Death does not have to be dark and gloomy. In fact, it can reflect art and humor, as I learned during my visit to a small village in Transylvania. I stayed with a local family at their country farm B&B in Maramureș, perhaps the most charming place in Romania.
Traveling With a Local
My guide Ramona Cazacu of MyRomania, and I did day trips to see weekend markets, wood makers, wool weavers, painted churches and charming villages around the area. A stark contrast from the capital of Bucharest, the northern part of Romania we were at, was mostly rural, with friendly people and lots of authentic culture.
An Open Air Museum
We visited the Săpânţa-Peri Monastery, also known as the Merry Cemetery. It is said that one of the local carvers, Stan Ioan Pătraş, thought people needed to cheer up after losing their loved ones, and decided to make headstones in bright blue colors. These intricately designed geometrical crosses reflected the life of the person buried in pictorial stories, as well as firsthand narrations of how they lived and how they died.
The cemetery became popular as more and more people started asking for these intriguing and fun headstones (and still do today).
It’s best to have a translator with you so they can read out the funny stories (written in a local dialect) as you stroll through the rows dotted with 1,000 plus headstones.
Comedy in Death
Some also include comic poems, limericks and stories of deceit, cheating, beheadings, road accidents, disease, and dirty secrets – in a light hearted way!
One of the crosses says, “Underneath this heavy cross. Lies my poor mother-in-law. Try not to wake her up. For if she comes back home, she’ll bite my head off.”
Another one reads, “Ioan Toaderu loved horses. One more thing he loved very much was to sit at a table in a bar, next to someone else’s wife.”
Use of Symbolism
The colors used in the images also have meanings. Green represents life, yellow fertility, red for passion, and black for death. The deep blue background represents hope, freedom, and the sky. White doves are for the soul, and a blackbird is a symbol of tragic or suspicious death.
Stan Ioan Pătraş died in 1977, but his talented apprentice, Dumitru Pop still continuing the work carving the cemetery’s crosses. He has turned Stan’s house into the Merry Cemetery’s workshop-museum.
A Romanian book – “The Crosses of Sapanta” lists all the epitaphs in the cemetery along with descriptions and insights into the meaning of the messages.
If you want an authentic, personal and cultural experience in Romania, please contact us info at goeatgive dot com to customize and book your trip.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I want to especially recognize women in travel.
Travel is a powerful tool that helps women become independent, gain self-confidence, empower, be economically and socially impactful. Over the years, I have met countless women who worked in the tourism ministry, as travel agents, tour guides, and more. Here are some inspiring women that I met who are successful travel entrepreneurs.
Kelly Campbell, Kenya
Kelly Campbell is a native of Indiana and founder of The Village Experience, a responsible tourism company. Kelly travels year-round taking groups of people to fund projects in Kenya, India, Egypt, Morocco and Guatemala, improving the lives of women and children, and providing water to remote villages.
I stayed with Kelly at her charming house in Lamu, Kenya, where she has been living since 2016. After spending a few days with Kelly, I really feel she spends every single waking minute thinking about other people. Her tour guides, personal chef, dow boat operator, hotel owners – everyone seems to have been impacted by Kelly at some point.
Veselka and I bonded instantly when we first met at a travel show in New York. But it was over a glass (or few glasses) of Dalmatian wine and delicious pasta in Split, Croatia, that we shared more personal details about our lives.
Like me, Veselka quit her corporate job so she could be her own boss and spend time doing what she was passionate about. Veselka founded an adventure tour company – AndAdventure Croatia, which focuses on biking, water sports, wine and culinary travel across Croatia.
In her 30’s, Ramona was tired of her desk job. She enjoyed being outdoors, hiking through Romani’s countryside, chatting with locals, and introducing travelers to her native country. Her ability to speak many languages since she was a kid helped her create MyRomania, a tour company that specializes in creating authentic family-friendly experiences.
Soon, Ramona’s husband quit his job too and joined the business. They moved into their parent’s home in one of the villages, where they bring up their 2 kids. Ramona is one of the friendliest people I met during my travels and it seemed that everyone knew her wherever we went in Romania.
Justa Lujwangana is from Tanzania and lives in New York. She worked in the healthcare business before pursuing her passion for dance and travel. Starting with just a Meetup group she called Curious on Tanzania (COT), she went on to form an experiential travel company offering tours to Tanzania.
