The Goulash Train - Central and Eastern Europe Adventure Travel
This blog provides articles, photos and ideas for travel to off-the-beaten-path sights in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Caucasus based on my personal travel experiences while living and working in Russia, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic over the past ten years.
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.
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.
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.
This newly restored church stands in the centre of the small village of Tročany, located south of Bardejov in eastern Slovakia. Research conducted during the past few years has confirmed that the church is much older than had been previously thought; samples taken from its wooden beams were tested and the date of its construction was found to be the end of the 15th century or the first years of the 16th century. This puts it into the same age bracket as the Roman Catholic church in Hervartov, previously believed to be the oldest surviving wooden church in Slovakia. It is among the oldest Greek-Catholic wooden churches in the entire Carpathian mountain region.
Dedicated to Luke the Holy Apostle and Evangelist, the church has a standard Greek-Catholic floor plan with a sanctuary, nave and narthex (entrance area). Above the entrance porch there is a bell tower topped with a very unusually shaped cap which looks like a candle extinguisher. A similarly shaped cap sits above the central nave, while the sanctuary has no cap or steeple attached. The bell tower contains two bells which are still in regular use during religious services. At the top of the cap of the bell tower is a simple double-barred cross, while the cap above the nave has a more decorative single-barred cross.
The interior contains a restored iconostasis from the 17th century, though it is missing some of its original features. Instead of the typical Last Supper scene placed above the middle Czar door there is the Mandilion, a picture of the face of Christ on a cloth without a crown of thorns. In the sanctuary the altar is decorated with an 18th century icon depicting the Descent from the Cross, while the preparatory table in the corner has an icon of Saint Michael the Archangel. There are small windows on the right-hand side of both the nave and the sanctuary which allow some natural light to enter.
Today the church is used by both Greek Catholics and Roman Catholics, so the interior contains some modern Roman Catholic fittings which thankfully do not detract from the beauty of the older Greek Catholic artifacts. The church has undergone several renovations throughout its history, with major work carried out in 1897, 1933 and 1968. In 2010 and 2011 the church was completely restored both inside and out with funding provided by the European Regional Development Fund as part of a cross-border project to promote economic growth and cooperation between south-eastern Poland and north-eastern Slovakia.
The key for the church is kept by a family which lives at the opposite end of the village; if you are standing at the church go left along the road, pass the turning point for the road out to the main highway, continue up the slight incline of the hill and the house is on the right, the second house past the village office. You need to open their front gate and walk up and knock on the door on the right side of the house. The family are used to opening the church every day for visitors and are very friendly (they even speak a word or two of English) and they have pamphlets and books for sale about the Greek-Catholic churches in the region.
Tročany is not serviced by regular bus transport, but it is a two kilometre walk from the village out to the main road running between Bardejov and Prešov, and there is a bus stop at the turnoff to the village where buses pass by every hour or two. Prešov is a major transport hub with train and bus connections throughout the country, while Bardejov is the best place to base yourself for a tour of the wooden churches found in its vicinity.
This formerly Greek-Catholic wooden church dedicated to the Nativity of the Virgin Mary lies in the small village of Hoszowczyk in the south-eastern corner of Poland, just a few kilometres from the Ukrainian border. It was built in 1926, making it one of the youngest wooden churches found in this region of the country.
The church is located in a part of the Carpathian mountains which was historically inhabited by Boykos (Rusyns) and it was constructed as a Boyko Greek-Catholic church, but its design shows direct influence of the Ukrainian Hutsul architectural style in its Greek cross-shaped floor plan and large central dome placed above the nave. The church in the neighbouring village of Hoszów also shows traces of the same Hutsul influence.
Following World War Two the Boyko population of the region was forcibly expelled, and Roman Catholic Poles were encouraged to settle in their place. The Communist authorities closed the church in 1951 and it was then used as a storage building. In 1970 the church was given to the local Roman Catholic parish, which refurbished the church and began using it to hold Roman Catholic services. During renovations made in 2002 a large cache of ammunition from World War Two was discovered hidden in the sanctuary.
Like many wooden churches in this region of Poland, the roofs and central dome are covered in a layer of sheet metal in place of the original wooden tiles. During the Communist period it was considered costly and unnecessary to maintain the wooden roofs, so sheet metal was used as a longer-lasting replacement. At present, several churches with metal roofs in Poland are being restored to their original all-wood appearance, but it will take many more years before this process is completed.
Directly beside the church there is a small former Greek-Catholic cemetery with a handful of tombstones, as well as several graves of World War Two soldiers. The church is not usually open to visitors without prior arrangement, though when I visited the caretaker was cleaning the carpets and she permitted me to go in. The interior contains modern Roman Catholic fittings and is of minimal historical interest.
The village of Hoszowczyk is not serviced by buses, but it is a two-kilometre walk west of Hoszów which is on the main road running south from Ustrzyki Dolne along which buses run quite frequently. Ustrzyki Dolne is connected by bus with Sanok, Krosno and the regional city of Rzeszów, which has onward train and bus connections with the rest of the country. Sanok makes a convenient base for a tour of the wooden churches in the region, as well as having the best outdoor architecture museum in Poland with four impressive wooden churches.
