Monday, April 21, 2014

Amazing Architecture # 3 - Pustevny, Czech Republic

Pustevny is a hilltop ensemble of gingerbread-style folk buildings in the Valašsko region of the Czech Republic close to the border with Slovakia. The surrounding Beskyd mountains are popular with hikers in the summer and skiers in the winter, and there is a chairlift in operation to carry visitors up the mountain to the village.

The buildings were designed by Slovak architect Dušan Jurkovič and constructed together with local Moravian master builder Michal Urbánek in the 1890's, drawing upon traditional Slavic folk art and building styles of the Valašsko region and the Carpathian Mountains. The final appearance of the buidlings also incorporates elements of the Art Nouveau style which was prominent at that time. Construction began in 1897 and was completed in 1899. Jurkovič also designed several other wooden buildings with a classical Slavic folk style in the present-day Czech Republic, such as the spa buildings in Luhačovice or the covered bridge in the castle gardens in Nové Město nad Metují.

The two most famous buildings in Pustevny are named Libušín and Maměnka, and they sit side by side together on top of the hill. Maměnka houses accommodation and has a wooden interior decorated in a similar style to the exterior, with traditional expressions and sayings painted on the walls.

Libušín is a restaurant serving traditional Wallachian and Moravian dishes. The name of Libušín comes from the legendary Czech princess Libuše. The interior of Libušín is decorated with beautiful frescoes designed by Mikoláš Aleš based on Wallach and Slovak folk legends. Art Nouveau-style chandeliers add a further touch of elegance to the dining room.

Another famous feature of the architectural collection at Pustevny is a small bell tower which stands near the trail head for the climb to the top of Radhošť mountain. The tower was designed by Jurkovič in the same distinctive Wallachian style as the other buildings and is a valuable example of Slavic folk art.

Further up the hill towards the summit of Radhošť there is a stone statue of the Slavic pagan god Radegast, while at the highest point there is a wooden chapel dedicated to Saints Cyril and Methodius, the patron saints of Moravia. Several festivals and special events take place in Pustevny each year, with the Snow Sculpture competition held in January among the most popular.

On 3 March 2014 a large fire in Pustevny caused extensive damage to the folk cottage called Libušín. The open air museum in Rožnov pod Radhoštěm declared that it was committed to rebuilding Libušín as faithfully as possible according to the original design. This project was expected to cost tens of millions of Czech Crowns and a fund for public donations was established. Benefit concerts were also held to get the funding campaign started.

There are several ways to get to Pustevny depending on the direction you approach it from. A road up the mountain from the southern side ends with a parking area just below Pustevny, and several buses per day run to the village from the nearby town and regional tourist hub of Rožnov pod Radhoštěm. Hiking trails also lead from the eastern end of Rožnov pod Radhoštěm to the summit of Radhošť mountain and onwards to Pustevny. For those who prefer a relaxed trip to the top there is a chairlift in operation in both winter and summer which connects Pustevny with the village of Trojanovice at the base of the mountain on the north side.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Day Trips From Lviv, Ukraine - The Top 25 Destinations

Lviv is a gorgeous city of cobbled squares and laneways to wander in for a few days. Its crumbling buildings from the days of Austro-Hungary wouldn't look out of place in Krakow or Prague, but the absence of tourists in the old Galician capital lends it an authenticity which neither of those cities can offer nowadays. Beyond the historic centre there are two more worthwhile sights in the outskirts, the Lviv Outdoor Folk Architecture Museum and the highly atmospheric Lychakiv cemetery. There are also many attractive historic towns, monasteries, castles and wooden churches within range of a day trip by public transport. Natural attractions with potential for hiking lie to the south in the forested foothills of the Carpathian mountains. This list includes the top twenty-five day trips to make in the surrounding countryside of Lviv region, ranked in order of their general tourist appeal. The so-called "Golden Horseshoe" route, with a name which is reminiscent of Moscow's "Golden Ring" of historic towns, includes Olesko castle, Pidhirtsi castle and Zolochiv castle, which are among the most popular day trip destinations for tour groups. All of these destinations can be reached by train, bus or marshrutka with a little effort, so go ahead and try exploring a bit further afield.

