Maramureş churches, a tale

Hillsides of northern Romania

Corina heard the muffled clank of the metal on wood from up the hill. The shrouds of damp fog were doing their best to engulf the sound, but the tone like claves being struck pierced the mist. Corina let her cold and muddied hands drop to her pleated skirt that stopped just above her knees. The bright purple thread woven throughout her new skirt particularly pleased her as it had been a great deal of effort to save up the money for such a garment. Purple, such a noble color, but Corina was no noble. She was far removed from any court or castle. The courts of Brasov were hundreds of kilometers away by a strenuous horse or cart ride through twisting mountain valleys. They had little to do with her except when the tax collectors showed up.

Corina was a peasant and living in Maramureş, the northern reaches of Romania. You might say it was a simple life. You’d be hard pressed to find Corina calling it that. Each day was filled with chores around their home. A small plot of land. Pigs to feed, cows to attend to, hay to stack, food to prepare, and linens to mend. Her husband of 10 years plowed the fields and attended to the livestock by day and drank palinka by night. The couple, childless despite the many prayers and offerings at the church.

So it was with relief and excitement that she heard the calling of the church. Her chance to escape the drudgery of daily life.

Corina off to feed the pigs

Corina made her way back inside after having fished two large buckets of water out of the well outside. Several years ago a local peasant had come up with an ingenious idea for fetching water out of a well. A giant lever and fulcrum with one end weighted and the other with a bucket hanging on a rope. It was as simple as pulling the rope down to lower the bucket into the cold depths. Gravity did the rest. The hours spent hauling smaller buckets up from the well were a thing of the past.

She slipped off her shoes as she entered the house and made her way to the houses central, ceramic-tiled stove. The fire was going inside the stove, radiating heat throughout the room and she refilled the large tub of water simmering on the range. The ice cold water calming the turbulent surface. A few splashes for her hands and face and she was ready for church.

When it’s not covered in fog or rain the countryside was breathtaking. Especially in the autumn. Oaks, maples, and walnuts exploding into red, yellow, and orange. Autumn is Corina’s favorite time of year. The time of year when the last of the fall harvests make for wonderful soups, filled with hearty vegetables like pumpkins, squash, and potatoes. A certain excitement would start to fill the air on the buildup to Christmas. Hogs would be fattened, palinka brewed, and the villagers gathering together to dance.

Farm pigs

Corina moved between the linen covered walls back out to the small courtyard between the hog pen and the cattle barn. A visitor to these parts would probably fetch a clothespin to navigate through that stretch of land. Not that they got any visitors. Corina picked her way gingerly through the muddy landscape. No amount of caution was going to completely eliminate the inevitable splattering of mud that would make its way up onto her stockings. The mist was lifting as she closed their house’s gate behind her. It wasn’t as ornate as her neighbor’s 3 meter high ordeal, but Corina was proud of the modest gate that her husband had carved and crafted in the traditions of the area.

Walking up the hill she met a lady from down the street and they began talking about the weather and how many kilograms their hogs had gained since the last time they spoke. Corina could already see that her hog might be bigger than last years and they should be able to barter off some of the meat in exchange for radishes or onions which hadn’t fared well that year. The conversation twisted and turned, keeping in time with the muddy road beneath them.

It always struck Corina as a stark reminder of why she went to church after she passed through the outer gate. A graveyard held the relics of many a loyal church goer. The heavy stone and iron crosses always chilled her. She felt a sense of relief that she attended church regularly and felt a pang of dread for her poor husband who all to often worshiped the bottle instead.

Graves at the merry cemetery

The church stood atop a small hill. She had heard the stories from the villagers of how the Catholic church had been driven from this region centuries ago and wooden churches erected in their place. The Orthodox religion was strong here. Their wooden churches rising gracefully out of the very woods from which they were made. Slender, towering spires like tree trunks and intricate carvings a testament to the woodworkers of the area.

Corina filed through the low doorway, bowing her head. Above her the vaulted ceiling rose 8 meters and was lost in the darkness. The flames of the candles tried heartily to cast their rays into the highest recesses. She made her way to one of the 10 pews arranged on either side of a broad aisle and sat. To her side hung many small and large hand-embroidered banners. Hanging from small poles. The icon of Jesus and the holy trinity adorned each piece, depicting the life and times of Christ. Her gaze shifted back to the front of the room where rows of candles were burning and the priest was beginning his sermon.

Religious weavings

The church filled with the sound of speech, prayer, and song for the next hour and Corina felt embraced in the warmth of her community. The hard life outside these wooden wall was drifting away like the smoke from the incense burning overhead and a smile crept onto Corina’s face.

Churches of Maramures

Behind the Scenes

Northern Romania contains one of the few remaining peasant culture in Europe. A living museum, if you will. The churches in the area are still very much active and UNESCO world heritage sites. About 600 kilometers from Bucharest, you’re probably just as close coming from a neighboring country.

The autumn time is absolutely stunning in the region, with temperatures staying moderate until the winter kicks in.

The area is best explored by car as the churches are relatively spaced out and there was little in terms of transport at the time of writing to get you around.

If time permits, also recommend going even farther north to the see the merry cemetery, which didn’t give us very many laughs but did seem like a good place to be buried. A celebration of life rather than a morning of death.

Lastly, if you see a Corina, tell her I said “hi”.

Lots more pictures from our wanderings around northern Romania.

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