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