A road trip includes centuries-old churches, a welcoming winery and workshops and studios where weaving is an art.
Many years ago while living in South Africa I came across a Romanian kilim. Its pastel floral designs — a sampler of sorts — was captivating, but also beyond my budget. Decades passed, but it lingered in my memory every time I shopped for a rug to dress up a dreary room. Then I found myself living in Warsaw, Poland, last college tuition payment made, and Romania just a short flight away.
Inspired by the idea that I might find a wealth of kilims at bargain basement prices, I set off from Bucharest on a 10-day, 1,288-mile journey around the central European country in a small Dacia Logan stick shift in search of kilims and the people who still weave them.
From Bechet, a port town on the Danube River near the border of Bulgaria in the south, to Maramures, which borders Ukraine to the north, and then east to Bucovina, cutting south through Moldova back to Bucharest, I circled Romania in search of weavers still making kilims, one of the country’s highest forms of folk art.
The trip began with a 20-hour stay in Bucharest, long enough to visit Old Town and the Stavropoleos Monastery, the massive Palace of the Parliament and the Peasant Museum, where I met with Ana Iuga, who has an extensive background in kilims. The museum was closed for renovation, but lunch with Ms. Iuga, who wrote her thesis on rug-making in Maramures, paid off in terms of tips on where to look for kilims along the way. I was also helped by Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage sites, which includes “traditional wall-carpet craftsmanship” in Romania and the Republic of Moldavia. And Ruraltourism.ro was valuable in locating weavers I could stay with.
My first and worst mistake was deciding to save on data by using a map rather than online navigation to get out of Bucharest. There are few street signs and it took twice as long as I expected to reach Bechet (for nearly half the journey I was driving in the dark, dodging dogs, people walking down the center of the road and horse-drawn carts piled precariously high with everything from hay to workers).
Bechet is home to Arta La Sat, the weaving studio of Antoneta Nadu. The rug designs from this region, Oltenia, are typically based on nature, featuring flowers, trees and birds. They are my favorite — or at least I thought so at the beginning of the trip.
At the studio, two women, glancing down at patterns, worked side by side at a vertical loom that filled more than half a wall. Nearby another woman put the finishing touches on a rug she had been working on for nearly six weeks, while next to her a woman embroidered a shirt. (The rugs are not traditionally used on the floor, but hung on walls to help protect from the cold.) The workmanship was impeccable, making it impossible to tell which side should be displayed.
When it became apparent that language was an issue, Ms. Nadu called a young friend of the family who had mastered English by watching American cartoons. That enabled us to get down to business. I wanted to buy at least one large rug. On her website, prices vary based on size and intricacy of the designs, but they basically run from about $300 for a 3-feet-by-6 feet rug to as much as $1,000 for a 6-feet-by-9-feet rug.
Because they are traditionally part of a woman’s dowry, I bought a medium-size rug in pastels as a wedding gift for my daughter who’s getting married later this month. But I wanted something very large for myself and nothing in the shop was the right color. Ms. Nadu went into her home and came back with a 70-year-old rug that had belonged to her mother. It was perfect, with a rich burgundy border and black center, featuring a botanical motif. Together the price of the rugs was 4,800 leu, which was less than buying them online. I only had 4,000 leu (about $1,000) to spend and she accepted it.
Having exhausted my questions and bank account, I headed to Domeniul Dragasi, a winery with a guesthouse overlooking the Olt River. Perhaps it was because I was the only guest that night but I was treated like royalty, with a personal wine tasting (higher quality than I expected), followed by a dinner of mixed bruschetta, duck confit with split peas, dessert and more wine. I was then escorted back to the guesthouse where I was tucked into a seat on the porch to watch a full moon rise over the Olt. Total price: about $120, including breakfast.
As I drove north, the roads became increasingly scenic, cutting through fields and pastures dotted with distinctive conical haystacks before ascending into the forested mountains of Maramures, home to centuries-old wooden churches, carved gates and small villages where life is dictated by the seasons and traditions.
There is not much in the way of restaurants or entertainment in Maramures. A visit is really more of an opportunity to get a glimpse of rural life while exploring the region’s history. My first stop was the Church of Archangels Michael and Gabriel in Rogoz, which dates to 1663. The church and a nearby ethnographic museum were locked up at 4 p.m., leaving me and some chickens to wander through the overgrown cemetery there.
From there it was an easy drive to Botiza, the home of Victoria Berbecaru, who is on the Unesco intangible list for her work reviving the art of weaving using hand-spun wool dyed naturally from things like leaves and nut shells.
The family created a small museum in a traditional wood home near the entrance to the village, with a guesthouse on the second floor. Ms. Berbecara’s daughter, Ioana Pop, who speaks English, helps with guests. A family was already in the guesthouse so I was taken to the home of Maria Goldean, who lives in a quaint vine-covered cottage with her husband and has a more modern cinder block home on the property for travelers.
