Romania's Secret Treasures
- 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
"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
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.
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