When traveling in Europe, popular types of places to visit, besides museums and castles, are the churches and cathedrals. You’ll most often find these on the itineraries of guided tours and river cruise shore excursions. The cynical may comment the reason for this is that these buildings have free admission, but then the cynical are missing out on history, great examples of unique architecture, and works of art.
Bihor Church (Image: Pixabay)
Visiting Hungary or Romania, perhaps as an extension of a river cruise from or to Budapest? Take a side trip to the world famous region of Transylvania – not for “dracula” sight seeing but for the areas’ religious structures. Here stone cathedrals, while a marvel in masonry ( one wonders how the roof is supported over the vast open spaces beneath), have an “earthy” relative – the timber church. Wood being plentiful and with locals turned craftsmen over the years, the builders fashioned unique structures for worship. Most are either Orthodox or to a lesser extent, Greek-Catholic. The art of building churches in wood – which was highly specialized – was also bolstered by the ban on the masonry construction of Orthodox churches during the time of the Catholic Austro-Hungarian rule which is why you will see more of the Orthodox religion.
Church at Sebasi (Image: Pixabay)
The region of Maramures in Transalvanian Romania has over one hundred of these wooden churches, some of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The earliest churches of wood were built in 1500’s but the practice continued until as late as the nineteenth century so there is quite a breadth of history encompassed in the timber of these buildings. Most follow the same pattern: huge roofline, small circumference but tall bell tower, unadorned, and sometimes log. These churches look like they belong to the beautiful countryside surrounding them, sprung from nature, not man-made. However, the craftsmanship to build these churches was remarkable.
Church at Reini (Image: Pixabay)
Maramures in and of itself is a region to visit if you wish to experience a flashback to earlier times with its traditional customs, dress, food, homesteads and farms. While in Maramures, as well, one should visit the village of Sapanta and its cemetery. Contrary to most cemeteries, this one celebrates life and the hereafter as joyous, and not as a dignified and sad last resting place of the departed. The tombstones are all colorfully decorated with scenes from the lives of those buried there. Local belief in a better life after death is the motivation for what is called the “merry cemetery”.
The Merry Cemetery at Sapanta (Image: Pixabay)
Aside from wooden churches you may also find fortress church compounds. In this case, church “sanctuary” in these communities certainly was not taken as a matter of course. Most of these fortified churches are found in Transylvania where smaller towns provisioned themselves against the Ottoman Empire, usually building their fortifications around the local church. If not the town center, the church would be on a hillside with wide ranging views – perfect for keeping watch for the enemy from the church’s bell tower. The construction time period for most of these churches would be medieval though many have additions from later periods in history. There are about one hundred and fifty of these churches scattered throughout the region, many in UNESCO World Heritage Site towns or villages such as Viscri.
Fortified Church at Viscri (Image: Bigstock)
Why not visit Transylvania as a pre- or post-option or an extended stay on a river cruise? Many cruises of the Danube begin or end in Budapest. Your travel professional will help you plan with hotels, transportation, transfers, and local tours.
Header and feature image of wooden church and old cemetery courtesy of Pixabay.