1. Pochayiv Monastery - One of the finest monasteries in Ukraine, and the most important monastery of the Orthodox church in the western part of the country. It rivals the Pechersk monastery in Kyiv in size and historical significance. Since the monastery lies more than 100 kilometres east of Lviv this is a fairly long day trip by bus or marshrutka, but is certainly worth the effort to see one of the region's best attractions.

2. Zhovkva - This historic town to the north of Lviv boasts a castle, a historic central square and town centre packed with centuries-old churches, and a UNESCO-listed wooden church at the edge of town. This is one of the easiest day trips from Lviv and among the most enjoyable. Arriving by marshrutka is the fastest and easiest method.

3. Olesko Castle - This 14th-century hilltop castle east of Lviv forms part of the "Golden Horseshoe" sightseeing route and is one of the most visited castles in Lviv region.

4. Zolochiv Castle - This 17th-century castle (though it looks more like a palace) lies 60 kilometres east of Lviv. The Chinese Palace within the castle grounds is particularly impressive.

5. Ivano-Frankivsk - This city to the south of Lviv features a collection of architectural gems from its long history, including many buildings from the Austro-Hungarian period. The city's cathedral, Armenian church and unusual town hall are among the most impressive sights.

6. Lutsk - This historic city to the north-east of Lviv has an old town centre with many impressive churches and cathedrals and a large castle complex.

7. Pidhirtsi Castle - This 17th-century castle (though like Zolochiv castle it looks more like a palace) lies to the east of Lviv not far from Olesko castle.

8. Kremenets - A hilltop castle ruin and historic centre with many Orthodox churches and a monastery are the main draws in this town to the north-east of Lviv. Many people try to combine a visit here with Pochayiv monastery, though it would be ambitious to try to see both in a day by public transport.

9. Drohobych - This town south of Lviv features a clutch of Austro-Hungarian buildings, but its main attractions are its two outstanding wooden churches, including one with UNESCO heritage listing.

10. Tustan Rock Fortress - A castle stronghold which was carved out of towering sandstone rock outcrops near the village of Urych, to the south of Lviv near the town of Boryslav. This is one of the best natural attractions near Lviv and offers good hiking in the surrounding forested hills.

11. Univ Monastery - The only Lavra monastery of the Greek Catholic church in Ukraine. Its large white defensive walls surround a church, bell tower and ecclesiastical buildings. It lies in the village of Univ, which is 40 kilometres east of Lviv.

12. Svirzh Castle - A 15th-century fortified residence which is surrounded by a series of lakes which once helped to defend it from attack. This is a relatively easy day trip since the castle lies just 35 kilometres south-east of Lviv near the town of Bibrka.

13. Krekhiv Monastery - A 16th-century fortified Basilian monastery found to the north of Lviv near the town of Zhovkva.

14. Stare Selo castle - The sprawling ruins of this 17th-century castle lie in Stare Selo village, less than 20 kilometres south-east of Lviv.

15. Dovbush Rock Fortress - A fortress carved out of the tall sandstone rock outcrops near the village of Bubnyshche, lying to the south of the city of Stryi, near the town of Bolekhiv. Legends claim that this was once the hideout of the Carpathian outlaw Oleksa Dovbush.

16. Rozhirche Cave Monastery - A monastery in caves carved out of the rock of a hillside. Monks dug the series of tunnels and rooms between the 13th and 16th centuries. The village of Rozhirche is south of Lviv close to the Dovbush Rock Fortress, and both can be combined into a single day trip (if travelling by car).

17. Sambir - A historic small town to the south-west of Lviv near the Polish border, with several beautiful old churches.

18. Rohatyn - This small town to the south-east of Lviv contains a very impressive UNESCO-listed wooden church.

19. Mount Parashka - This is the highest point in the Skole Beskids National Park at 1268 metres. The trail to the top makes for a very scenic day hike through mountain meadows full of wild flowers in the summer.

