The time spent in Sighet and at Viseu de Sus provided a welcome gap between the two lots of intense church visiting, and as the weather improved to let us enjoy our train ride, so the viewing of wooden churches beckoned. The monasteries were nearly all active places of worship and contemplation, and therefore most of them were open to visitors every day, and expected the tourists that visited them. Only the odd service had affected our visits. Many of the wooden churches on the other hand are surprisingly hidden away from view as you pass through the villages, often on a rise hidden by autumnal trees, and blending in with their surroundings. In general they tend only to be open if there’s something going on, a service or for restoration, for example. Some have the keyholder’s number on the door, some don’t and it’s not obvious where to start looking. So inevitably we had some disappointments, and although we’ve come to love the exteriors – the organic flowing shingle roofs, graceful spires and ship like bodies – it is always wonderful to see inside too. When you do get the chance to go in though, you appreciate it all the more.
Maramureş is a very traditional area of gentle undulating green hills, dotted with haystacks and with a hardworking largely peasant population – very much people of the land. Horse carts proliferate, and many roads are still unmade up and rough in places. Many villagers apparently still believe in vampires, werewolves and other creatures of the night, and there are still plenty of wooden houses with carved wooden gates, although in some places they are gradually being replaced with new rendered brick houses. Take photographs in black and white and you could be back 70 years, and things probably haven’t changed so much in a couple of hundred years (ignoring the odd satellite dish). You still see people in traditional dress, especially on Sundays – men in straw hats, elegant younger women in flowery flouncy skirts sitting just above the knee with matching scarves, the barrel-shaped old ladies in their uniform of black skirts and headscarves, white blouses and green cardigans.
We used our return visit to Matthijs and Eveline’s idyllic campsite at Breb as a good central base for exploring the churches, and the area in general. The churches generally date from the seventeenth century onwards, during a period when this area was controlled by Hungary and building of stone churches was forbidden. Although wooden churches were built across Eastern Europe, it is acknowledged that the tradition here in Maramureş offers the most valuable examples, and eight are on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
On the way there from Viseu de Sus we passed cross-country into the Iza valley, one of the prettiest areas and visited the church at Ieud. Luckily signs pointed the way, and there was a small group of young restorers working on cleaning icons so it was open. Like the stone-built churches, there is a pro-naos or anteroom before entering the naos – the main area for worship. Beyond this, usually hidden from public view behind the iconostasis screen, is the half-circle altar area. The interior walls and ceilings are painted, and there is a gallery above reached by a ladder, often a whole tree trunk, with steps cut into it. The imagery is of course biblical – again the day of judgement features strongly – and often quite primitive in style. At Ieud many of the precious pictures had faded or flaked away.
From here we drove to the next village of Poienile Izei, renowned for its wooden church featuring predominantly red coloured pictures of the punishments meted out in hell for misdemeanors great and small. The images were to remain a mystery to us though, it was getting to be late afternoon, and the village was thronging with beautifully turned out people in costume. There was a wedding in the offing and everyone looked to be involved.
Unfortunately for us, the wedding wasn’t to be in the pretty wooden church perched on the hill, but in the big modern church in the village centre, and no one was able to open the old one up for us. We hung around a little to see what would happen, there was a group of musicians on hand too, and we got talking to some French people from Réunion, who were living in Romania. One of them was hoping to work to improve things for the Roma population.
It looked like there was plenty more hanging around to be done, and we needed to push on to Breb while it was still light. The road to some of the villages we wanted to visit, was too rough to contemplate for a long stretch, so we went back via Bârsana, where an impressively ‘in-keeping’ new wooden monastery complex distracts visitors from visiting the old wooden church hidden away elsewhere.
On the Sunday, we went first to Breb’s wooden church, passing many traditionally dressed parishioners on the way, picking their way along the muddy lanes in their finery. Having been back and forth in Breb several times by now, the villagers’ reserve was beginning to falter and we got big smiles and waves from folk of all ages. The church is tiny, and a sort of open come and go as you please service was progressing, we entered discreetly to see the homely interior with rugs everywhere and highly embroidered clothes draped over the top of the icons.
At Budeşti, a few kilometres over the hill, its two churches, one upper and one lower, when we finally found them, were both closed but peering through windows gave us a few hints as to the delights we were missing.
