Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Romania’s Haţeg Land: Shades of Blue

On a quest to find Romania’s oldest church, Sorin-Alexandru Cristescu of browses the region around Haţeg Town in Transylvania, central Romania. He discovers old, older and even older churches, and realises that he is traveling against time. Eventually he finds the most ancient temple
in the midst of some concrete constructions from socialist times. His four-days journey is dominated by colours: the faded pastels of the landscapes that linger in the medieval frescos of the churches.

Text and photographs by Sorin-Alexandru Cristescu

The brave Cande killed the dragon. He cut its seven heads off and rolled them down the slope into the valley. And for his feat to be remembered, he called the mountain Cutoff Range (Retezat). Then he got off his horse at the foot of the mountain and, thanking our Lord for the help during the fight, he built up his church and his citadel.
Ancient Romanian legend
Day one

As we follow the Jiu River upstream and bypass Petroşani, space seems to expand in all directions, revealing the unending forests, uniting with the peaks of the mountains at the horizon. Prince Cande must have climbed these hillocks himself, his eye wandering around towards the ranges, choosing patiently the place of his foundation.

The last rays of sun fall aslant on the castle that was built by the prince's descendants in Santamaria Orlea. And across the hill, atop of another hillock the majestic spire of the church points to Heaven, stubbornly resisting the ages.

But we go further, looking for a place to sleep from one village to another, like the prince must have done seven centuries back, when he was coming back from hunting. Now, like then, the peasants greet you with their doors and hearts wide open – they know that no matter who the stranger knocking at their door is, king or beggar, he must be welcomed as if he was the Lord disguised as a mortal.

We stay at Rau de Mori – the name of this village reminiscent of the water mills that must have been here since the time of the prince. From the yard we see the Colt Citadel, the prince Cande's residence – far away, perched on a stone among the forests.

We go up and down the green hillocks in the sunset. The cows return peacefully from the pastures, the horses sleep while standing and the moon shines among bright stars. The hustle of the city is behind us, centuries ago.

Day two

We wake up early and head to Santamaria Orlea, the village with a fairy-tale name. The thirteenth-century church, elegant and slender, greets us from a small, green hillock.

The key rotates inside the lock, the wooden door rolls towards the wall and, passing through the small narthex we enter among the magnificent frescoes in the nave, red like the fire, though many are altered by ages. The church, initially Orthodox, has become Reformed and is still in use for Sunday mass.

Leaving behind Santamaria Orlea, we traverse hills with grass that still shines with the morning dew, guided by the Retezat ranges in front of us.

And so, inconspicuous, gradually appearing from behind the hills, the strange spire of the Densus Church reveals itself. We pass through the village and somewhere at the outskirts, near the forest skirt, we climb in a hurry the steps that lead to the church.

The feeling is slightly unsettling because what the eye sees, the mind can’t grasp. The church seems to be a monument created by a mysterious civilization, long ago vanished, because despite its small size, it is a flamboyant combination of styles and building materials: a Romanic stone spire with a strange shape, some Gothic window frames, some classic columns, pieces of Roman mausoleums, probably brought from Sarmizegetusa Ulpia Traiana, everything on a traditional folklore background. The stone wall in front of the church reminds an old chamber whose ceiling would have collapsed, making room for a yard paved with stone tiles.

The thirteenth-century church is filled with the villagers who came for the Sunday mass. We manage to see the wonderful paintings inside, the oldest dating from the fourteenth century, all created on a blue background, like the summer sky. The architecture oddities continue inside: four pillars delimiting a square on the floor seem to head upwards just to sustain the spire where one can climb apparently only using a tiny secret door somewhere above our heads. Everything betrays the creation of a local amateur master, for whom it seems impossible to draw a regular plan and put up a homogenous building.

We find it hard to leave Densus. We head towards Pesteana passing again through the green hart of Haţeg Land. We stop first at a relatively new Orthodox church, but we find out that just a bit further, there is the ancient Reformed church. Indeed, we discover it on a hillock with fir trees that seem as old as the church, which dates back to the thirteenth century. The church is tiny, probably an old princely chapel, with white sinuous walls like plasticine. It is still used by two families in the village, old Romanian families who were Magyarised during the centuries just like the prince Cande, who became known as Kendeffy.

We leave Pesteana and follow an empty road that winds along hills to reach our destination: Prislop Monastery. One of the oldest monasteries in the country, dating back to the thirteenth century, Prislop attracts pilgrims from all over the country. On the river stone walls of the church one can still see small pieces of plaster bearing ancient paintings.

On the magnificent blue sky clouds begin to gather. When the sunrays filter through the clouds, the colours fade and the landscape starts to look like a medieval fresco. The Strei Church dominates the horizon with its picturesque stone spire.

