When you see a map of a country that has the dirt roads marked clearly, and then you read the fine print in a car rental agreement that seriously limits where you can take the car, you soon realise that many places will be off-limits. And that’s where the locals come in. Their cars are well used to it.
From Sâncraiu (Szentkirály)* we decided to find a man with a car, a man who had access to places we would never get to on our own. And we found him. He picked us up at 10 am and was ours till 2pm, charging by the kilometre and by the waiting time. And he had an agenda.
His Opel Corsa had a couple of dings and the inside had some very strange brown splotches all over the roof. The scented interior was more an eau d’body than an eau d’cologne but I soon made like a dog and stuck my face out the open back window. Amazing what you can get used to.
First stop was Văleni (Magyarvalkó), where after borrowing the key from the vicar, we made our way up a hill into this fortified Romanesque Reformed church dating back to the mid-fifteenth century, a church which still serves as a place of worship for about 150 souls today. We wandered around the outside noting the plum trees laden with fruit hanging over the graves in an almost surreal visualisation of the cyclicality (did I just make up that word?) of life. [Apparently this year will be a good year for the plum pálinka.]
The walls were decorated with lovely examples of Írásos (written) embroidery marking confirmations, weddings, births, and other occasions noted by the parishioners. Even the bible covers had been embroidered. From the magnificent painted panelled ceiling hung ornaments made from wheat. At first glance, they looked like big pieces of fur hung as lampshades but no… it was dried grass. This has to be the oddest thing I have ever seen in a church – and I’ve been inside my share of houses of worship.
But it was the ceiling that did it for me – the wood panelling under the gallery. All hand painted eons ago, the paint was still clear and the patterns visible. So much time and work went into this church and even though it was decorated to within an inch of its life, it was done by hand, simply. Compared to some of the gilt and glitter of even the simplest of Catholic churches, this stood out. It felt as if it had been made by the people, for the people – and is that what a church should be?
The next stop was another church. This time in Mănăstireni (Magyargyerőmonostor). And another Reformed church (think Calvinist) so no prizes for guessing that our Romanian driver was Hungarian-speaking rather than Romanian. Apparently most Romanian Transylvanians are Orthodox and we didn’t get to see inside any of those that day. I liked the exposed brick on this one but couldn’t decide if it was by accident or design. Again, I was stuck by the simplicity and although slightly more prepared for variations on the same interior theme, it was the same, but different. Less rustic. More ordered. More planned. If the church had an Interior Design magazine, this one would probably feature. Again the embroidery but less of the home-made feel. Were the first a collection of villagers each contributing what they did best, this was more like a coordinated effort by a management committee run by someone who knew exactly the look they were going for. Still beautiful. No doubt there. And had I seen it first, I might have been more awed.
But the painted door, tucked away at the back, saved it from being simply more of the same. I’m quite partial to effort. Give me something that someone has put the hours into and I’ll cherish it, appreciate it, marvel at it. Give me something that stands the test of time and I’ll do likewise. And doors like this one have me seriously thinking about the need for a cottage in the country – somehow I can’t seem to fit it into my vision of urban living. Some might think it kitsch and perhaps it is a tad folksy, but it wears well.
This particular ceiling was quite plain but the wooden panels skirting the walls contrasted nicely. And their intricacy was offset in turn by the relatively simply patterned wooden posts. There was a curious mix of the simple and the complicated. And it worked. The whole saga of Mary and Martha came to mind – the talker and the doer.
These two churches we’d never have seen on our own. We wouldn’t have found the first one or known where to pick up the keys for either of them. Them the blessings of having a local driver. There was one more church to see but that deserves a blog of its own. Am still gobsmacked by it. Still processing what I saw. And the church isn’t even finished yet.
So, having had our dose of religion, he then took us to the lake. To Beliș Lake (Béles tó) But in keeping with the day’s theme, told us that there was a church buried beneath the water – one that is sometimes visible. The dam was quite impressive, too. As was the prospect of spending a few days in one of the two local hotels. Nothing to do but swim and read. And perhaps fish. Magic. And noted for future reference. It’s not my first time in Romania and yet it feels different. There was snow on the ground last time and I was in a different part of Transylvania then, too. I loved it then. I love it now. But this time it’s more real. There is so much to do and so much to see and so much to come back and do and see again… and again.
*Hungarian names for these towns given in ( _ ) as requested