Some of the loveliest villages and wooden churches in Maramureş are in the Iza valley, extending roughly 60km from Sighet to the Rodna mountains, on the frontier with Bucovina. Smaller villages nestle in side valleys, enticing visitors to walk across the hills between them.
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Bârsana and Rozavlea
The wooden church of BÂRSANA, 19km southeast of Sighet on the DJ186, is small and neat and perfectly positioned atop a hillock to the west of the village centre. It was built in 1720, and its florid paintings, among the best in Maramureş, date from 1720 and 1806. Hodor Toador and Ion Plohod were responsible for the later set, with icons on wood by the former – the narthex is adorned with saints and processional images, while the naos is painted with Old and New Testament scenes, each in a decorative medallion. Don’t miss the images of angels covered in eyes. At the east end of the village, 4km from the centre, stands the new Bârsana monastery, a large complex of wooden buildings, all in traditional style, including the wooden church which, unusually, has a pentagonal privdor and two apses, as well as a 57m steeple, briefly the world’s highest but now overtaken by that at Săpânţa. The original monastery was closed by the Austrians in 1791; construction of a new one (in fact a nunnery) began in 1993, and it has expanded steadily since. Just east of the Călineşti junction, you can visit the splendid woodworker Teodor Bârsan, with carvings big and small for sale.
As a border region, Maramureş remained vulnerable to attacks by nomadic tribes until the eighteenth century, and the wooden church just east of the centre of ROZAVLEA, 20km further along the valley, was one of many rebuilt after the last Tatar invasion in 1717. Its magnificent double roof, recently restored, is now weathering nicely; its paintings by Ion Plohod, including an unusual exterior painting of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist in the porch, have been cleaned and it may be added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Although there’s a good road from Şieu to POIENILE IZEI (“the meadows of the Iza”), from Botiza only an unpaved road leads 6km northeast to this charming little village, famous for its old wooden church, which is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Built in 1604–32, the church is filled with nightmarish paintings of hell. On the red walls to the left dozens of demons (draci) with goat-like heads and clawed feet are depicted torturing sinners and driving them into the mouth of hell – an enormous bird’s head with fiery nostrils. These pictures constitute an illustrated rule book too terrifying to disobey: a huge pair of bellows is used to punish farting in church; a woman guilty of burning the priest’s robes while ironing them is herself pressed with a hot iron; adulteresses are courted by loathsome demons, and a woman who aborted children is forced to eat them. These hell scenes presumably formed the nasty part of a huge Day of Judgement in the narthex, the other half of which has, ironically, not been saved. Opposite are paintings of gardens and distant cityscapes in a sort of Gothic Book of Hours style, executed around 1793–94. The nave’s murals are badly damaged and soot-blackened, but from the gallery you can recognize Adam and Eve, The Fall and episodes from the lives of Christ and John the Baptist.
Continuing along Iza valley, and 4km southeast of the Botiza turning, a turn-off at Gura Ieudului leads upstream to the village of IEUD, 2.5km south. It was Ieud artisans, supervised by master carpenter Ion Ţâplea, who restored Manuc’s Inn in Bucharest, and master carpenter Gavrilă Hotico is currently building new wooden churches all over Maramureş and beyond.
The village’s tradition of woodworking has been maintained since the superb Orthodox Hill Church (Biserica din Deal) was first raised here in 1364. Long thought to be the oldest church in Maramureş (though largely rebuilt in 1620 and the eighteenth century), with a double roof and tiny windows, it once housed the Ieud Codex (1391–92) – now in the Romanian Academy in Bucharest – the earliest-known document in the Romanian language. It has perhaps the most renowned paintings of any Maramureş church, executed by Alexandru Ponehalski in 1782; look out for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob welcoming people in their arms, in the pronaos. And don’t miss the ingenious removable ratchet that opens the bolt in the main door.
No less splendid than the Orthodox church is the Uniate lower church (the Val or Şes church, also dubbed “the cathedral of wood”), built in 1718 with a magnificently high roofline, though, unusually, no porch; few wall paintings survive, but the iconostasis and icons on glass (including an image of St George on a blue horse) are artistically valuable.