Walking through the past and present, in Bucovina’s Village Museum

When I stumbled on an unexpected open-air museum in Bucovina, Romania, the clear thing to do was say “one ticket, varog (please).” That done, I stepped through the turnstile and into the 1800s. This was the Bucovina Village Museum, an assembly of two dozen structures from the surrounding countryside, mostly small country homes, that bring a plausible village from centuries past into the present day.

Monastery millhouse in front, traditional houses behind

The houses come from a variety of surrounding villages and span three centuries. The oldest, from the 1700s, are simple huts of just an entry hallway and one dwelling room, where families lived, cooked on the stove that kept them warm during winter months, and stored their hard-won cereal grains. Over the following centuries homes evolved, first adding a larder under an extended eave, then incorporating it into the house itself as a second room, which in turn grew into a full second dwelling space. Houses like this, with room-hall-room construction, were still being used well into the 20th century in rural communities, even though a family’s property might also include a stable, crop storage, and chicken coop. The power of this design was clear in the house of a wealthy family from the 1800s who wanted to show off their fortune…so built the usual two dwelling rooms, just larger.

The ongoing presence of traditional living in the Romanian countryside was clear when I examined a crop warehouse in one of the homesteads. Built of woven sticks, it looked a lot like an enormous wicker laundry hamper, with four hatches at the top for depositing corn, apples, or other crops, then a smaller hatch at the bottom for their removal. It was familiar, because I’d been seeing these structures in backyards for weeks as I took slow trains across the country.

See what I mean? Romanian silos look like giant wicker laundry hampers!

As the late summer sun shone on the green grass and a soft wind tickled the trees just turning their autumn colors, I explored a blacksmith’s forge, an outdoor kitchen for summer months, and a wooden oil press that was still being used in the 1960’s (and potentially in 2007 when it was bought for the museum). My favorite was the waterwheel-driven mill bought from a monastery, where the miller lived in a cubby-like space within the mill, whose millstones could run nonstop during the harvest season, grinding 2400 kg (5291 lbs) of grain each day. That monastery was in the town of Humor, because what could be better than the Monastery of Humor?

The Bucovina Village Museum had one more remarkable point of access into Romanian culture. Moving from house to house, I traversed the lifetime of a resident with the help of mannequins (admittedly a bit creepy, but is there any other kind?) and authentic recordings from three pivotal moments in life. In one, I listened to a mother sing a lullaby to her newborn child. In another, I wanted to dance along with the rollicking celebration of a wedding. The third displayed the open casket of the three-day vigils that marked the passing of a member of the community. Death was seen as another sort of union, so the deceased were often dressed in the same traditional outfit they wore at their wedding, saved for all those years for this second ceremony. It was both eerie and utterly beautiful to listen to an authentic death wail in a home that had undoubtedly seen many such ceremonies over the generations.

The bride and groom kneel before her parents, while his are ready for the feast!

With all of this ongoing tradition, it would be possible to misunderstand Romania as being stuck in the 1800s. It’s not. Those houses I’d seen out the train window with their woven warehouses, were just as likely to have shiny new Audis, and the same satellite dishes clinging to their eaves that I see in rural communities in America. Romania isn’t stuck in the 19th century, it just remembers it well. And in places like this unexpected museum, I too could span those years, comfortable in both.