A chunk south to see Surdeşti church, which once had the tallest spire in Maramureş, and is on the UNESCO list. Built in 1721, it is covered in oak shingles. Our luck was in, the service was ending and the congregation was pouring out. At the gates people received bread and cake as they left, and shots of ţuica (the local firewater) were also given out. Crate-fulls of bread were ready to give away, and the old lady in charge insisted we take some too.
We waited until nearly everyone had left before entering the church itself. It was a gem, stunningly beautiful. The priest was happy for us, and the three other (Japanese) tourists to take pictures inside. He was busy getting the church ready for an imminent wedding. In fact, as we drove out of the village, we gave way to the wedding convoy.
There was another UNESCO wooden church in the next village, Plopiş, but it was closed and after walking around it, we had a picnic on the grass outside its walls.
We headed over the hills into another valley and visited the church at Desişti, with the trackbed of a disused logging line running past its gate. We were able to go inside as there were some other visitors there. This was another UNESCO gem, built in 1770, with exquisite paintings on the walls by Radu Munteanu, a key painter of the time.
The keyholder was involved in deep discussion in Romanian and German with the other two visitors about the finer points of the difference between Greco-Catholicism and the pure Orthodox tradition. Greco-Catholicism also known as ‘Uniate’ takes elements of both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox doctrines and is the form of Christianity practised in many of the Maramureş churches, having been revived since the fall of Communism.
One last quick visit to the tiny (and closed) wooden church at Sat-Șugatag, along the road, where it was hard to keep the goats from following us through the wooden gates into the cemetery – the chickens were there already after all. The weather had turned dull again, the scent of windfall apples drifted on the damp breeze and we were just about churched out for one day.
Monday morning dawned bright and fine, and we were barely awake when a succession of villagers from young men to old ladies walked through our camping field on their way to work in the adjoining meadow. The potato harvest was in full swing, the horse and cart was already in place and it looked like they would be gathering in the odd pumpkin too. Visualise Van Gogh’s famous potato picker drawings and the scene would be the same.
As we said our goodbyes, Matthijs suggested a route to Cluj-Napoca, our next destination, via another valley we hadn’t thought of trying not knowing how good or, more likely, how bad the road would be.
It was scenic and spot on, it took us via another UNESCO church – the one at Rogoz. There was a number scrawled on a paper by the door. We rang it, and admired the exterior, before the priest, Ioan Chirilă, arrived about fifteen minutes later. It was clear right from the start that this wasn’t going to be a simple unlocking of the door. We were treated to the most wonderful personal in depth guided tour outside and inside the church in a mixture of French and Romanian. Ioan Chirilă’s enthusiasm was infectious as we were allowed free reign to photograph and ask questions, and he used my sketchpad to write down dates and diagrams for us.
Built in 1663, of elm wood, the orientation of the church is important. The round window at the end of the apse is lined up so the sun will shine through it at a certain time of day from 7th to 15th of August.
A particular feature is the lop-sided roof, one side built further out to shelter a long table and benches made out of single lengths of tree. Here food was provided for the poor of the parish.The table was marked by lines indented across it. These showed the areas allotted to each family, and the family name was cut into the wood of the wall above. The horse-head shaped eaves supports are also peculiar to this church.
Inside the layout was familiar and the paintings breathtaking, and we were taken into the usually blocked off apse to see the other treasures, including ancient bibles and a painted chest. All the imagery, mostly painted by Radu Munteanu, was explained to us, and the story of the Good Samaritan is a less usual feature here. He showed us the scorch marks inside the church from a lightening strike. Thankfully there are now lightening conductors in place. Apparently Princess Anne once visited and we think she offered to do a swap for St Paul’s, but the priest was having none of it.
After the church, there was another surprise. There was a small museum nearby of ethnographic items in a recreated kitchen and bedroom/general living area. The priest’s favourite item was a long horn used to call in goats from the hills. If we understood correctly, he had once been responsible for using this to call in the family’s goats. He demonstrated its haunting sound before handing it over expecting both Adrian and I to be able to play at least as well, which of course we couldn’t.
This man’s generosity of spirit and time, and fond wishes in several languages as we set off again, stay with us. One of the most fascinating and heartwarming interludes of the trip. And a high point on which to reach the end of our path to the wooden churches.
Maramureş is the part of Romania that calls us to return with more time to spend exploring its back lanes on bikes, perhaps in springtime, before the simple way of life here disappears forever.