Circle of Friends–Part 1: Breb

In this post, I have relied heavily on Rebecca’s journal to link about a half dozen places we’ve stayed along the way.  Photo comments are mostly mine.  We made a clockwise circle around Romania, starting in the northwestern Dachian region called Maramureş, circling clockwise through the Moldova, into the great delta of the Danube called Dobrogea, visiting the southern region of Muntenia and the national capital, Buchaest, then entering the central region of Transylvania.  Breb was the first of many adventures around Romania.

Breb in Maramureş

Woody, Elena and Rebecca standing in front of the brightly colored guest house in Breb at Casa Opris.

We headed north from Cluj,  for Breb, in the Maramureş region–it was an Airbnb that Woody had seen online  that offered a home-stay experience.  A general haze hung in the air because of pollution and field stubble being burned.  It made  the landscape less distinct.  We passed through many villages, some looked more prosperous than others.  As we drove on, it began to get hilly and we came to the town of Baia Mure and parked the car for lunch.  The two places we saw only served coffee and drinks, so we went to the market across the street and bought food to eat in the car.  We drove higher up into the hills.  Eventually we crossed over a hill and the pretty town of Breb came into view below us: tiled and tin roofs, one fairly large church, and lots of apple trees and haystacks.

Our stay was at the Opris residence–the road was sketchy, but we trusted in GPS and drove into the driveway. A kindly looking, heavy set woman came out of the house, beaming.  Elena is younger than we are but her harder way of life shows.  She has a hard time walking and must lean from side to side for each step. She wore a dark flowered scarf on her head–a Babuska.  She greeted us warmly, with one of the prettiest smiles I’ve seen,  and her husband came out to greet us as well.  She walked us to the house behind her house, which is where we are staying.  It is a charming wooden house with four rooms.  She showed us each one, two upstairs, two  down.  We chose a downstairs  room, just so she won’t have to climb upstairs to clean. 



The rooms are decorated in traditional Romanian artifacts and woven shawls of bright colors and flowers hanging around ceramic plates of equally bright  hues that are fastened to the wall.  Large feather pillows with red and pink roses embroidered on the edges fill the beds and shelves.  Curtains with white lace edging cover the bright blue-framed windows.  It is loud and charming.         

Her husband, Ion, (pronounced like John without the j beginning sound) called us out to the covered patio where he had a snack and three kinds of palinka for us to try, apple, plum, and blueberry.  He kept serving the plum–I wanted to try the apple and blueberry, but at three glasses, I know that I shouldn’t  have any more.     

Ion pouring us his plum palinka.  Every time he would offer, we would respond with the Romanian thank-you, multumesc.  To which Ion would always respond cheerfullly in his sing-song Cu placeri, (coo pla / cher-ay) in musical notes, first in two high notes, “Cu-pla” then two lower notes “ce-ri.  I did not know then that we would be hearing his silvery tenor voice for two hours of chanting at the church on the day we were to leave.

Woody’s Romanian came in handy because they don’t speak more than a word or two of English.  We managed to communicate important  things–we showed them pictures of our boys.      

Then Woody and I  walked around the village while Elena got  dinner ready–our stay is 100 extra lei for breakfast and dinner.  She knew I’m a vegetarian and says “complicat” meaning something like “that makes things complicated, but in a smiling way indicating that it will all work out.         

We walked down the road, passing chickens and dogs  and cats that wander around. We scared a hen and three chicks, and one chick, to get out of the way jumped down into a creek bed.  As we crossed the bridge, we saw it couldn’t  get out but we walked on.  Woody said it will be ok, but I felt bad. We turned  a corner and walked up hill past old houses side by side with new construction.  The other side of the street is countryside–haystacks and cows and apples. The apples were everywhere–some stacked in plastic bags, others stacked in huge piles on the ground.  They will all be put in bins for making palinka.  Woody pointed out that they are getting ready for winter by stacking wood and apples, all they need.         