20. Truskavets - This picturesque spa town to the south of Lviv contains many 19th-century Austro-Hungarian buildings. The many wooden villas surround the source of fourteen mineral water springs.

21. Zymne Monastery - This is a 13th-century fortified Orthodox monastery to the north of Lviv. The thick walls, battlements and towers which surround the complex once provided formidable defensive capabilities.

22. Potelych - A small village with a UNESCO-listed wooden church near the Polish border to the north-west of Lviv.

23. Pidkamin Monastery - This 17th-century fortified monastery lies east of Lviv in the village of Pidkamin. The village takes its name ('Pidkamin' means 'Below the Rock') from the huge boulder on the hilltop at the edge of the settlement.

24. Belz - A 17th-century wooden church can be seen in this town to the north-west of Lviv near the Polish border.

25. Berestechko - A collection of historic churches dominate this small town to the north-east from Lviv.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Day Trips from Lublin, Poland - The Top 5 Destinations

Lublin is a rare thing in Poland these days, an attractive historical city which has yet to be fully discovered by foreign tourists. The hilly cobbled streets of the old town are full of colourful building facades and outdoor cafes, while medieval gate towers and an unusual castle complex add to the picturesque skyline. On the outskirts of the city are two more tourist draws, the Majdanek WW2 concentration camp to the south and the outdoor folk architecture museum to the west. Both can be easily reached using local city buses. Beyond the city limits lie a number of worthwhile day trip destinations, and with many enjoyable restaurants and pubs Lublin makes a nice place to settle into as a base for several days. These are five of the best options for exploring outside Lublin, featuring a star rating out of five stars. The photos shown here feature, from top to bottom, Lublin, Zamość and Kazimierz Dolny.

**** Zamość - This UNESCO heritage-listed town is a perfect renaissance planned settlement, with walls and fortifications surrounding narrow streets and the showpiece old town square. Buses and minibuses depart from Lublin's main bus station and take 1 hour 30 minutes to 1 hour 45 minutes. Only a few trains per day go to and from Zamość so it isn't a very convenient way to get there, and they also take longer, 2 hours 10 minutes on average.

**** Kazimierz Dolny - This is one of the prettiest small towns in all of Poland, with a postcard-perfect central square of stone and wood buildings. Castles and churches are placed very picturesquely on the surrounding hilltops, and there are plenty of places to get a proper Polish meal after a lengthy stroll. If you decide to stay overnight here (many people do) don't miss crossing the river to see the castle in the neighbouring village of Janowiec, it makes a nice cycling trip. Bicycles are available for rent from several different businesses in the town. Buses and minibuses run regularly from Lublin's main bus station, taking 1 hour 10 minutes.

*** Kozłówka Palace and Socialist-Realist Art Gallery - The baroque palace is impressive enough, but the real reason to visit is for the gallery of socialist-realist art in the former horse stables. Buses and minibuses depart from Lublin's main bus station and take between 1 hour and 1 hour 15 minutes. Some buses are direct, others will require a change of buses in the small town of Lubartów.

** Chełm - This town near the Ukrainian border has a hilltop basilica and a few other historical buildings of note, but the real attraction is the city's underground chalk tunnels from the middle ages. Guides will lead you through the shafts and chambers by candlelight, and you can expect some chills when the resident ghost makes an appearance. Buses and minibuses depart regularly from Lublin's main bus station and take 1 hour and 15 minutes. Trains depart Lublin main station several times daily and take 1 hour 25 minutes.

