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Lying at the foot of the Gutâi Mountains, Baia Mare does not offer a particularly attractive first glimpse, but press on through the bleak husk of socialist tenements to the inner pearl of the medieval Old Town. Its centerpiece, the attractively renovated Piaţa Libertăţii, is flanked by cheerily hued 16th- and 17th-century buildings bursting with lively bars and chic cafes.
The town was first documented in 1329 and developed as a gold-mining centre in the 14th and 15th centuries. In 1469, under the rule of Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus, the town was fortified, and thrived for hundreds of years as a largely Hungarian city. Baia Mare prospered during the communist period, becoming the centre of the country’s non-ferrous mining and smelting industries.
The sleepy town known as ‘Sighet’ has a few sights for a morning’s browsing, a pretty square edged by churches, and the Ukrainian border crossing just a few minutes away. The real reason for visiting Maramureş is its rural charm, so you needn’t linger long. For centuries Sighet formed a cultural and geographic border between Slav-dominated territories to the north and Hungary and Romania to the south. Its name is derived from the Thracian and Dacian word ‘seget’ (fortress).
Sighetu Marmaţiei, first documented in 1334, was also an important Jewish settlement until the spring of 1944, when most of the Jews were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. After WWII the communist government established one of the country’s most notorious prisons here, for dissidents, intellectuals and anyone else who could challenge the regime. It is now a memorial museum and one of the city’s most important tourist sights.