Once I Had a Wooden Church...

Trip Start Jun 08, 2010
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Trip End Aug 26, 2010


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Flag of Slovakia  , Presov,
Monday, August 16, 2010

Today's goal was visit more wooden churches. My book on the churches listed a little over forty. I'd seen maybe five or six, so I decided to spend the day looking at as many of the churches in the eastern section of the country as I could. The eastern end of Slovakia borders Ukraine and Poland. Wooden churches in that region were built in all three countries mainly by members of the Greek Catholic (also known as Eastern Catholic) faith.

My first attempted visit of the day failed. The church was supposedly in Humenné. I chose to stop by because the town was between my hotel and a cluster of churches around Snina. Humenné turned out to be a mid-sized city, and there were no signs directing visitors to the church. I drove down a couple of streets that looked promising, but gave up without trying too hard. The church was part of an open-air museum, so I didn't want to spend too much time looking in case it wasn't open on Monday.

With an inauspicious start to my day, I drove on to a church east of Snina in the village of Kalná Roztoka. I had much better luck there. As I was pulling up, I saw a group of five people walking up the hill to the church. I figured if I was quick, I would be able to join them and not have to track down the key-holder myself, so I hustled out of my car.

The group turned out to be composed of a friendly couple from Long Island, some Slovakian cousins they were visiting, and the church key-holder. I've seen other tourists at the village churches, but these were the first Americans I'd seen outside of Bratislava. Since the wife was fluent in Slovakian (as were the cousins of course), I got a little better explanation of the church than usual, although I have to confess I spent more time talking to the couple than I did looking at the interior. I did learn that you aren't supposed to go into the sacristy. Oops.

After saying our goodbyes, not entirely convinced I wouldn't bump into them again as there were a limited number of wooden churches in the area to visit, I set off towards Šmigovec. The church at Šmigovec was extremely modest and looked as if it may have been neglected. Although my book on churches had a glowing description of the interior, the amount cobwebs around the windows and even the door made me skeptical of the current state of the decorations. There wasn't a sign with the address of the key-holder either, so I didn't attempt to get inside.

I found a similar situation just down the road at Hrabová Roztoka. This church was much larger than Šmigovec, though. Also, I could see through the windows Hrabová Roztoka was in relatively good condition and definitely had the typical iconostatsis. What it didn't have was a house number for the key-holder. My book did have contact info for all of the churches, but I decided unless the number was posted on the door, I wouldn't bother anyone, so I drove on to the next church.

My next stop was Ruská Bystrá. That church was one of the eight mentioned in the UNESCO World Heritage listing for the churches, so I was pretty sure it would be open for tourists. The key-holder address was in fact listed, although it was on a poster with the church history set by the street rather than on the church itself, so I almost missed it because I didn't care to read the poster as I already a good explanation in my book.

I drove back into the village to find the correct house because the church was on the top of a hill (as they usually were) and bit farther down the road from the village hall than I wanted to walk today. The house with the key-holder was across from the village hall. When I stopped in front of the hall, a woman asked me something in Slovakian (presumably if she could help me), and I pointed at a picture of the church in my book. In response, she pointed across the street to the key-holder's house.

I girl who looked to be around 11 was sitting in the yard of the key-holder's house. I said to her "church", then "Kirche", and then I finally tried "crkva", which I remembered was church in Croatian. She understood the last and shouted to someone in the house, who said something back. There was a lot of talking, and I waited by the gate for a few minutes assuming since no one had shooed me away or shaken their head, the key-holder would be forthcoming.

I was correct. It took a while, which I found to usually be the case as they generally had to search for the key, and they generally tended to be older women who didn't move so fast anymore. Since my car was by the village hall, I gave the woman a ride up to the church so she could open it for me. She waited patiently, if silently, while I took photographs (not allowed in some of the churches). When I was done, I ended-up giving her 5 euros for the church. The usual amount of a wooden church visit, whether "suggested" donation or just plain ticket price was around 2 euros, but I had shortsightedly allowed myself to run out of euro coins. This church didn't sell tickets, so there wasn't an automatic expectation that I would want change. It didn't seem polite to try asking for any, even if I had spoken Slovakian, so I just resolved to buy something cheap at the next store I passed in order to get coins for the rest of the churches.