During the trip, you will stay at Justa’s family home in Dar es Salaam, eating home cooked meals, attending Sunday mass in her neighborhood, meeting her friends, and learning the Tanzanian way of life.
Read more about my experience in Tanzania with COT.V
Khishigjargal Dorjderem, Mongolia
Khishigjargal has lived and studied abroad, speaks multiple languages, and runs Voyage Unique Mongolie, a customized travel company operating in Mongolia. As her personal guest, Khishigjargal and her husband drove me around the country for a week, making me feel as if I was on a trip with friends, rather than tour guides. We would drive through the barren Mongolian countryside for 8 hours a day and still have so much to talk about!
If you are looking to experience a nomadic life, walk in the Gobi Desert, or witness the historic Naadam Festival, Khishigjargal is your gal!
I met Divya Pahwa through friends of friends, as I was looking for a partner agency to organize Go Eat Give trip to India. Divya grew up traveling all over India and was always interested in travel. She worked in a Delhi based tour agency before starting her own travel agency – Explorer’s Travel Boutique. She has a team that oversees everything from Indian weddings and corporate travel to individual and group travels all over the world. Her entire business is based on word of mouth referrals.
While traveling with Divya (we were recently in Kashmir), I could see that Divya works non-stop, answering her phone at every hour of the day, and addressing to the smallest client request herself.
Veronika Vermeulen, New Zealand
Born and raised in Germany, Veronika fell in love with everything about New Zealand, so much that she moved there and opened a luxury tour company – Aroha Tours. She loves the Māori culture, landscapes, nature, culture, wine and all that the country offers. She is married to a dairy farmer and lives on a 600 hector farm with 1200 milking cows.
Veronika and I have not met in person as yet, but I’m looking forward to traveling with her around New Zealand this November.
Go Eat Give will often refer to or partner with these women to book your customized tours to the countries they specialize in. By supporting other women in travel, we commit to have a long lasting impact in the communities we visit, and show you the very best of the local hospitality.
People often ask – Isn’t traveling abroad expensive? Seasoned travelers will tell you that traveling abroad can sometimes be cheaper than living in the US! With so many platforms such as discounted airlines, HomeExchange, AirBnB, work exchanges, etc. it is cheaper to travel now than it has ever been before.
One of the best ways to save money while traveling is my taking Free Walking Tours. These are great ways to explore the city on foot, with a local guide, while getting some exercise. And the best part is they are free, though I do advise you to tip your guide generously 🙂
I met my guide, Catalana at the guitar statue near University Square. I was the only one on the tour that morning, so I had the guide all to myself.
We made our way through the main streets, crossing church into Old Town, while Catalana explained to me some of the history of the city as well as the Parisian style buildings we were looking at.
I find it fascinating when people tell me the “behind the scenes” story of unassuming buildings we would pass by, not realizing what they are truly used for.
You can easily get lost in historic Old Town Bucharest. With hundreds of bars, restaurants and souvenier shops, it may look very touristy but the locals also hang out here (you just need to know the right spots). Plus, there are interesting places to see that you will miss if you didn’t know where to look, such as the remains of an underground carvan sarai attached to a church or a Soviet era apartment building.
When most people think of Romania, the first thing that comes to mind is Dracula. Catalana explained to me that the fiction novel Dracula is based on the emperor Vlad. He never drank blood, rather impaled his prisoners in public as was the tradition during Medieval times. Growing up, Catalana was told heroic tales of Vlad as he defeated the Romans against the Ottoman empire.
She also pointed out some good places to eat, which I returned to during the rest of my stay. Finding out where the locals go eat is another great tip to gather on the free walking tours.
Catalana also pointed out that I could see bullet holes in the building across from my hotel from the Romanian revolution.
Further, she gave me tips to where to spend the rest of my stay in Bucharest. Since I am most interested in food, I went to see the Piata Obor market where locals come to buy fresh vegetables, flowers, cheese and spices. Another money saving tip – you can always find cheap street food and free tastings at the fresh food markets. Just ask for a sample!
To learn more about Unbelievable Bucharest private and free tours click here.
Have you had a great Free Walking Tour experience? Do share in the comments section below…