A tour to any foreign country should include a tour of its places of worship, for religious or cultural purposes -- or simply because they tend to be the most beautiful and well-preserved buildings.
I've seen stunning mosques in Turkey, a Spanish cathedral in Ecuador, Buddhist temples in Thailand, and the jaw-dropping scale of St. Peter's in Rome.
But in all my travels, no churches have moved me as much as the humble glory of Romania's Christian churches.
From the Black Church of Brasov to the hewn oak Basilica of Gabriel and Michael in Maramures, Romanian churches exemplify a lot of "ests" -- the world's tallest wooden church, the largest Gothic cathedral east of Vienna, the largest pipe organ in Romania and the largest collection of Turkish rugs outside Turkey. There are fortified churches, churches wearing their frescoes on the outside, and one church with a cemetery so unique it draws visitors from around the world.
Romania is a highly religious country, with a 92% Christian population. Of those, around 85% are
Romanian or Greek Orthodox, 5% are Roman Catholic and 4% Protestant. There is also a small Muslim population and a smattering of the "irreligious" and other denominations, though Romanians are highly tolerant of outside religious beliefs, and the country itself is secular.
On our first full day in Romania, we were driving through the countryside of Maramures, insisting our guide stop every mile or so so we could snap photos of sheep. I asked a weathered old shepherd if I could take a picture of him and his flock. He nodded and laughed and after I thanked him, he replied with the valediction "Dumnezeu sa te pazeasca!" which our guide translated as "God watch over you." Romanian peoples' spiritual beliefs imbue their everyday lives.
Aside from their role in spiritual life, Romania's churches also serve as cultural museums, offering a glimpse into the country's history and traditions. Romania's Saxon history, the influence of the Reformation, and the vision of Romania's most powerful rulers all have shaped the architecture of the country's spiritual landscape.
Because churches and Christianity are such a large part of the experience of Romanian culture, I'll break this subject into a couple of posts so that I can go into greater detail about the different styles, eras and inspirations for these world-reknowned structures.
THE WOODEN CHURCHES OF MARAMURES
Maramures, a bucolic region in northern Romania, is truly a land of the woods, and is known for its iconic wooden gates, carvings and woodworking craftsmanship. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in its wooden churches.
Shortly after our encounter with the friendly shepherd, we stopped at our first church, the Basilica of Gabriel and Michael in the village of Surdesti. One of eight wooden churches in the region that are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites, this masterpiece was, for over two centuries, the tallest wooden church in the world, with a 54 meter spire (only recently surpassed by Romania's Sapanta Peri Monastery).
Built by local carpenters in 1721, this Greek Catholic church was crafted from mountain oak, with hand-shaved pine shingles, masterful construction, and the region's well-known woodcarving artistry.
Nearly every inch of the interior is covered with vivid, folk/baroque-style murals. But by far my favorite feature of this humble yet glorious country church is the woolen rugs and warm blankets draped on its wooden benches. (The area is also known for its wool production.)
Winters might be frigid in northern Romania, but the body and spirit would find warmth within the walls of its churches.
Our second stop was the Romanian Orthodox church of Santa Parascheva in the village of Desesti.
While its steeple isn't technically as impressive as the Basilica of Gabriel and Michael, the church makes up for it with beautifully intact interior paintings, including its fearsome depiction of the Final Judgement and the River of Fire.
The vibrant murals, by Romanian painter Radu Manteanu, are one of the reasons that this church is UNESCO-listed, and have been described as naive in style, but spontaneous and sincere.
In this northern part of the country, much of the population still lives off the land and adheres to traditional practices, and the wooden churches of Maramures reflect this in every beam.
The Barsana Monastery was one of the prettiest religious complexes we visited. The complex holds a nunnery, gardens, a summer altar, and a newer wooden church. Built in the traditional manner between 1993 and 1995, it illustrates the region's respect for its traditional religious culture.
THE MERRY CEMETERY OF SAPANTA
The woodworking craftsmanship of Maramures reaches a delightful peak at the "Merry" Cemetery, the graveyard of the Church of the Assumption in the small village of Sapanta.
The colorfully cheerful cemetery was the inspiration of cross builder, Stanywan Patrosch, who began incorporating poems and symbolic colors into his crosses in 1935. This viewpoint of celebrating a person's life, rather than their loss, is rooted in the region's historically Dacian culture, and is what inspired Patrosch to begin carving epitaphs of the deceased into his wooden tombstones.
Each carved oak cross bears a few verses on the person at rest, and perhaps some of their worldy pursuits (and in some cases, vices). On the other side, a representation of how they passed to the other side. The crosses are painted in symbolic colors, including the signature Saponta blue, which represents heaven.
While the cemetery is full of whimsy and wonder, there are also colorfully-illustrated portraits of lives tragically taken too soon.
Patrosch carved over 800 of the cemetery's colorful crosses, and passed away in 1977 (after carving his own epitaph, of course). His legacy is now carried on by his one-time apprentice, Dumitru Pop, who also operates Patrosch's house as a studio and museum.
To befit the optimistic message of the "Merry Cemetery," the cemetery's church, Our Lady of the Assumption, was recently renovated to glorious effect. Originally built in 1886, its once-simple exterior is now adorned with mosaics of traditional motifs, and its interior glows with colorful frescoes.