Mocănița – the steam train in Maramureș

After a dreadful road between Iacobeni and Borșa (DN18), on which we did an average of 10 km/h for about 30 km, we reached Borșa. After a quick tour through Moldova, which we loved, our next target was the region of Maramureș, the most authentic and traditional region you can find in Romania. First thing on the list: Mocănița – the name of the steam train carrying loggers in Vișeu valley.

The owner of the guest house we stayed in advised us that we should wake up early to make it to the Mocănița “boarding”. It was Friday, 15th of August 2014. In Romania this day is a national holiday and everyone gets this day off so you guess what that resulted in: crowds.

At 7.30 AM we were in Vișeu de Sus train station and crowds already started gathering in front of the ticket office. I wasn’t very happy and I was pretty surprised because the first Mocănița steam train was due to depart at 9 AM. I was also surprised because the tickets for this train ride are not especially cheap, for Romanian standards at least. More details on that later. Anyway, like all Romanians, I hate waiting in a line but to my surprise the line moved really fast since everything was organised very well. Everyone was patient and I waited for no more than 10 minutes.

Vișeul de Sus train station
Vișeul de Sus train station

Brief useful information:

Mocănița departure time: 9 AM
Ticket: 49 RON (~11 Euro, no food included)/79 RON (~18 Euro, food included)
Duration: 5 h – both ways

After we bought our tickets we still had more than an hour to spare until we boarded so we took this opportunity to visit this wonderful train station surrounded by mountains and dense forests. Because there were almost 2000 tourists that day that wanted to have this trip, the administrators decided to pull out all they have: all 4 Mocănița steam trains. We had the chance to board the the steam train that left first 😀 There are certain advantages to waking up that early in the morning :))

enough time to see the other steam trains leaving after our train
ready to go

Talking about the walk I mentioned earlier through the train station, the first thing that I went too see were, obviously, the locomotives of each train. Every locomotive has been beautifully restored and had its glory brought back. All mechanical parts fixed or renewed, new paint, new moral! They look fantastic. When they whistle it’s just like in the movies, the exact same sound. They run on wood and water, the most basic of material.
 
The second thing that I remarked was the very narrow railroads. They are 0.76 meters (2.5 feet) wide. I was thinking that everything here looks a bit like toys to me. But I had hope they were safe. I knew tourists who have made this trip and survived, so there was precedent! :)) I am kidding, they are completely safe. They are able to support a 100% steel locomotive weighing several tons and another 8 wagons behind, full of tourists. So they’re made to last, that’s clear. They started constructing this railroad in 1932 in order to exploit the forests surrounding the are. Logging was very important back then and it still is here, in the Vaser valley. It still used today for logging activities but tourists have priority in the hot season 🙂

the interior of our wagon
some where simply enjoying, other were taking pictures, some were recording, but everyone felt fantastic!

The wagons in which you travel are pretty rudimentary, but also restored and very clean. After departing the controller will come and check your tickets. By the way, the ticket that you receive is also very special since it’s bound in boards and narrow, just like old Romanian train tickets. So you’ll get retro tickets! 🙂 Most of the wagons don’t have windows and have wide side spaces so that you can easily take photos or record or just watch the beautiful scenery. Due to the fact that they don’t have windows it can be a bit windy and you might feel the cold even in the hot summer days. Mind you that we’re in the mountains so you’d better bring a jacket with you.
 
The route the steam train is following is 21 km long and it takes about 2 hours to reach Paltinu station, which is then end of our journey. Until then you’ll cross the beautiful and picturesque Vaser Valley which winds through the fir and beech forests which cover the rocky slopes of this valley.

