All signs point to heaven

Steven Herrick cranes his neck to take in the ancient wooden churches of Dracula country.

The horse and cart trundle towards us. The old man holds the reins and steers expertly between our car and the hedge. Sitting beside him are two barefoot children wearing tattered clothes and cheeky grins. It's early morning and the workers are heading into the fields. The cart is loaded with scythes and hoes and shovels. Sitting beside the pile is a dark-eyed teenage girl ... talking on her mobile phone.

We are in Maramures County, Transylvania. Forget Dracula and imposing castles cloaked in dark clouds. This region should be famous for World Heritage churches, built in the 17th and 18th century in reaction to decrees by ruling kings forbidding the erection of stone churches, which could be used as fortifications in war.

The response of these simple devout communities? If not stone, then wood. Wood carved and joined and spliced and adorned and sculpted into fairy tale edifices that defy not only kings but history. They sit on hills throughout the county.

We have travelled here to worship if not Him, then certainly those in His service. The churches are built of oak logs with dark interiors adorned with "naive-art" Biblical wall paintings and tall eye-poppingly tall spires.

I stumble backwards into a ditch trying to photograph the Church of the Holy Archangels Michael and Gabriel in Surdesti, reputed to be the tallest religious wooden edifice in Europe. It's curiously illogical to look at - as the spire stretches to heaven, the building it's raised upon appears to be sinking under the weight.

It was built in 1721 without iron nails by artisans harnessing only local timber, religious fervour and carpentry skills handed down through thegenerations.

The church has a double-roof and a slender bell tower at the western end as tradition dictates. The tower is ringed by four smaller spires. Legend has it that meant the townsfolk had the right to sentence criminals to death. The earliest incarnation of a Neighbourhood Watch sign?

Many churches in Maramures are surrounded by a cemetery. In Budesti, we witness an old lady dressed in black sitting beside a bare earth grave marked with a simple white cross. Wildflowers cover the grounds; the air is still and cool. Apple and plum trees groan with fruit. Whenever a stiff breeze blows, I imagine the church creaking in harmony.

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Despite the World Heritage listing, the churches are not tourist attractions but the spiritual centre of village life. At the church in Desesti, a local woman allows us entry into the cool interior.

Despite its imposing exterior, surely no more than 50 people could fit into this snug room? It feels like we're in a cave, a mountain of shingles and dark beams pressing down on us. The woman sells me a postcard - a simple photo of the church and spire taken by someone with a better lens than I. We nod our thanks and walk down to thevillage.

In Maramures County, the most respected man in town is the one who has the largest, most elaborately carved front gate. Result? Narrow streets are shaded by dozens of regal wooden gates in search of a castle. The most ornate extend to a shingle roof. If you peek through the entrance, you'll find modest dwellings of timber, gardens of potatoes, cabbage, tomatoes and a plum tree. Chickens peck in the dirt, a goat is tethered to the side fence. Beside the house are hay bales shaped like igloos, towering four metres high, ready for the long, cold winters. When the snow comes, the mountain passes are closed for weeks.

We have a village lunch, using sign language to order. My acting is improving. Chicken is easy. Place both hands under your armpits and flap while making a clucking sound. Potatoes come with every meal.

Soup? A spoon to the mouth and purse the lips. The waitress smiles nervously. She glances furtively towards the kitchen, which in our Eastern Europe experience means I've just ordered Tripe Soup. She shakes her head, not wanting to offend. I nod and make more clucking sounds. Chicken will be fine. The meal comes with a bottle of wine and is simple, hearty and ridiculously cheap. We are the only Westerners here.

In the afternoon, we drive along narrow mountain roads with endless views to Ukraine. We pass crumbling power stations and mines, railway lines to nowhere, broken pipes, lonely statues in abandoned squares, factory ghost towns and apartment blocks teetering off the vertical. The colour of the recent communist era is rust.

After the gothic, timeless splendour of the churches in the valley, it's shockingly temporary. The people have voted with their feet. In this far-off corner of rural Romania, the repressive decades of Nicolae Ceausescu's rule are crumbling quickly, replaced by ... by what? A return to scythes, hoes, carpentry without nails, chickens ... or a dark-eyed girl giggling into her mobile phone.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

British Airways flies Sydney via London to Bucharest. Baia Mare, the major town of the county, is 12 hours by train or 90 minutes by plane from Bucharest. You can hire a car on arrival.

STAYING THERE

Pensions are available throughout the region. Prices range from 60Ron ($25) to 180Ron a double. Carpati Hotel, 16 Minerva Street, Baia Mare has matrimoniala rooms, including breakfast, for 290Ron. See www.hotel.carpati.tourneo.ro/F-New/

FURTHER INFORMATION

See visitmaramures.ro, maramures.in-romania.ro

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