This distinctive church sits on a grassy hillside above the small village of Brežany, fifteen kilometres south-west of the city of Prešov. Although it is a Greek-Catholic church, it is located far to the south and west of the region where the majority of these churches can be found in Slovakia along the Polish and Ukrainian borders.
The church was built in 1727 and is dedicated to Saint Lucas the Evangelist. The structure of the building has little in common with other Greek-Catholic churches in north-east Slovakia, since it appears to have features usually associated with Gothic Roman Catholic architectural design (such as the church in Hervartov, Slovakia). It can be assumed that because the Brežany church was built relatively far away from other Rusyn Greek-Catholic churches the construction techniques of the Roman Catholics in the neighbouring villages formed a more significant source of inspiration for the builders.
The floor plan for the church follows the basic three-part system of Greek-Catholic design, with a small sanctuary, the nave as the central room and the narthex (entrance room) represented by a stand-alone bell tower with space for seating beneath it. The bell tower bears a strong resemblance to one exhibited in the outdoor museum in the town of Martin in central Slovakia, while the overall building design is similar to a wooden church in Trnové, a village just outside of Žilina.
The interior contains an iconostasis from 1733, as well as a number of impressive baroque icons. The most important of these icons depicts the coronation of the Mother of God. On the western side of the nave above the door several decorative paintings of biblical scenes can be seen. The front door of the church is also original and dates from the middle of the 18th century. The bell tower contains two large bells which are still in regular use during services.
The jointing system used to connect the ends of the log beams together is very simple (see the photo above), with a small groove cut into the underside of each beam and the ends extended slightly beyond the corners of the building. The gaps between the logs are filled with clay and then whitewashed, creating a striped black and white appearance which is very uncommon among churches in Slovakia, being more commonly seen in northern parts of Moravia and Bohemia.
Beneath the bell tower is a traditional folk object which is very rare now in this part of the Carpathian mountains (see the photo below). This device is used to make a loud repeated sound which would call the villagers to church services. When the handle on the right-hand side is turned it raises a series of wooden slats with wooden hammers attached to the ends of them, causing the hammers to strike the hollow wooden shaft below which then emits a high-pitched sound. These noise makers are similar to the wooden "clappers" traditionally used in the mining towns of central Slovakia (such as Banská Štiavnica) to wake the miners for the morning shift. Similar objects can also be seen in the wooden churches in the Maramures region of north-eastern Romania, further to the east along the Carpathian range.
The key for the church is kept by a family who live down below in the village, near the turning point for the laneway that leads up the hill to the church. Far fewer visitors come to see this church than some of the more well-known Greek-Catholic churches to the north-east, so the family are not used to opening the church for visitors unless an appointment is arranged in advance. Offering them a donation for the church could help in convincing them to come and open it for you.
Brežany village is serviced by a couple of buses per day (fewer on Saturdays and Sundays) which connect it with the central bus station in Prešov. Buses more frequently pass through the village of Rokycany which is a two kilometre walk to the south-east of Brežany. Prešov has frequent train and bus connections with Košice, Bratislava and other major cities throughout Slovakia.
This large timber church stands in the small village of Maršíkov in the Jeseníky region of North Moravia in the Czech Republic. It was built in 1609 using wooden beams taken from an older wooden church which had been dismantled in the nearby town of Velké Losiny. The wooden church in the village of Žárová, a few kilometres north of Velké Losiny, was constructed in 1610 with wood taken from the same dismantled church.
The church in Maršíkov was originally Lutheran, and was dedicated to the Archangel Michael. It is considered to be one of the finest examples of late-period Renaissance folk architecture in the Czech Republic. Up until the early 1900's a low stone wall surrounded the church and the village cemetery which was located directly behind it. The cemetery was moved to a location on higher ground further away from the road.
The interior contains unique Rococo-style decorations from the late 18th century. The main altar includes a painting of the Archangel Michael, while the side altars depict the Virgin Mary and Saint John of Nepomuk. The walls of the nave are covered with timber boards with overlapping joints and are painted in dark red and grey. In the choir above the entrance area there is an organ from the 18th century.
The wooden steeple at the centre of the roof line is topped with a large onion dome which is grander in scale than those usually seen on the 17th and 18th century wooden churches found in this region. The dovetail joint interlocking system used to connect the ends of the wooden beams is typical for wooden churches in Silesia and northern parts of Moravia and East Bohemia.
The key for the church is kept by the family which lives in the house directly in front of the church entrance. They are used to opening it a few times per week for Czech and German bus tour groups, but they may be a little hesitant to do so for individual tourists who come unannounced, especially if they are busy with other activities. Offering them a donation for the church (50 to 100 crowns) might provide the right encouragement.
The village of Maršíkov isn't serviced by buses very frequently, but it is an easy two-kilometre walk from the town of Velké Losiny, which has frequent train and bus connections with Šumperk and Zábřeh, both of which have regular connections with Olomouc, Prague and other parts of the country. There are several restaurants and accommodation options available in Velké Losiny because tourists come to visit the spa, chateau and hand-made paper museum in the town and use it as a base for hiking in the Jeseníky mountains.