According to the guide books Maramuras is the region where you will find the most authentic Romanian culture. A region where time has stood still. Judging by the church clocks in the area this seems to be the literal truth.
If you happen to be driving on the road from Budesti to Ocna, possibly on the way to Sighetu, you may by chance look down into the valley. An elegant double church spire and one or two rooftops betray the fact that there is some sort of settlement hidden beneath the trees. There is no signpost. However, if you want to investigate, a roughly hand painted board will point you towards the only road down into the village. This narrow paved road, with relatively few potholes, will take you to the middle of Breb where at a seemingly random point it will fade into a series of equally narrow, sometimes steep stone and dirt roads leading in all directions.
There is still nothing to indicate that there are more than 400 homesteads hidden among the trees and a population in excess of 1000. You will find it difficult to find your way around at first. The church towers, normally a useful landmark, are rarely visible through the foliage. Breb is a labyrinth of dirt roads and footpaths, some more visible than others, they will lead you through,past and around gardens, orchards and farms. On the way you will pass women in head scarves who will smile, wave you in the right direction and bid you good day as you go on your way. You may well be passing the same women several times, it’ s hard to tell.
Soon you find your way from A to B but you will never be quite sure where you really are. You will discover another church, a small wooden one, the oldest wooden church in Romania and still in use.
There is a bus stop. One day you will encounter a mini bus returning villagers who have been buying or selling in the nearest town. Another day, surprisingly, you will see a real grown up bus waiting at the stop. Several days later it may still be there.
You will find that there are three shops, all selling more or less the same products but you won’t find any souvenirs or post cards. There are carpenters, basket weavers and blacksmiths using tools and machinery usually only seen in museums, all in perfect working order. You will be pleased discover that there are at least forty distilleries making Palinka the local moonshine.
Each household grows its own fruit and vegetables, some have enough over to take to market. It is harvest time, unseen there is a great deal of collecting, pickling, jam making and preserving going on.
Many of the houses are ancient and made of wood, built with care and decorated with elaborate carvings. Examples of these houses you may have seen in an open air museum not far away. Maybe you will spend an evening talking to Silviu. Over several glasses of his home made Palinka he will tell you how people had stopped building wooden houses in favour of ‘stone’ versions. These stone houses are built cheaply and quickly using concrete blocks. However wooden houses are again being built. Silviu regretted having built himself a stone house and now makes a living building wooden ones in the traditional manner. It is good for the Romanian heritage, he says, but above all they are simply better; warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.
This sleepy, friendly village is isolated from its surroundings but, strangely enough, not cut off from the world entirely. In rural Romania most shops double as bar and café. Sitting drinking beer on a bench outside one of them you may start a conversation with a Belgian family spending the whole summer in Breb, a group of Polish tourist staying for just one night in a B & B or a young German couple with Romanian roots combining a holiday with a family visit. Walking around you will bump into people from the Czech Republic,The Netherlands or Great Britain trying to find their way back to the camp site at the far end of the village. This camp site ensures that, apart from the odd horse and cart, all the traffic passing through the whole length of the village has a truly international character.
At least once a week a large camper van or caravan will get stuck in the narrow, steep, twisting lanes, providing a little excitement and light entertainment for the inhabitants.
Between caravan incidents and jam making life drifts on as its has always done…the worst excesses of communism, the Ceausescu period and consumer capitalism seem to have missed Breb ….as you will if you sneeze, cough or blink at the wrong moment.