In the picturesque county of Maramures, north Romania, the wooden churches mingle so much with the surrounding landscape that they seem to be planted, not constructed.  Eight of these monasteries are included in the UNESCO site list due to their original design, the interior paintings and the long resistance in time.

Maramures  is the place where the wood has long been – and continues to be – the best way of the local artistic expression. Villages here are distinguished by beautiful houses with their elaborated carved wooden doors and windows. Their ability to work with wood is even better reflected in the craftsmanship of local churches. There are more than 100 wooden churches spread all over the valleys of Iza, Chioar and Lapus. Most of them were constructed in the 18th century after the invaders destroyed the old ones.

The churches of Maramures are a good example of both the architectural and crafting maturity of the people living  here. The architectonic style is the result of a matchless combination between early gothic and orthodox styles. They have tall, narrow roofs and pointed steeples; the walls were made by using horizontally placed oak trees. Another material used in their construction is fir wood. Inside the walls are decorated with paintings displaying local traditions and customs. These unique shape and adornments are often collectively described as ‘the Gothic style of Maramures’.

A wooden church in Baia Sprie. Even if new, it respects the old traditional local design. Photo by Ovidiu Balaj
A wooden church in Baia Sprie. Even if new, it respects the old traditional local design. Photo by Ovidiu Balaj

The entire community used to participate in the construction of the church. Often this would happen on the very settlement where these old oak trees were cut down to be used for the construction. The church remains until today a very important part of the rural life in Maramures, as everywhere else in Romania. Maybe this is the reason for keeping these beautiful monuments in such good conditions.

As a wooden lover myself who designed his courtyard and his house using this noble material as much as possible, I was attracted to see for myself this impressive artwork. It was Easter time when my friend and I decided to spend this Romanian celebration in a more traditional part of the country, Maramures.

After a 5 hours ride from Timisoara we arrived in the city of Baia Mare, our starting point for this trip. After a quick check-in at our guesthouse and a tasty fish at Lostrita, in Valea Neagra, we headed to Desesti, our first stop.

Just as we arrived there a wooden church caught my eye nearby the main road.

The Catholic church of Desesti. Photo by Ovidiu Balaj
The Catholic church of Desesti. Photo by Ovidiu Balaj

Convinced this should be the UNESCO church we were looking for, I stopped the car and went to have a closer look. In the courtyard at the entrance, two women were cleaning the alley and making sure everything looks good for the next day it. I was Easter and villagers were expected to come and participate at the traditional mass.

The women welcomed us with a heavily accented ‘hello’. They invited us to go inside. The church looked tiny but cozy, with white walls and colorful paintings of different religious themes. They easily approached us, as they seemed to be curious to know where we were coming from and the place we were heading to afterward. They were not used to see strangers visiting their church and they were eager to chat. That’s how I found out;I wasn’t actually in the right place; this was the Catholic’s community church and not the UNESCO orthodox one. We were given the direction to get there, but not before we were told to join them the next day. On that day, at noon every Catholic in the village, some from the surroundings villages, expected at the church dressed up in the traditional costume. They would bring homemade cakes, boiled painted eggs and celebrate Easter with a small feast in the church’s yard, just after the mass.

Their invitation was tempting, as I felt it was coming from someone who genuinely wanted to share their traditions and customs. We couldn’t say no, even though our travel arrangement included a different route.

This is the Orthodox church of Desesti, listed on the UNESCO site. Photo by Ovidiu Balaj
This is the Orthodox church of Desesti, listed on the UNESCO site. Photo by Ovidiu Balaj

After saying our goodbyes we headed to the Orthodox church. This one is situated in the vicinity of the Catholic one, a bit outside of the main road. There, we first noticed a wooden gate at the entrance of a cemetery and a narrow alley that was leading up to the church.

Photo by Ovidiu Balaj
Photo by Ovidiu Balaj

There was no visiting fee but he said we could make a donation if we want. He even offered us a bit of guidance and he talked about the church’s history, and the paintings depicting scenes from the village’s daily life in its prime.

The entrance door of the church. Photo by Ovidiu Balaj
The entrance door of the church. Photo by Ovidiu Balaj

The young men also pointed to a painting of naked women who were supposed to be prostitutes. I noticed a tremble in his voice when pronouncing that word and he appeared uncomfortable in his position as a ‘temporary guide’. But he actually did a good job actually, especially when he put it this way: “If you are keen to see some local traditional costumes, I invite you to my parent’s house. We are about to try on the wardrobe for tomorrow’s mass.”

Details of the old paintings Photo by Ovidiu Balaj
Details of the old paintings Photo by Ovidiu Balaj
Photo by Ovidiu Balaj
Photo by Ovidiu Balaj

The priest’s house was just a few meters away. There was a joyous woman seemingly ageless and two shy girls curious to see the strangers who knock at their door. I didn’t imagine she could be the priest’s wife, so colorfully dressed and talkative she was. I was even more surprised when someone else showed up: a smiley man in his 40, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, who looked more like a plumber than a priest; yet, he was the one.

The gate of the priest's yard. Photo by Ovidiu Balaj
The gate of the priest's yard. Photo by Ovidiu Balaj

“The heavy storm felt earlier today and it caused some damages at the roof that is currently under renovation”, the woman said. She barely finished these words when an electric light exploded, scaring all the ladies in the house which simultaneously screamed. It was followed by a collective laugh of relieve. Then the priest’s son continued his tour by introducing us to the artwork displayed on the house’s walls; those were paintings made by kids in the summer camp that was organized there each year by the priest’s NGO. We were also introduced to the local traditional costumes for men and women that are worn by the villagers for important local celebrations. The smallest of the girls even tried on the costume she supposed to wear the following day at the Easter mass. She was looking adorable…

Photo by Ovidiu Balaj
Photo by Ovidiu Balaj

Before leaving and saying goodbye to this nice family, we got ourselves invited again for the Easter mass next day. Our schedule seemed to become busier and I was wondering why it took me so long to come and meet these friendly and beautiful people of Maramures…

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