By the time we pull up to our homestay accommodation, it was dark, and I was famished.
It had been, as promised, a very full day of travel, crossing overland from Hungary into Romania where our group on the Budapest to Bucharest trip would spend the next days immersing ourselves in the rural traditions of Maramures.
Depending on the destination, a homestay can be many things – but is essentially an opportunity to stay with a local family instead of in a hotel.
While you never quite know what you’ll get, I already knew it could be a rewarding experience: once, in the highlands of Guatemala, I homestayed in a simple room rented out by two widowed sisters – it was a chance to put my accommodation budget directly in the hands of a family that could use it and learn to make tortillas.
My Intrepid tourmates were a good-natured group of seasoned travellers (myself the only Canadian, with new friends from New Zealand, Ireland and the U.S.), and all up for the surprise. Many had similar homestay stories from past trips — amenities may vary, but it’s always memorable.
If I had any reservations at all, it was probably about food. As a vegetarian, communal meals with limited choices can be awkward, and I never want to insult a host. Plus, my assumptions of Eastern Europe was a meat-and-potatoes kind of place. Thankfully, since I mentioned my diet when I booked the trip, I had absolutely nothing to worry about.
Our hostess Ramona had prepared four courses of delicious home-cooked dishes: farm-fresh cheeses and vegetables, healthful bean soup, cream of mushroom with polenta, stuffed cabbage rolls for the meat-eaters, sweet chocolate cake….
You can understand why the homestays became a highlight of this trip to Romania!
We spent the next day visiting the surrounding villages with a local guide. Maramures is a distinct geographic and cultural area often described as a “step back in time.” It’s a place where men in straw hats and women in kerchiefs can still be seen working the fields by hand, where hay dying on wooden tripods dots the countryside, and unpaved roads are shared between cars, bicycles, and horses.
Viktor showed us a 100-year-old watermill still in use, wooden churches from the 14th century, and explained the symbolism carved into those elaborate gates we’ve noticed standing guard in front of so many homes. I particularly like the triangular wolves teeth motif — for protection from evil.
Farm to Table
As dusk descended, we gathered back at Ramona’s. Her house really is postcard pretty — with wooden balconies overlooking the countryside, perfect for sunsets. We met her children. And the house cat.
There was another huge meal — complete with plum brandy and caramel cake made with walnuts from her father’s tree in the next village over. (The clever Kiwis in our group nabbed the recipe.) It felt good to hear how our visit supports not only our host’s family, but also the neighbours who farmed our eggs and cheese.
Some of us had lingering questions about Maramures, so our tour leader Mike initiated an after-dinner discussion. Ramona was quite open to filling in our blanks about the country’s politics, history and culture, and with stories of her own life. It’s definitely not the kind of conversation you’d get with a waiter. In the morning, homemade breakfast included fresh cherries picked from the tree right outside the window. We leave Ramona’s filled with so much more than good food.
A very hidden gem in Transylvania
After Maramures, we enter the wilds of Transylvania. The walled town of Sighisoara seduces us with its romantic citadel, cobblestone streets, and imposing clock tower. It’s as popular as it is scenic, and a great place to stroll, hike, or just enjoy the views. (Or buy some corny vampire souvenirs — Sighisoara is also birthplace of the infamous prince Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes, part inspiration for fictional Dracula.)
In the morning we travelled to our second homestay in Viscri, a village of about 400 inhabitants. If off the beaten path had an off the beaten path, this place is it.
We are guests of the Mihai Eminescu Trust, which renovates traditional houses and makes them available to travellers like us, with money going directly back into the community to preserve its traditional Saxon architecture.
This time, the group is split into different rustic homes. My roommate and I are told we have the “most traditional” accommodations, and discover we’ll each be sleeping in what I can only describe as wooden chests of drawers hiding pull-out beds. It might look like a kind of coffin but it proved to be very comfortable. Above my head, a wooden beam is scored with “1862.” (The bathroom is decidedly more modern.)
Viscri has two claims to fame: its fortified white church (first built in 1100 A.D), one of the prettiest in all of Transylvania, and Prince Charles of Wales, who owns a house here. (Don’t worry, all 400 locals can point out the house for you.) And while there is not much to “do” in Viscri, our tour leader made sure our time there was well spent meeting the locals.
When the cows come home
Mike first arranged for two horse-drawn carts to take us outside the village to see Gheorghe, Viscri’s reknown brickmaker. What a character! He wore head-to-toe camouflage and, despite speaking basically no English, launched into a spirited demonstration of how he makes Viscri’s trademark red tiles and bricks by hand. He also played us a song on guitar which, despite speaking basically no Romanian, we determined was about making bricks for the Prince.
He’s not a very good singer, but he is a star.
Later, during our group dinner in a pretty open-air courtyard — another generous home-cooked meal with noodle soups, fresh-baked bread, and plum donuts — Mike hinted there would be an evening surprise. Which would be a surprise in itself since Viscri doesn’t exactly boast any nightlife. And yet, he was right. It has a parade!
I saw a lot of neat things travelling through Romania — Transylvania’s medieval castles, the Carpathian mountains, a grand Palace in Bucharest — but I’m pretty sure my favourite attraction was watching the goats and cows of Viscri returning from pasture at sunset, sauntering en masse up the main street.
Ready to experience Romania’s dazzling landscapes and homestays? Check out Intrepid’s range of trips there.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Liisa Ladouceur, Ronald Paik x2, Liisa Ladouceur, Jeff Satterfield x2, Liisa Ladouceur x2, Ronald Paik. For more of Jeff Satterfield’s beautiful landscape shots, check out his Instagram @jeffacrosstheworld.)