Fortified Churches of Romania

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Romania might bring to mind images of Dracula and Transylvania, the mountains spilling through the country, or the Black Sea, but ….fortified churches?   And what, exactly, is a fortified church?  I knew nothing about fortified churches until I began to research my trip to Romania.  I read through the Lonely Planet guidebook, curious about the history of these ancient treasures.  It struck me that these small village churches (many looking to be on the verge of ruin) had been embedded in the local landscape for centuries, surviving long enough for some to be inducted as UNESCO World Heritage sights.  Once I was able to step inside them, it was easy to be charmed and awed by what they represented, their sturdy steeples declaring their presence as we criss-crossed the region.

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Villages seemed to grow around the old fortresses over the centuries, offering a juxtapostion of old and new.

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On the first day exploring Romania with my friends, Anthony and Helene, we stopped in a quaint town in the hills, Curtea de Arges, where we explored our first ancient church, the Princely Court, and then a monastery, which happened to be surrounded by brides and their grooms on a sunny Saturday afternoon.  Families gathered under trees, cameras recording every moment.  A service was taking place in the cool calm of the church and we peeked through the doors to witness a few moments of a wedding.

And this was our journey for the next several days– an investigation of old churches built to withstand an onslaught of invaders.  We climbed bell tower after bell tower, a rickety collection of steps and failing ladders to see the views across the countryside — the villages stretching out to meet fields of green or mountains in the distance.

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Visitors were few and we had many churches to ourselves, only Helene and I witnessed the bump and curse as Anthony hit his head on low hanging beams while climbing the bell towers.

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bellBut what was most surprising was the abundance of frescoes that had survived in the churches, paintings still showing luster after centuries, portraying stories from the bible and inspiring faith in congregations.  In the cool quiet of the deserted churches, I stood and stared at the amazing art, my eyes tracing stories and looking into the timeless stares of holy men, angels, and warriors preserved until today.

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fresco1 fresco2insidedomeAlthough entering the churches would seem to be straightforward, we soon discovered the novelty of being random visitors and having to initiate another journey to seek the key.  Enter the gatekeeper, whose whereabouts were designated with a simple sign stating an address in the village. And off we would go (or rather, Helene, with a helpful command of German), to fetch the keeper of the key, our admittance into history.

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Once located, we followed the gatekeeper down the road, a formidable key in hand to open the locked fortress.  The gatekeeper would then stand to one side as we walked through, our cameras and phones directed at the art, my mouth open in astonishment at the contrast between the outside and inside.  Behind the simple stone or brick walls, there were more complex structures, often double-walls, and a view of domestic life.  Some gatekeepers lived on site and we were greeted by dogs and cats, or perhaps a flock of chickens, baby chicks scurrying after the hens looking for insects in the velvety summer grass.

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Our purchase of a simple purple “Transilvania Card” allowed entry to 50 of the medieval and fortified churches, gaining a simple nod of agreement as we presented it at each site.

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It felt like a scavenger hunt, or more appropriately, a treasure hunt, as we followed GPS from church to church, logging our conquests with photos and then moving on to the next prize, another jewel in our crown of churches.  I often stood in the quiet cool spaces, thinking of the generations of village people who had sat and worshipped in the different churches, faith in something bigger than themselves, and hope that the fortress could keep invaders at bay.

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Some fortresses had small windows, also known as “murder holes”, to look onto the encroaching enemy, allowing them to shoot arrows into the oncoming troops.  But we were more likely to see a cow wandering the yard around the fortress, concerned with eating grass, not world domination.

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At one church, we stayed in the guest house behind the church, enjoying a home cooked supper of chicken soup, goulash, bread, salad, and wine– spectacular!  As we made our way over to the church the next morning, a young girl appeared to give us a tour in German.  She talked in a slow disinterested drawl, gesturing at different parts of the church. When I asked my friend, Helene, for translation, it appeared that a good part of the speech was “I don’t know.” Mesmerizing.

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But our trip was not in vain as we discovered a small kitten trapped in a tree just outside  and were successful in locating the owner to initiate a rescue.  The kitten had been stuck in the tree all night and returned to earth cold, tired, hungry, and happy to be reunited with his mother.  His weak mews under sleepy eyes, made your heart break.

And then there were the storks – a staple in every village, nesting on towers or steeples, clacking their beaks under the summer sun.

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The wonder was partly in the journey, searching for the churches as we drove through the countryside, never knowing exactly what treasure we would find behind the walls, the sunny warmth of the day encouraging us to walk around the sacred grounds to understand a past way of life under the same sunny skies.