Eventually, we made the circuit and come back to where the chickens had been.  No sign of them, so Woody was right.         

Back up to the house and I took more of it in.  As you entered the gate, there was a shed with at least one milk cow in it, and to the right was a single-story wing of their house–attached to it was the pig stye–easy to throw out the food-waste to the pigs.  The wing joined the main house,  which has a fairly grand entrance for a farm house. It is a solid building covered in stucco, but it also has a stamped design around the windows that is quite nice  There was a grape arbor and a garden next to the cow shed and apple trees everywhere. Huge bags filled with apples were stacked all around.       

Elana came out and told us she’d  have dinner ready about 6–7, so we went inside to settle in.     

Elena and Ion never seem to stop work. Elena showed Rebecca how the palinka is fermented from now until February in large plastic vats stored outside.  They had five, each holding about 200 gallons.  That’s a lot of palinka!

 I asked her to show me the heating system for the guest house.  They have a wood burning stove outside the guest house.  Every evening and morning that they have guests, they go into the heater room and build a fire so that the guests can have hot water and heating for the night. I went out and watched Ion chopping wood and later, just before dinner, he was milking the cow so that we would have some fresh cream for the dessert that Elena was making.



We came down to the kitchen and were seated in the dining room by her son (27 years old).  We were served a meat soup for Woody potato soup for me.  Ion came  in and poured us more palinka; he is so proud of it!  Inside the bottles are carved structures that are placed in the bottles and reassembled inside–like ships in a bottle.     

Second course was polenta and sausage for Woody–polenta and fresh cream for me. They were proud to say everything we ate is grown and made on the  farm except for the bread.  we talked and had a delightful time with this couple, even though we don’t speak the same language.  She even wanted to be Facebook friends!  I gave her a package of miniature red and yellow bell pepper seeds from  California –she was delighted!         


Apple cake was brought out for our dessert–this had been the third cake someone has made for us since coming to Europe: Belgium, Germany and here, and they all have been great apple cakes–must be fall. We ate more than we should because it was hard to say no thank you after they had gone to such work.  And then waddled our way back to our rooms.  We both felt this has been a lucky find.           

Saturday, our 40th day.  Elena was delightful to talk with.  We understand  about 25% of what she said.  We had scrambled eggs and fried eggs and toast and cream and jams (blueberry, cherry, and plum) all made here.  Woody had some sausage with his eggs. 

We left on today’s adventures about 10am and drove  in sort of a circle to see the villages  of Maramureş  and their famous wooden churches. Some date back to 1650, but most are from 1750.  Our first stop was Cudesți which had a lovely large wooden church.  It was locked, but we peeked through the cracks and a few windows.         

The town was bigger than Breb, and  had many intricate wooden fences and interesting houses.        

We toured more small villages along the way up the larger town of Sigethtu Marime.  Is is on the border with Ukraine and the birthplace of  Simon Wiesenthal, born in what was the Austro Hungarian Empire  at the time.  



Wherever we went in the Maramures region, we saw amazing wood working, colorful houses, and warm, caring people.  I asked some men that were running a small mill if I could take some photos.  They motioned to go ahead, but they did not slow down their work. All over the area, gates seemed to be the symbol of prosperity.  The larger the house, the larger and more ornate the gate. I was amazed at the chain carved from a single piece of wood.  The tallest wooden structure in Europe was in the tiny village of Sapanta near the Ukraine border.

We found the “Merry Cemetary,” when in the 1930’s a man who worked for the church in Sapanta began carving grave markers  of wood that told the story (sometimes funny) of the dead person, plus a likeness of him/her.  It became a folk art/tourist destination (mostly for Romanians.)  When he died, his three apprentices took up his cause.  It was interesting to see, but we can’t read what he wrote.

We also stopped at a “museum” of folkcraft. It had hand-woven rugs and shawls and a loom.  I bought a lap rug.  Woody tried on a sheepskin jacket and I took a picture.  The woman was sweet.  

