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Monday, 13 November 2017

The wooden churches of Maramureş



Maramureş is a land of legends and probably the most traditional region in Romania, partly due to its remoteness. Here, people still wear folk costumes on Sundays as they go to church. If you stop in the village of Surdeşti, located in the western part of the historical province, Clăile de Piatră are legendary rock formations found in a local courtyard and resembling stacks of hay. It is said that some peasants were working on a holiday, so St. Peter turned all the hay they had collected into stone. As she was finishing the story with her strong accent and archaic words, the old woman looked at me and the man next to me: ‘I do hope you’re married. In my time, even a lousy goat was sold with deeds’.
Faith has always guided the actions of the people inhabiting these lands and Church has played an important part in their lives and education. These are probably the reasons behind the well-preserved wooden churches of Maramureş. Built in similar styles, though in different centuries, they have nowadays turned from places of worship into heritage.
Three years ago, two French friends of mine I had met in Iran visited Botiza and were left deeply impressed. It is hard not to, with the brook joyously flowing through the centre of the village, the willow trees, and the peace that dominates the settlement.
Tree of pots specific to the region; a red pot on top signifies a single woman to be married in the household
'Cuvioasa Paraschiva' wooden church (17th century) is only a few meters away, in a courtyard full of stone graves, delicately framed by a carefully-carved massive gate. Two centuries after its construction in Vişeu de Jos, the church was transferred to Botiza, to replace the former church whose wood had been used to build a confessional school in a village nearby. There are elements to note as you get familiarised with the establishment: the wooden rope circling the entire construction on the outside and the Grim Reaper painted on the back of the main door, along with reproving phrases.
The wooden gate in Botiza, guiding the visitor towards the church
The road goes on, to the oldest of all Maramureş churches. It started raining, but Ieud village and the setting of the monument up on a hill are as pretty as always. There is a sense of belonging at play here, taken over by humbleness before the frescoes dating back to the second half of the 14th century. If you climb the old and squeaky wooden stairs leading to the church’s tower, the view will reveal the surrounding hills framing the village – a small Eden, undisturbed and dateless! This place breathes history through all of its pores and you are standing in the exact place where the first document written in Romanian – ‘The Ieud Codex’ (1391) – was found.
After driving along Iza River for a while, getting to Poienile Izei redefines ‘picturesque’. Everything is lush as you enter the village, go down the valley and spot the church tower that seems to be piercing the sky. The early-17th century construction is one of the most beautiful examples in the evolution of the region’s wooden churches.    
By taking the shortcut via Glod, you reach Sârbi. Despite having been constructed in the same village and only a few tens of years apart, in the 17th century, Sârbi Susani and Sârbi Josani are quite different. The former is one of the most authentic Maramureş wooden churches in terms of architecture and decorations. Its portal is the best preserved in the entire region and has some hidden symbols, which even make the visitor question the possible revering of the Sun. The latter is accessible via a narrow earth path bordered by old fir trees and was erected by the noble family Dunca, which owned the lower part of Sârbi village. 
Sarbi Susani Church
After having scribbled an ‘M’ onto your map by the routes pursued, the journey has surely driven you closer to the history and culture of Romanian Maramureş and to the people encountered here: fixed in their convictions but extremely helpful and kind. Just like the wood.   

IF YOU GO:
  • Try horincă. It’s a strong spirit typical to the region. If you’re into ‘gadgets’, you could go and taste it in Sârbi, where it’s pouring straight from a traditional gate.
  • Drive to Baia Sprie and make the easy hike up to the Blue Lake. Its turquoise shade is unbelievable!
  • Head to Breb and trek the hills nearby for great views and an immersion into the special vibe of Maramureş.
Typical beam house in Breb

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