romania has gained a reputation for unspoiled natural beauty and well-preserved historic architecture, without the commercialism of more established tourist industries.

Here in the storied Romanian highland regions of Transylvania and Maramures, farmers still till the soil with horse and plow, hearkening back to the Europe of the 19th century.

On our three-day road trip through Maramures County, we stayed with farming families in rural compounds and saw people wearing the traditional Romanian embroidered peasant blouses that inspire modern fashion designers.

Our first step into the past was the village of Rogoz for a visit to the wooden Church of the Holy Archangels. It withstood the 1661 Tatar invasion and is one of the region's eight wooden churches that are part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The East-meets-West shrine at Rogoz combines Gothic influences and Orthodox traditions, with carved keyhole doorways, interiors with simple painted scenes from the Bible and a long outdoor table for communal celebrations.

At the county fair in nearby Targu Lapus, we were treated to a parade of townspeople in traditional Romanian clothing, as well as music and dancing. We sat down to a delicious dinner of chicken, hand-crafted sausage and locally brewed beer.

Hospitality is a point of pride here. We spent our first night in Rohia at the Casa Gherman pension, whose owners recommended a trip to local monasteries.

The next morning found us driving up a dirt road, passing stacked beehives and hamlets of houses whose facades bore geometric designs.

We soon came to the Orthodox Christian Rohita Monastery on a hilltop overlooking a lush green valley ringed with forests. In its ornate chapel, icons of saints and martyrs were rendered against a backdrop of saturated wine colors.

Two bounding wolfhounds announced a jolly monk in a long black robe who greeted us and waved us onto his loggia for an impromptu lunch.

After laying a tablecloth, he brought out a steaming bowl of mamaliga, a Romanian cornmeal porridge similar to polenta, and flavored with cheese and pork. We polished off the meal with a taste of the monk's fine pear liqueur.

We continued through the eastern Carpathian Mountains to Barsana, which has elaborately carved wooden compounds. We visited the gingerbread house of a local artisan whose carvings of deer, horses and rural scenes adorn many of the homes.

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At twilight on our last day, we sat at our pension and watched farmers drive their horse-drawn wagons in from the fields, until the proprietors closed the wooden gates on the day.

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If you go

THE BEST WAY TO BUCHAREST, ROMANIA

From LAX, KLM, Lufthansa, Air France, Turkish and British offer connecting service (change of plane) to Bucharest. Restricted round-trip fares range from $1,416 to $1,973.

TELEPHONES

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 40 (country code for Romania), the area code and the local number.

GETTING AROUND

From Bucharest, trains are a pleasant way to get to Sighisoara and Sibiu. Tickets can be arranged by hotels, or purchased at train stations. www.interrail.eu

Renting a car is best for touring the countryside, but hiring a guide or taxi to navigate language and back roads is also common.

Europcar, Strada Gheorghe Dima, Sibiu; (730) 801-060, www.europcar.com. From $45 a day, unlimited mileage.

Rent-a-Car Sighisoara, 15 Strada 1 Decembrie 1918, Sighisoara; (744) 759-433, www.lat.ms/1IFNEky . From $27 a day.

WHERE TO STAY

Hotel Christina, 13 Ion Slatineanu St., Bucharest; (731) 009-999, www.hotelchristina.ro. Doubles from $98, with breakfast. Luxury modern, helpful staff.

Hotel Rembrandt, 11 Strada Smardan, Bucharest; (21) 313-9315 , www.rembrandt.ro. Doubles from $109, with breakfast. Boutique hotel in the Old City.

Casa Luxembourg, 16 Piata Mica, Sibiu; (269) 216-854 , www.casaluxemburg.ro. Doubles from $69, breakfast included.

Casa cu Cerb, 1 Scolii, Sighisoara; (265) 774-625, www.casacucerb.ro. Doubles from $55. Romantic medieval building; Britain's Prince Charles has been a guest.

Casa Wagner, 7 Piata Cetatii, Sighisoara; (265) 506-014, www.casa-wagner.com. Doubles start at about $65, including breakfast.

Casa Lia, 6 Tamplarilor, Sighisoara; (265) 771-203 , marius_adam@yahoo.com. Pension with doubles from about $33 (shared bath), including breakfast. Helpful proprietor.

WHERE TO EAT

La Ceaunu Crapat, 7 Thomas Masaryk St., Bucharest; (730) 614-108, www.laceaunucrapat.com.ro. Entrees $10-$15.

La Taifas, 10 Piata Mare, Sibiu; (728) 904-034, www.facebook.com/restaurantlataifas. Entrees about $11.

Alte Post, 38 Hermann Oberth, Sighisoara; (365) 430-270, www.gasthaus-altepost.ro. Superb meal with wine about $10 per person.

Unglerus, No. 1 First of December St.; (742) 024-065, Biertan. Entrees about $7 per person.

Pub 13 Medieval Restaurant, 1 Aleea Sfantul Capistrano, Alba Iulia; (728) 444-415, www.pub13.ro. Entrees about $10.

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TO LEARN MORE

Romanian Tourism Office, www.romaniatourism.com

Sighisoara Tourist Information Centre, www.infosighisoara.ro

Transylvanian Tour Guides, www.sibiutourguide.com

Boutique and Adventure Tourism, www.transylvaniancastle.com

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