After I settled in, Mrs. Pop took me on a stroll through the village to look for weavers. Stops at two homes were disappointing; one of the women was no longer weaving and the other had put her loom away until winter. Discouraged, we decided to try just one more home, where we were greeted by Ioana Petreus, who was sitting on a bench outside her house spinning wool. She had been out all day foraging for mushrooms and her daughter was at the loom inside. The leaves, bark, nut shells and onion skins used to dye the yarn sat near her loom. She was one of Ms. Berbecara’s students, and typically weaves traditional patterns. For $15, I bought a placemat-size wall hanging that featured scenes from village life.
The next day, after a visit to a wooden church in the center of Botiza, notable for the eerie painting of “Death” on the back of its entry door, I drove north to Ieud in search of the Ples Museum, set in a 200-year-old homestead and said to display an array of items from a woman’s dowry.
It turned out to be the best day of the trip. Since it was a holiday, women gathered at the small museum to chat after services at Ieud’s Church on the Hill, also known as “The Birth of the Mother of God” church, built in 1364. According to its literature, it is the oldest wooden church in Romania. The museum, which is down the hill from the church, is filled with hand-woven rugs and blankets, embroidered cloths, hand-painted plates and other handiwork. An old wooden loom dominates the room, its parts worn smooth from years of use. Next to the loom, a doll the size of a toddler stands in a wooden contraption designed to keep a child contained within reach; behind that is a cradle that can be rocked by a pedal next to those on the loom.
Among the women at the museum were three generations of one family, the youngest of whom spoke English. Maria Pasca, 72, the matriarch, invited me to her home to see the room where she keeps the dowry items made by women in the family over the ages. With her granddaughter serving as interpreter, the women told stories about their lives and talked about the significance of the intricately woven rugs, embroidered sheets, shirts, pillowcases and other items that filled the room, floor to ceiling. Many homes in rural areas in Romania have dedicated rooms like this, which are used only on special occasions.
My last stop of the day was Sapanta, home of the Merry Cemetery, near the Ukrainian border. In 1935, a local artist and painter, Stan Ioan Patras, began a tradition of creating brightly painted grave markers inlaid with unique and often humorous epitaphs he wrote for young and old alike. Hundreds of bright blue markers fill the cemetery, which was packed with sightseers reading the inscriptions — some humorous, some sad, but all of them to the point.
I spent the night at Guesthouse Ileana ($30 a night, including breakfast) across the street from the cemetery, that the rural tourism website said organizes tours to visit weavers. In reality, I had to go no farther than a small covered area in the backyard where Maria Stetca, the guesthouse’s owner, and her mother, Iona Stetca, still weave on their 80-year-old horizontal loom. On a sunny Saturday, her mother worked on a striped wool blanket as Ms. Stetca spun wool nearby.
From Sapanta, I wound east through the Carpathian Mountains to Gura Humorului in Bucovina, a lovely if slow drive, passing through tree-covered mountains that open onto bucolic vistas. It’s a good place to stay when visiting the painted monasteries for which the region is known.
The first monastery I came to was Voronet, which is often referred to as the “Sistine Chapel of the East” for its detailed frescoes that draw on stories from the Bible. The best known of the frescoes, which date to the 15th and 16th centuries, is an intricate illustration of the Last Judgment on the monastery’s western end. Outside the monastery, vendors sell all sorts of weaving, embroidery and local crafts, but much of it is from China and not worth a second look.
After visiting five of the seven most well-preserved monasteries, I began my trip back to the Bucharest airport with two places left to visit: Agapia Monastery, where the nuns are known for their weaving, and the workshop of Maria Mihalachi in Baltatesti in Neamt County, who I found through the Association of Craftsmen in Neamt County.
The monastery’s weaving room has several giant vertical looms with rugs in various states of completion, but no one was working at them. Outside the monastery is a small museum with beautiful rugs from the past that the overseer is happy to spread out for display, but attempts to buy one were unsuccessful.
After a short and confusing drive, I finally found Ms. Mihalachi’s studio, which is in her house and was closed for renovation. Her husband, Julian Mihalachi, a chemist, was home and pulled out several rugs — notable for their geometric and linear designs — to illustrate their work, which involves teaching women how to weave, using old patterns and wool dyed naturally.
“Very few people weave now,” said Mr. Mihalachi, who assists his wife in the business. “It’s difficult now because kids prefer carpets.”
I hope that is not the case with my daughter. With her wedding just a few weeks away, I’ve taken her rug out of the closet and begun contemplating the future. She doesn’t really have much to constitute a dowry — a few quilts made by my mother, some embroidered pillowcases from her great-grandmothers and a set of Haviland china. But maybe those items — and the handmade kilim acquired on an indelible road trip through Romania — will be something meaningful to pass along for generations to come.