** Pułavy Palace - This baroque palace complex to the north-west of Lublin features rooms packed with grand furniture and fittings, and outside there are impressive landscaped gardens. Buses and minibuses from Lublin main bus station take between 50 minutes and 1 hour, and several trains go directly to Puławy daily taking 35 minutes.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Wooden Churches of the Carpathian Mountains # 32 - Uzhok, Ukraine

This small church, found in a remote corner of the Carpathian highlands of Ukraine, was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2013 together with fifteen other tserkvas in Ukraine and Poland. The village of Uzhok lies in the Uzhok pass, the highest pass in this part of the Carpathians and one of the most scenic locations in Transcarpathian Ukraine. The church is one of the most famous in the region and often features in tourism and other promotional materials as a symbol of Transcarpathian Ukraine.
The church was built in the Boyko style in 1745 and dedicated to Saint Michael. Supposedly the church was originally placed higher up the slope of the hill, but it was moved down nearer to the road because it was difficult for elderly villagers to walk up the incline. The architectural proportions of this church make it one of the most perfect examples of the Boyko style of architecture. The large triple-layered roof above the nave stands above the smaller single-layered roof of the narthex and the double-layered sanctuary roof. The shape of the tower above the narthex is similar to that of churches in the Lemko style found a little further to the west in the Carpathians.
The brightly coloured interior has had several modern additions to its fittings and decorations, but still has a pleasing appearance overall. The 18th-century iconostasis has luckily been only slightly altered from its original appearance. The elegant windows with white framing are not an original feature and were added during a later renovation. The church exterior is covered in a dark coating of oil stain to protect the wood, and this has led to the church being referred to locally as 'the little black ship'.
Standing next to the church is a wooden bell tower, though its roof and upper walls are now covered in metal rather than wooden shingles. During World War One the government of Austro-Hungary (the state to which Uzhok belonged at that time) had the bells from the bell tower removed and melted down for military use. On the slope above the church is the village cemetery, with many older graves overgrown by grasses and trees.
The village of Uzhok is most easily reached by train, since there are several regional trains daily from Uzhhorod which run directly there. A few trains daily also continue onwards to Lviv to the north. There are a couple of buses and marshrutkas which run to the village daily from Uzhhorod, but the timing of the trains is more convenient to make a comfortable day trip. Just before arriving at the platform for Uzhok the train crosses a spectacular rail bridge across the valley, offering excellent views in all directions.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Wooden Churches of the Carpathian Mountains # 31 - Ruský Potok, Slovakia

This small Orthodox church stands on a raised patch of ground in the centre of the village of Ruský Potok in the far northeast corner of Slovakia. The forested hills of the Poloniny National Park surround the village on three sides, and sections of the UNESCO-listed Beech Forests of the Carpathians site are also nearby.
The church was built in 1740 and dedicated to Michael the Archangel as a Greek Catholic church. Since the year 2000 it has been used by the local Orthodox church community, though services are only held on religious holidays and special occasions.
The church contains a three-section floor plan (narthex, nave and sanctuary) on an east-west axis which is typical of Greek Catholic churches found in this region. The church was built on a low stone foundation to enhance its durability.
Next to the church is a small bell tower which contains three bells. The bell tower is not part of the original church plan and was built only in 1956. The three bells it contains were originally housed in the belfry in the tower above the narthex of the church. The tower features a series of small windows, which is a unique feature among the churches found in this region.
The iconostasis in the church likely dates from the eighteenth century. Due to the narrow space available in the small nave, the icons on the far left and right are placed on the side walls at a ninety degree angle to the rest of the iconostasis. This is another very unusual feature which does not appear in any of the other churches in this region.
The church was originally surrounded by a stone wall with two entrance gates, though at present there is a wooden fence with one entrance gate leading down towards the village square. A modern church has been built within the same grounds as the original wooden church.
Ruský Potok is very difficult to reach by public transport, since no buses run to the village and just a few buses per day pass along the Snina - Ulič road four kilometres to the south. The road into the village from the Snina - Ulič main road is paved and fine for access by car or bicycle. There is a blue-marked hiking trail over the hills connecting the villages of Topoľa, Ruský Potok and Uličské Krivé, and since all three villages contain wooden churches this route makes a nice one day trek.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Top 15 Travel Destinations in Latvia

