The wooden churches of Maramures

The minibus that left Baia Mare at 7 am put me down at the crossroads roughly half an hour later. At this time no one along the solitary village road that goes slightly down, flanked by pretty bungalows, not too ancient-looking, but rather well tended and modern, in fact. It is quite far from the image I had prefigured when I read about Maramures being one of the last swathes of land were traditional peasant culture is still alive, not having been swept away yet by the wave of modernity that has changed Europe and the world so deeply in the last decades. These pretty houses don’t do much to evoke pristine peasant life, weren’t it that they stand in a beautiful open countryside of green fields scattered with haystacks and spring flowers. However, it seems that traditional lifestyles are still rooted in this area behind the contemporary façade of the dwellings. 

I have come here in search of two examples of wooden churches that are a highlight in this region of Romania, but the first building I see down the road baffles me. It is a rather impressive white church with two side bell towers topped by very steep roofs. It’s all white, including the roofs and it stands out in the gloomy morning air under a cloudy sky. Only after a while do I convince myself this isn’t the church I was looking for, renovated, so I walk further on.

When I see the sign pointing left, I follow a side road that takes me to the object of my quest, which I had already spotted anyway thanks to its only slender tower soaring high like a pointed needle. The remarkable church is already over 200 years old, entirely built of wood and covered by a steep two-pitch roof made of little wooden shingles more weathered where the rain hits, dry-looking under the ledges. At 8 am the church-graveyard compound is open, but the building is still barred.

I walk on to the next village, guided by the chime of church bells announcing Sunday service. This church is open and I step in. It’s divided into three parts: the first reserved to women, the second to men and the third, protected by the screen called iconostasis, is where the priest celebrates. Behind a pulpit stand three men who seem to conduct the ceremony rather than the priest, as they read, chant and accompany the outstanding passages with a husky hum of their low voices that fills the space with an awe-inspiring sound.

The priest intervenes only at given moments, reading the Gospel for instance and his voice resounds with nasal tonalities and a different pitch that makes me think of an Indian priest chanting primordial Sanskrit scriptures. At other times he comes out with an incense burner fitted with rattles that he frantically rotates spreading the fragrant smoke about the room.

I was going to leave the place and had turned my back to the altar, when I realised that in the last half hour the church had filled up with a considerable congregation. I felt a moral obligation to stay a little longer, thinking that the best was yet to come and probably wanting to feel like these people and not the occasional visitor who comes and goes.

More young people are now filling the pews. As new comers join the group, they shake hands with those around and hang their hats to the pegs on the wall. Their Sunday best attire shows an effort to look tidy, without managing to attain formal elegance. The place is all lit up with candles and electric bulbs. There are big loaves of bread on the altar and flowers; from the icons tilting out of the iconostasis hang embroidered stoles of cloth.

This is as much of a extraordinary church building as a special moment to observe the local peasant community gathered in this ancient place of worship. It is only after a full hour that I make up my mind to finally leave the wooden structure and amble back the quite long distance to the main road where the only option now to cover the remaining 65 km to Sighet is hitchhiking.