For more travel information, see my travel site:  www.wanderlynn.com

Copyright 2018 ©wanderlynntravel.wordpress.com; photos cannot be reproduced without permission.

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Transfăgărășan Road, Romania

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Transfăgărășan Road twists and turns

The words “road trip,” can elicit a vision of wild adventures as irresponsible youths gallivant in convertibles along backroads, creating havoc in their wake.  That is the movie version and that is not my story.  My story is somewhat more civilized (and possibly less exciting – but that was BEFORE we had a gallop through a Transylvanian forest on horseback!) as I met two friends from London in Bucharest where we rented a car and set off on our road trip, two weeks of exploring Romania.  In our case, the words “road trip” conjured a journey more reminiscent of travel before planes, a way to move from place to place, and a glorious way to experience another country, driving two-lane roads through small towns and villages.

As we drove through Romania, it felt like plunging into the heart, the local roads acting as the arteries and veins moving people to and from Bucharest, revealing the daily life in the rural areas – unleashed dogs trotting about their daily business; a grey-haired man biking along the road in slacks, a sweater, and a cap; children running from the blue house to the pink house, calling to each other in the games of youth; and women walking to the market, scarves wrapped over their heads and tied under their chins, skirts bustling through the dust.

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Dog watching sheep in a mountainside pasture

Our road trip was built on the desire to explore life on the inside.  But we still wanted to tackle one mainstream treasure, driving the sexy curves of the Transfăgărășan road… with endless views of the Carpathian mountains stretching their feet into deep valleys, greened by summer rains, and dotted with sheep. A road of twists and turns, we began at the south end, ironically next to Poenari castle holding a twisted history as a fortress of Vlad the Impaler who skewered his victims onto long poles staked into the ground as a threat and a warning to invaders.  Before commencing our drive, we started our day walking up the 1480 steps to see the historic castle, now just a deserted ruin, with impaled dummies limp in the morning heat, strategically set to greet visitors.

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Poenari Castle and Vlad the Impaler’s dummy victims

Ceaușescu built the road as a strategic military route, running from the Wallachia region through Transylvania and up to Sibiu through the Fagaras Mountains, a southern section of the Carpathians. Balea Lake marks the mid-point before descending to the northern (or southern) point, depending on your direction of travel. Some of the longest tunnels in the country punctuate the road, torn through the ancient mountain stone.

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Mountain views from the Transfăgărășan Road

We made roadside stops with other tourists, a helter-skelter assemblage of cars gathered on a barely visible shoulder, often inches from a drop into the valleys, everyone snapping views with cell phones and cameras.  The cool change in temperature was a surprise on a July day after the warmth of the car.  Roadside stands greeted us with sliced pork derivatives, and jars and jars of honey, a recurring theme in the region.  We selected ham, sausage, and fresh bread to assemble a quick snack as we continued our ascent.

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A herd of sheep camouflaged against the rocky slope

Motorcycles and their flimsy cousins, the bicyclists, chased our little car as we wound our way up and across the passes.  We climbed and climbed to reach the snow sitting on the high hills, now just a walk away instead of a view in the distance.  A waterfall crashed alongside the road, the summer melt from snow fields even higher along the rocky hills.

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We stopped at the glacial Balea Lake at the top of the mountain, surprisingly small and tucked among hotels, restaurants, and the usual entourage of tourist-enticing stands and restaurants.  Wandering into a large canopied tent, we found a lunch of roasted pork offerings – chunks of ham and racks of ribs served with pickles.  After a quick lunch, we climbed back into the Dacia, shelter from the cool and windy height, to begin our descent.  I held my breath as we seemed to hurtle down through the forests, our little car hugging the curves.  I felt the nagging sense of ancient stories, buried deep in the mountains but carried as legacy through the ghost stories of the region. I reconsidered the story of Vlad, repackaged as Dracula; was he a hero or a devil?

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Clouds drop to obscure views on the Transfăgărășan road

At last, we entered the town of Sibiu, the late afternoon sun warming the brightly painted houses adorned in oranges, yellows, greens, and blues.  A few blocks from our small inn, a large town square invited us to wander about under the shadow of the requisite old church and bell tower, wrapped in its own story of ancient graves and a diversion in faith.  Another stop to investigate history on our journey through Romania.

For more travel information, see my travel site:  www.wanderlynn.com

Copyright 2018 ©wanderlynntravel.wordpress.com; photos cannot be reproduced without permission.