Latvia has seen a steadily increasing flow of western tourists since it joined the European Union in 2004, but almost ninety percent of visitors still never get beyond Riga, the flamboyant capital and largest city. This means the rest of the country is still largely unexplored and just waiting to be discovered by those prepared to venture a little further afield. Distances are relatively small, and there are many worthwhile destinations within day trip distance of Riga by public transport. For those intent on exploring the countryside the tranquil town of Sigulda and the Gauja valley national park is an obvious starting point with crumbling castle ruins to clamber on and sporty outdoor activities galore, while windy Cape Kolka is the best place to find your own stretch of Baltic beachfront to go for a stroll. For those eager to get a taste of Latvia's Soviet past there are several top sites, particularly the Irbene radio telescope and the 'hotel' located in a former KGB prison in Liepaja.
1. Riga - As the biggest city in the Baltic states Riga draws plenty of tourists with its photogenic good looks. The assortment of medieval and art nouveau architecture will have you straining your neck skywards trying to take it all in with a camera lens. Heaps of cultural attractions and museums could keep you busy here for weeks, while the gastronomic scene is constantly evolving with flashy new restaurants opening at a hectic pace. Give Riga at least a few days to rub off on you, but then hop on a bus and go and see the rest of the country, you won't regret it!

2. Sigulda - A lovely historic town with castles overlooking the Gauja valley and walking trails to caves along the valley floor. Thrill seekers can try out the Olympic-standard bobsleigh track in a real bobsleigh for a cool rush in the winter, or in a wheeled model in the summer months.

3. Jurmala - The main beach resort in Latvia with long sandy beaches which draw sun seekers from nearby Riga. The many art-nouveau wooden houses that line the main boulevards are another prime attraction to take a peek at after getting sand between your toes.

4. Cesis - Often called 'The Most Latvian Town', Cesis has a picturesque collection of old wooden houses surrounding a 13th-century castle in its historic quarter. Close proximity to attractions in the Guaja Valley National Park make Cesis a good base for exploring the area.

5. Rundale Palace - A baroque palace designed by Rastrelli in the 1730's, which today is one of the grandest palace complexes in the Baltic states. Its location near the southern border makes it a convenient stopover for those heading south from Riga into Lithuania.

6. Cape Kolka and the northern Kurzeme coast - A beautiful and desolate stretch of wind-battered coastline which fills with swimmers and sunbathers during the summer months. The small villages of the Kurzeme coast are full of rustic wooden cottages, fishing nets, and the smell of smoked fish. Learn about the Livs and the endangered Livonian language, a small ethnic group found in this region.

7. Kuldiga - This is one of the most attractive small towns in Latvia, boasting narrow streets and 17th and 18th century wooden buildings. The town's other claim to fame is for having the widest waterfall in Europe, though don't be expecting a mighty torrent cascading down a mountainside.

8. Ventspils - This busy port has done well for itself economically in the past two decades and as a result its historic centre has been spruced up considerably. The city draws summer visitors to nearby beaches and water parks, and the waterfront also features an outdoor maritime museum. The city's castle of the Livonian order also contains a fascinating museum on the history of the region.

9. Irbene Soviet radio telescope - For those interested in cold war history, this should be an essential stop. Once upon a time this was a Soviet radar station used to spy on western communications transmissions, and today it is used by Latvian astronomers to study the universe. Guided tours of the facility can be arranged, including the chance to climb up near the giant dish.

10. Liepaja - This coastal city is the third largest urban centre in Latvia and its central streets feature an array of art nouveau buildings. Latvians think of Liepaja as a great place to let their hair down and have a good time, and its series of summer events and music festivals are a popular draw with visitors from across the country. Stay for a night in the former KGB prison in the suburb of Karosta for an uncomfortable taste of reality tourism.

11. Ligatne Soviet nuclear bunker - This cold war site is found halfway between Sigulda and Cesis, and can be easily combined into a day trip to these towns from Riga. The bunker was intended to house the leaders of the Latvian communist party in the event of a nuclear attack, and today it has been preserved in its original appearance for visitors to see.

