Walking along the dirt roads in the village of Breb, in the far north of Romania, past wooden houses with beautifully carved gates, hand-pump wells and yards alive with livestock, it is hard to work out exactly when you are.

The county of Maramures, within which Breb is located, is considered one of the last pockets of traditional rural life left in Europe, and many describe it as a snapshot of the continent as it was two centuries ago - although things are gradually changing with the arrival of cars (to replace the horse-and-carts), out-of-towners and concrete buildings. Furthermore, mobile phone coverage has recently become surprisingly good.

Passengers taking the minivan that plies the route to and from Baia Mare, the regional capital, and passes the village every few hours, are dropped off on and picked up from a hillside overlooking Breb, a village of around 1,000 people. The panoramic views from this remotest of bus stops are breathtaking.

The surrounding pastoral landscape has long enamoured adventurous travellers, with its agrarian culture and 100 wooden churches (eight of which feature on Unesco's World Heritage list) particular draws for photographers and those wanting to hike through countryside that has changed little in centuries.

Maramures borders Ukraine and is cut off by thin mountainous passes from the rest of Romania. Here, farmers still cut their hay with long scythes and then use home-made wooden pitchforks to stack it in high piles around a central pole. In the evenings, families gather with their neighbours to eat alfresco communal meals, and drink plenty of horinca: home-made pear, apple or plum brandy.

I find accommodation for my three-night stay in Breb in a traditional wooden house located in the apple orchard behind my host family's home. The large meals and infectious laughter of the matron of the family, Lenuta Opris, compensate for the lack of television and internet.

On my first morning I take a stroll through vast open landscapes to the village of Hoteni. Haystacks dot the fields and the hour-long walk passes in peaceful silence. Walking in Maramures is more about the journey than the destination, although heading from one village's wooden church to the next gives a scenic walk an overall purpose.

Wooden crosses with circular, Celtic-like designs poke out over overgrown grass in the Breb churchyard. First built in 1531, the church was moved to its current location in the 17th century and has a tall spire clad in wooden tiles; in fact, every aspect of the exterior apart from the window glass is made of wood, creating a fairy-tale quality.

Petru Pop, a Breb woodcarver in his 70s, is busy making small crosses when I take the small winding paths to his door. He stops to chat and to showcase his more prized creations - ornate handcrafted crosses and religious items, as well as a detailed wooden model of a church.

Woodcarving is increasingly becoming a skill of the past in Maramures, as younger villagers leave to seek work elsewhere in Romania, or further afield in Europe, escaping what many consider a tough rural existence. Pop made the elaborately carved gates that stand outside many local houses but in his twilight years he sticks to producing smaller objects. His son has taken on the larger projects.

Replacing the youngsters seeking opportunities elsewhere are people looking for aspects of life missing from today's modern world.

"Back in 2007, I asked where the traditional Romania was and everyone said Maramures," says Duncan Ridgley, a paparazzi photographer who left that life behind to dedicate himself to restoring traditional dwellings in Breb and opening them as guesthouses.

"I can see the physical change happening but underneath it is still the same," says the Briton. "The old way of life and traditions are all still here."

The following day I hitch a lift to the village of Sapanta, on the border with Ukraine. The village's "merry cemetery" has become a tourist attraction in recent years.

Poetic verses written on the rows and rows of hand-carved and brightly painted wooden crosses, made by a single craftsman and then, later, his apprentice, tell the stories of those buried below - many playful reminders of the deceased's life, and sometimes even their death. Rather than being distasteful - though some, like that of a son-in-law claiming that if her death had happened even three days later, it would be he in the ground rather than his mother-in-law, are a touch risqué - they paint a picture of the dead as they once lived.

An hour from Breb, a steam railway once used by loggers offers the chance to see the wild Carpathian Mountains. The train leaves from the village of Viseu de Sus and chugs up a long gorge high into the bear- and wolf- populated mountains before stopping, after several hours, at a small clearing in which there is nothing more than a river and a two-room railway museum. After an hour or so of wandering about in the woods or picnicking on the bank of the river, passengers get back on board for the return journey.

The pace of life in Maramures is infectious, and my remaining time in Breb is wiled away on long meals - pork schnitzel, sarmale (seasoned minced meat wrapped in cabbage leaves and boiled), thick soups of vegetables and chunks of meat, boiled eggs, local honey, home-made cakes - even longer walks along the muddy pathways of the village and evenings beneath the stars.

On my last morning, a young boy points me up a path towards the house that Britain's Prince Charles, who has long championed the protection of Romania's traditional villages and who visited Breb in 2004, bought a few years ago, through his trust.

I follow a small mud path to find a simple wooden structure, surrounded by a woven wooden fence. It is beautiful, and a fine retreat from the pressures of the modern world (although, according to villagers, the prince has not been back since that visit).

As I leave, waiting on the nearby hillside with its majestic views, it is hard not to feel a sense of loss as I bid farewell to the past.

Getting there: several airlines, including Air France, KLM and Qatar Airlines, offer one-stop flights between Hong Kong and Bucharest, via Paris, Amsterdam, Moscow and other regional hubs. A night train links the Romanian capital with Maramures' capital, Baia Mare, from where you can rent a car or take a minivan into the rural areas.