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Romania's Secret Treasures

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  • aggreen1
    Romania s secret treasures BARSANA, Romania (Reuters) -- Hidden for centuries in a corner of the northern Carpathians, the wooden churches of the Maramures
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 31, 2004
      Romania's secret treasures

      BARSANA, Romania (Reuters) -- Hidden for centuries in a corner of the
      northern Carpathians, the wooden churches of the Maramures region
      have long been one of Romania's most secret treasures.

      These sleeping princesses, declared world heritage monuments by
      UNESCO in 1999 for their simple beauty and superb craftsmanship, will
      finally be awakened in an effort to lure tourists to a remote but
      charming part of the Balkan country.

      "We have amazing cultural and natural resources that we haven't
      opened up to the world because we lack the infrastructure," said Ioan
      Marchis, the Culture Ministry's local director.

      European Union candidate Romania has launched a program to help local
      communities get EU funds to make the churches more visitor friendly
      and attract wealthy western tourists to this unique but distant
      region bordering Ukraine.

      At the church of Surdesti, which at 236 feet high claims to be the
      tallest oak building in the world, the priest's wife, Maria, says
      potholes, lack of road signs and information prevent tourists from
      reaching the 1767 UNESCO monument.

      "Tourists must be able to find it to visit it," she said.

      Almost 15 years after the 1989 collapse of communism, Romania has
      failed to capitalize on its natural beauty and cultural heritage.
      Hotels are basic and roads notoriously bad.

      From 4.8 million tourists in 1989, the number rose only to 5.59
      million in 2003, about the same as 10 years ago.

      Living, breathing museum
      Western countries that painstakingly re-create old towns or villages
      to attract culturally sensitive tourists would envy Maramures -- a
      living, breathing open air museum of centuries-old Balkan life.

      Villagers, who still wear traditional costume, use animals and wooden
      tools in their fields, weave by hand and are famous for carving wood,
      abundant in the nearby forests.

      "Maramures is very important for Europe because it sustains the old
      archetypes of a world we no longer know. It's a bridge between the
      past and the future," Marchis said.

      Most important are its wooden churches, often dating to the early

      Tall towers jutting high above villages or fields crown the small
      structures blending Romanian Orthodox tradition with Gothic elements
      to create a unique architectural hybrid.

      The narrow, shingle-roof churches are largely restored but the area
      surrounding them often remains neglected.

      At Rogoz -- one of eight churches on the UNESCO list from about 90
      dotting the region -- the local community secured 160,000 euros
      ($198,200) from the EU's PHARE regional development fund to improve
      tourist' access.

      "We only get three or four buses of foreign tourists a month now but
      according to the study we submitted we could get 3,700 people a
      year," town councilor Alexandru Santa told Reuters.

      A dirt road winds through the quiet village to the 1663 church and
      visitors must find the local priest for the key to enter and admire
      its colorful wall paintings. Chickens and geese run among graves in
      the churchyard.

      Santa said the EU money will be used to pave and light the road,
      build a fence around the church and a tourist area with parking,
      toilets and a traditional kiosk for souvenirs.

      Dangerously bad taste
      Marchis said unruly construction and bad taste were the biggest
      threats to Maramures and its churches -- Romanians working in Europe
      often send home money to build or modernize houses often contrary to
      the traditional way.

      Getting the local priests to treat the wooden churches not only as
      places of worship but also as cultural monuments was another

      "We started by making them understand they must remove the plastic
      flowers from the altar," he said.

      He said a good example of preservation-friendly development was the
      monastery of Barsana, which is only 10 years old but looks ancient
      and already attracts many visitors.

      Built on the site of a medieval church long moved elsewhere in the
      village, a cluster of wooden buildings dot immaculate gardens,
      surrounded by green hills and orchards. Mother superior Filofteia
      Oltean said that apart from donations, tourism is the monastery's
      main income. The 13 nuns living here paint traditional icons, weave
      carpets and host up to 20 officials and 50 pilgrims a night.

      "When I first came here there was nothing," she said. "I want this
      place to be an example of beauty and cleanliness and I want to help
      open the area for tourism."

      She has succeeded in playing host to at least one world-famous
      conservationist. In her guest book, she proudly points to the
      signature of Britain's Prince Charles.

      Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be
      published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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