12. Salaspils - This World War Two concentration camp just outside Riga is a sombre reminder of the thousands of Jews who died here during the Nazi occupation.

13. Talsi - This tiny town is worth a brief stop on the way north towards Cape Kolka. The hills surrounding the town are a rarity in this part of the Baltics and add a backdrop to the set of cobbled streets and handful of historic houses.

14. Kemeri National Park - This park just west of Jurmala features small fishing villages with bog land and forests in the interior. It is best known for mud baths and mineral water treatments at the park's spa resort.

15. Tukums - A few kilometres from this small town in Kurzeme region is one of the country's most-visited attractions (at least by Latvians), a theme park historic town called "Cinevilla" which was constructed for a movie made in 2004.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Wooden Churches of the Carpathian Mountains # 30 - Hărnicești, Romania

This Orthodox church stands on a small forest-covered hill in the village of Hărnicești in the Maramures region of northwestern Romania. It was built in 1770 on the site of an older monastery, and was dedicated to the Birth of the Virgin Mary. It is close to several other wooden churches in the Mara valley such as the one in the neighbouring village of Desești.
The church has a very irregular design when compared to other nearby churches in the region, and this is the result of a series of restorations and additions which have occurred through the centuries. In the original design the tower of the church was considerably taller than it is today and the length of the nave was several metres shorter. The first major changes were made in 1893 when a newly enlarged narthex (entrance room) was added on to the end of the nave, and when the old interior wall between the nave and the original narthex was removed the nave was also enlarged in size.
In 1911 a porch was added on the southern side of the nave with an extension made to the roof line with wooden pillars added to support the weight. The original decorated entrance portal on the western side was moved to the southern side to form part of the new entrance area. In 1942 the original iconostasis was replaced with a larger modern one, and in 1972 the tower was moved from its position above the end of the nave to a new position above the extended narthex.
The interior contains several valuable icons, the finest of which are 'Ascension to Heaven', 'The Annunciation' and 'Entry into Jerusalem'. These icons have been displayed internationally as part of touring exhibitions of Romanian folk art. The rest of the interior is not particularly memorable, so the local villagers have compensated for this by decorating the church both inside and out with white scarves and colourful flower arrangements attached to the eaves.
The addition of the bright scarves and wildflowers adds much to the overall impression given by the church, since these decorations are not seen in such abundance on other churches in the region. Around the exterior walls of the church below the eaves are the framed pictures of the Stations of the Cross which are used by worshippers during religious services. On the southern exterior wall of the nave there is a 'clapper', a wooden board which is struck to create a high-pitched sound which traditionally would have called the villagers to masses. A decorative wooden cross with a shingled roof covering it can be seen beside the pathway on the way up to the church from the entrance gate by the road.
The village of Hărnicești is directly on the main road between Sighetu Marmației and Baia Mare, so a number of buses pass through daily. Sighet is a good place to use as a base for exploring the region of Maramures and it has good onward transport connections by train and bus to other parts of the country. There is also a border crossing to Ukraine just north of the city if you would like to see some of the wooden churches in the neighbouring Zakarpattya region.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Wooden Churches of the Carpathian Mountains # 29 - Hunkovce, Slovakia