Vaser valley
everyone with their heads out
waiting for the next curve to take a photo of the steam train’s full length

During this trip you’ll be taking up a new sport: maintaining balance :)) Yes, you’ve read correctly. Most of the time you’ll be standing in order to admire the scenery. Talking about the scenery, you really do feel that this place is taken straight from a movie set. Let me get back to the “keeping your balance” part: this happens because, as I’ve told you earlier, the railroad tracks are very narrow and the locomotive and the wagons are pretty wobbly for this reason. In the beginning you have the feeling that you will roll over but as you go, you’ll get used to it and you’ll learn to trust the Mocănița steam train! 🙂 You can see in the picture below the locomotive wobbling:
 I should explain why the tracks need to be so narrow. The reason is because in mountainous regions a railroad track needs to take some pretty tight curves. You can only do that by narrowing the tracks. Otherwise the train would need a wider curve.
 
Until the final station we made two programmed stops. The first one was short, only 5 minutes in order to load more wood to feed the steam engine and the second was 15 minutes long and it was for the purpose of loading wood but also supplying more water in the tanks, also necessary for the steam engine. These two stops are necessary when heading in that direction because the train is slowly climbing up the valley in this “effort” requires more power. It’s funny that at the second stop, the engine driver pulls out a rubber pump and dips it in a pond especially made there for the steam train in order to feed with water.
wood transfer
water feeding the locomotive from the pond

During these two breaks you can hop off and go to the food wagon, which is second or third from the locomotive, and get some small snacks or drinks. You’ll be served by local girls wearing a traditional costume from the  Maramureș region. Always smiling and kind to tourists.

Fast-food,  Mocănița – style
Break, everybody out

After “refuelling” Mocănița steam train will continue without stopping until Paltinu station, the end of this journey. This second part of the route is very spectacular. The topology changes and becomes very rocky all of a sudden. The valley is narrower. Everything get more exciting. There are some sections of the route where the valley walls get so close that the clearance for the passing wagons are under one meter. The rock wall is so close that if you try you can touch it with your hands., although I don’t encourage you to do that.

narrow valley stone walls
rock wall to our right, impressive

The feeling of being part of an artistic movie is completed by the locomotive’s whistle. The whistle is strategically blown when the valley narrows so that the sound is very profound. The icing on the cake is provided by the beautiful white steam coming from the locomotive which goes through the tree tops, high up in the valley forming a continuous white curtain preventing our eyes from seeing what is up next until the last moment.

wooden gate, sculpted in authentic Maramureș style. Trademark of this region.
steam, water, forest

Our adventure ends in a wide clearing in Paltinu station. Here you will see multiple railroad tracks meant for train stationing. We got off the train and we went in the specially arranged area for tourists. You’ll find here tenths of tables and benches for you to sit and have lunch and relax.

At this point the tourists who bought a ticket which includes food will go to the bar here and show their ticket and they will get their food. You can’t order here unless you have this kind of ticket. So you can’t change your mind on your way here. Basically how it works is that food travels along with the tourists and the exact amount is brought depending on how many tickets which include food were sold in order not to waste anything.


We stayed here for about an hour. Meanwhile we ate and got a musical surprise from the organisers. A special concert for this national holiday, a well known couple singing Romanian traditional music: Cornelia & Lupu Rednic, husband and wife. We can’t say that we’re big fans or anything but we actually enjoyed it. They come from Maramureș as well and they do have the characteristic of a person from this region: always smiling, telling very funny jokes and just having a good time. We loved it. The foreign tourists were also enthusiastic since this was a complete surprise and I must say everyone has a lot of fun! 🙂
While we were eating and distracted by the surprise concert the railway employees were preparing our steam train to go back down the valley to Vișeu de Sus station, where we began this journey. The funny thing is that for repositioning the locomotive and the wagons they go a bit further from Paltinu station and they put them on another line by using inertia since they are now going down. Cool and simple system! 🙂

We absolutely loved it here and if you want to see a big part of the authentic and traditional Romania you should come here, in Maramureș, and see that many valuable places, monuments that this northern part of Romania has to offer. A ride with the Mocănița steam train is a must. Food is excellent, local brandy is fantastic. You should come here, you’ll fall in love with this place! 🙂


final water feeding before goind down the valley
last of the 4 steam trains arrives at Paltinu station
waiting for tourists to board
Cozia 1″ locomotive
a lot of wood needed

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