We also saw a place where they use water to from a creek to turn a wheel to help them do laundry–big things like rugs.  A man ushered us to come in to try his palinka, but we declined. 

We ate apples for lunch that the woman at the folk craft place gave us, still full from the big breakfast at the inn.

We stopped at the tallest wooden church (anywhere?).  It was recently build in a monastery for nuns.  We walked around there for a bit.  Pretty amazing!

We also saw one church up on a hill that looked interesting.  We parked the car and looked around and saw that the pathway was closed with a locked gate.  A surly woman saw us and came out with a key and let us through the gate and led us up the path to the church.  The only woiden church where we got to go inside.  It had saints painted on the walls in vivid colors.  There were lots of embroidered linens on tables and benches.  She said it’s no longer used, except in funerals when they still ring the bell in the tower. She charged us 10 lei a piece, locked the church and went down the hill, leaving us to explore the grounds before we headed back down.

On our way back, we tried to find a road we could see on the map that would take us back to Breb.  I think it was more of a goat path, and we never found it,  so we ended up taking a longer, more obvious way home.  When we got to Breb, we drove around the village a bit–it is much larger than either of  us had thought.

We got home about three or four and rested  before another heavy dinner. I had noodle soup–very tasty–then a creamy mushroom dish you soak into your bread.  Dessert was incredible.  She made fried donuts, and topped them with the do-nut hole to form a sort of pyramid, and covered all in homemade blueberry jam and cream.  Two bites were terrific, but then it was just too heavy. 

We got up early Sunday morning go to church with Ion and Elena.  They had told us that Ion was a singer at the church on Sundays so we wanted a chance to see him and experience a local cultural event.  I even wore my skirt.

Breakfast was a filling affair–thickly made crepes with a salty cheese inside, then omelettes.  She is quite a good cook.

At 10:30, we piled in our car.  Elena had changed into fancy clothes so I was glad I had worn a skirt.  Ion was already at the church.  He had to be there to prepare with the other that respond to the priest throughout the mass.


Women go in one entrance and the men go in the main entrance.  Elana kissed a portrait of Mary and donated. I donated but didn’t kiss.  Then she let me to the balcony where two men were singing answers to Ion who was apparently the main cantor located somewhere up front, but hidden from my view.

There is an elaborately carved gate between the pepople and the nave–and most of the time  the priest had his back to us on the other side of the gate, so not much to see.  I studied what was around me. There were about 60 women in total–most were over the age of 50.  All had knee lenght skirts that were  gathered at the waist like a dirndl skirt.  They were solid black or black with red roses. some were dark blue with red flowers.  They all had scarves on their heads that either matched the skirts or were complementary in some way.  Most wore white blouses and some had jackets or sweaters.  There were only about 20 men or so that I could see.  They were in clean but not so fancy clothes.  The ones in the balcony with us were singing responses, but the ones  below weren’t.  Elena knew the words to the entire mass, which was at least two hours of solid singing.  

The church was all painted in folk art style of the region.  Saints looked down on us from on high with long, narrow faces that never look happy.  Angels surround pictures of Jesus and Mary.  Not one of the paintings did anyone look happy.  It was colorful and detailed, but I know so little about it all, I couldn’t recognize much.

Breb’s small population still supports this large church build around 1600.

After it was over, we walked downstairs and talked a bit to Ion.  His singing had been the best part of it.  

Ion was the lead cantor, singing almost constantly for two hours.

Ion stopped for a quick “posa” but he had to stay around to help with after-service duties.

I posed with Elena, Rebecca and Ion just before we left Breb.

Outside, we hugged Elena goodbye and we were off to our next stop. 

This would be the first of many we met through our Airbnb or pension stops where the connection to the people we meet seem like there are so many kindred spirits in this world.  How can we imagine a world that’s not at peace?


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