This thirteenth-century church also preserved incredible frescoes in a combination of Byzantine and Gothic styles, almost as old as the church itself. In a corner the master painter himself is depicted on a background as blue as the sea on an autumn day. Dressed in a suit typical of the fourteenth-century merchants, his name is Grozie, according to the inscription next to the portrait.

It's time to head once more to our basis at Rau de Mori, an opportunity to see the Colt Church, built around the year 1300. The river stone church is perched on a height, just opposite the rocks to which the Colt citadel is hanging. The evening falls with grace and the light rain amplifies the feeling of mystery which surrounds this piece of Heaven.

Day three

The street takes us past green hills and a gate in time seems to open suddenly when we pass next to ancient ruins. This is Sarmizegetusa Ulpia Traiana. The museum gate marks the entrance only formally, because beyond it present and past merge in the strangest ways: we walk past haystacks which lay next to the ruins; here and there an orchard surrounded by fences right against ancient amphitheatre walls, temples and mausoleums; several modern houses with stone fences obviously constructed from the neighbouring ruins; cows graze peacefully and even a tractor drives undisturbed among ancient temples as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Of course, there are no tourists. It's only us and these modern peasants lost in antiquity.

We go ahead. We visit Deva. The crowded, unfriendly city at the outskirts becomes more and more attractive as we approach its centre. And suddenly, as if unreal, the citadel shows up floating above the region from its magnificent volcanic rock.

We are transported to the top by a modern funicular which courageously climbs the extremely steep slope, giving us the creeps. The citadel, built in 1269, was destroyed in the nineteenth century by an explosion in the ammunition barracks. The remaining walls defy the horizon, offering unparalleled views in all directions.

From Deva we reach Hunedoara, with its huge fourteenth-century Corvinesti castle, which happens to be closed. As we have already visited it before, it is good to see the on-going restoration works, done with a great sense of taste and care.

From Hunedoara the road takes us over the hills to a legendary place: Padureni Land. We drive along the shore of the Cincis Lake for a few kilometres, after which the landscapes become wilder, the forest thicker and the villages seem older and older. The asphalt road changes to sand and stone and, because evening is falling, we turn back.

Again we go up and down the hills, we cross orchards and green fields, looking for a village which seems to defy our maps: even though it appears next to Calan town, it's nowhere to be found. We ask from place to place, finally we find out the whereabouts and as we climb a slope, the old church of Streisangiorgiu shows up.

It is a small family chapel, profoundly contrasting with the communist blocks of flats nearby - an archaic oasis in this forgotten place where this church stood stubbornly against the ages.

The quest for the old churches in Haţeg and Strei Lands was turning into a competition against time: when we were discovering an Orthodox church about which we thought it was the oldest in Romania, after a short time we would find another, even older. And apparently the oldest is neither in Densus, nor in Strei, nor in Colt, but here, inconspicuous, unknown, among these modern blocks of flats, in Streisangiorgiu: based on some Arpadian coins found in the tombs around the church, it is dated back to the years 1140-1150.

The paintings on the interior walls are revealed by the three layers, the oldest dating from 1313, created by Teofil Zograf - the first Romanian painter in the country’s entire painting history. The magic atmosphere is deepened by the dusk of the sun, which filters the last rays among the clouds beyond the mountains.

Day four

We wake up early and stop in the neighbouring village, Ostrov. Here too there is a small thirteenth century church, typical for the Haţeg Land. The painting on the Western portal is unique, depicting the Virgin with the Child in unusual colours: Mary's clog is red, while her veil is green and Jesus’ clog is yellow and his waistcoat is green.

The painting, with obvious Byzantine roots and resembling the one at Santamaria Orlea dates from the fourteenth century.

The brave Cande is sitting on the stone. He has killed the dragon and he's tired. Then he lays on the grass still wet with morning dew, leaning his head against the elbow. His eyes shut, but the hand still holds the mace with vigor. And in front of the soul eyes, wide open, the villages at the foot of the mountain pass by, with names that inspire legends to come: Santamaria Orlea, Rau de Mori, Ostrov, Streisangiorgiu, Sat Batran, Clopotiva .... “Now, this is my ministry,” he thinks and falls in a deep sleep.
The spire with a square cross section is among the most picturesque in the region. Inside the church there are still vaguely preserved some old paintings, probably dating from the fourteenth century.

We leave Haţeg Land, with the promising to ourselves to return to this fascinating region, home to the oldest Romanian churches. We head towards Caransebes, with its picturesque centre, then we cross the mountains to Baile Herculane and stop at Orsova, where the Danube drills courageously the hillocks, shaping blue bays. After that we stop once more in Craiova, whose monumental centre, recently restored, is full of pedestrians, even though it's a workday.

We leave behind the Craiova's relaxed atmosphere to reach, on the verge of the falling night, the city we left only four days ago, looking for the hidden treasures of Haţeg Land.

This article is courtesy of the Romanian website

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