This photogenic Greek-Catholic church stands on a small hill next to the road in the village of Hunkovce in north-east Slovakia. There are Rusyn wooden churches in nearly every village between the town of Svidník and the Polish border, but Hunkovce's church is the only one which can be easily seen from the main road while driving past. The church was built at the very end of the 18th century, probably in 1799, and was dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin Mary.
The church has a perfect Lemko design plan, with the tallest of three towers above the narthex (entrance area), the middle one above the nave and the lowest above the sanctuary. Each of the towers features intricately detailed onion domes with large ornamented metal crosses in Baroque style placed above. The wooden structure of the building sits on a low stone foundation layer to protect it from water seepage from the ground.
There is a small Greek-Catholic cemetery on the hill surrounding the church, with several cast-iron cross markers that date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The small shingle-roofed entrance gate beside the road is all that remains of the traditional wooden fence which once surrounded both the church and cemetery.
The village of Hunkovce saw heavy fighting in the battle for the nearby Dukla Pass in 1944; most of the houses in the settlement were destroyed, and the church suffered extensive damage to the roof and walls. It was later repaired and named a National Heritage Landmark building in 1968. At the southern end of the village there is a large World War Two German military cemetery with the graves of more than 2000 German soldiers who fought in the battle.
In 2010 the exterior of the church was fully reconstructed with new wooden siding and roof shingles (these photos were taken a few months before the restoration). The church is empty and has no interior fittings because the iconostasis and icons were removed and placed in museums in Bardejov and Svidník. No religious services are held here, since there is a modern Greek-Catholic church across the road which serves this purpose for the local villagers. If you'd still like to see the inside of the wooden church, try to find the local priest who is often in the modern church across the road.
Hunkovce is one of the easiest churches to visit in Svidník region because it is directly on the main road to the Polish border and many buses travel along this route daily. The bus from Svidník takes about 20 minutes to reach the village, and it is another 25 minutes from there to the border. After crossing the border on foot, Polish buses run from the border to the towns of Dukla and Krosno. Svidník isn't very aesthetically pleasing, but it is the most convenient place to use as a base when visiting the wooden churches in this region, and the town also has a superb outdoor folk museum and the Ukrainian-Rusyn Cultural Museum.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Wooden Churches of the Carpathian Mountains # 28 - Sat Șugatag, Romania

This beautiful church stands in the centre of the village of Sat Șugatag, located in the Mara river valley in Romania's north-eastern Maramures region. Nearly every village in this part of Maramures has a historic church, but the one in Sat Șugatag is among the most impressive structures to have been built by the skilled Maramures craftsmen. The date of the construction of the church is thought to be 1642, and it is dedicated to Saint Parasceva.
The interior contains fragments of the original mural paintings from 1753, but most of the painted decorations are more recent. The narthex (entrance area) has a higher ceiling than is typically seen in Maramures churches, and on its western side there is an impressive image of the Last Judgement. The well-proportioned nave is shaped like a barrel vault and is decorated with 19th century paintings. The sanctuary also has biblical scenes which are painted directly onto the wooden walls.
The frame for the front door is lavishly decorated with braided rope designs and a series of interlocking triangles, which is a common folk design in the Maramures region. Braided ropes start on both sides of the door and continue right around the full length of the church, about one and a half metres above the ground (see the fifth picture from the top).
The double set of eaves and the huge mass of wooden shingles on the roof surface draw the viewer's eye to the end of the roof lines, where there are two small metal crosses affixed. The height of the tower and the steeple is considerably less than that of some other churches in the region, but the overall proportions of the building create a pleasantly balanced effect. Around the exterior walls under the lower set of eaves there are a series of framed pictures attached which are used as the Stations of the Cross during religious services (see the picture below).
A cemetery surrounds the church on three sides, with grave markers from many different eras and in a variety of styles. Most are made of carved wood (see below) and some are shaped like crosses while others are closer in appearance to those in the famous Merry Cemetery in Sapanta with a painted picture of the person going about their daily activities and a short poem describing them.
A typical wooden Maramures entrance gate stands in front of the church, with two side doorways for visitors. The designs carved into the beams of the gate include crosses and other traditional Romanian folk patterns. Such monumental gates are also built in front of people's homes in the region, and the larger and more impressive the gate the greater the status of the family who lives there.
Visiting Sat Șugatag and other Maramures villages with wooden churches can be difficult without your own transport, so hiring a car in Cluj-Napoca or Sighetu Marmetiei is advisable if you want to visit several of them quickly. Sat Șugatag is on the main road between Baia Mare and Sighetu Marmetiei, so there are a few buses per day which pass through in each direction. Sighetu Marmatiei is connected by train with Cluj-Napoca and the rest of the country and also makes a good base for exploring the region of Maramures. It is also a border crossing point into Ukraine, where many more wooden churches can be seen in the villages of the Zakarpattya region.