At this point, it was almost 2pm, so I decided to focus on the UNESCO listed churches and drove north to the area around Svidník, which had an even larger cluster of churches, two of them on the UNESCO list. The drive ended-up taking longer than I had expected, and I pulled up to the church at Bodružal well over an hour after leaving Ruská Bystrá.

I had trouble parking because a van with a camper attached was filling most of what little space there was. I noticed the plates were from the Netherlands, and I said "Hello" to the woman I met at the top of the stairs leading up to the church. Her, her husband, and their dog were on a two-and-a-half-week trip to Slovakia. It was their first time pulling a camper and they were going much slower than usual. Bodružal was only the second wood church they had visited. Novices.

Because they'd arrived at the other church the same time as the cleaning crew and gotten in that way, they didn't know about the key-holders. There was a sign posted on this church gate with a house number and even a price (always a good sign that they are ready to deal with tourists). I told the Dutch woman that if I could find the house number, I'd be back with a key. With that proclamation, I confidently got back in my car and set-off in search of house 13.

Thirteen was not a lucky number, and it took me much longer to find the house than I'd expected. The village was setup in an "H"-shape, rather than just a straight-line along one road, and I didn't find 13 until I'd tried the fourth leg of the "H". I stopped in front of the house, but this time there was no one in the yard. I wasn't sure what to do. The village houses usually have a fence and a gate, but no bell, and this house was no exception. I didn't know the proper etiquette for visiting the house of a stranger in Slovakia, and I definitely didn't want to go through the gate uninvited.

There was a large dog in the yard, but for some reason it was ignoring me. I decided if I could get it to start barking, the owner might look out. I walked closer to the fence and made some small bit of noise, and the dog ran over to the fence and began to bark. Part A of my plan had worked. Part B was stand-around and wait.

After a few minutes, an elderly woman did indeed come out. I said "crkva" and made the Slovkian sign for a key (pretending to hold a key and turn it in a lock). She said something to me, which of course I didn't understand. I said "Sorry", and she said it again, adding some pointing and waving. I said "Sorry" again, which resulted in more pointing, and she started to walk to the opposite side of her yard.

I hadn't gotten a head-shake, so even though she was walking away from me, I was still optimistic. I noticed there was a gate opening to the street behind her house as well and drove around to it. When I got there, she talked to a woman sitting on the porch of another building, which looked more like a cafe than a house, and I gathered from that the second woman would bring the key if I waited at the church. After repeating my limited Slovakian to the original woman, basically "Thanks" and "Good Day", as well as some slight bowing, a reflex from traveling in Japan and meeting helpful people I couldn't properly communicate with there, I headed back to the church for more waiting.

I was slightly surprised to see the Dutch couple still there, as it had taken me at least ten minutes, and probably longer, to find the key-holder. We chatted for a little, after I warned them I wasn't entirely sure someone would show-up, but after maybe another five minutes, I spotted someone walking up the road with a key.

The church was definitely worth the wait. While it had the typical iconostasis I'd seen in other Orthodox wooden churches, it also had a mural on one of the side-walls. The key-holder gave us a tour in Slovakian, none of which either I or the Dutch understood, so I'm not entirely sure of the meaning behind what the mural depicted. There was a section of the Crucifixion, which was obvious. The part that got my attention was a clever bit with a small baby on one side of a scale out-weighing a hundred people on the other side of the scale. The other people had been chained together and demons seemed to be quickly adding more in an attempt to shift the balance. My interpretation was that the baby was the Baby Jesus and the other people were sinning mortals. It's too bad we weren't allowed photos.

Actually, that's not 100% true. After the tour, the Dutch woman asked me if photos were allowed. I'd seen a "no photos" sign by the entrance, so I didn't think they were, but I "translated" the question anyway (saying "photos" and pantomiming taking a picture), as it couldn't hurt to ask. The key-holder did a lot of talking and gesturing, after which she got the Dutch couple to stand one on either side of the pulpit and took a picture of them with their camera. She then repeated the process for me, so I do have two pictures of the inside, although not of the mural.

By this time it was 4pm, and I hopped back in my car and hurried on to the last UNESCO-listed church in the region at the village of Ladomirová. That was the easiest church of the day to get into, and the one most setup for tourists. There was a person waiting at the gate to take my money and show me inside. When I was inside, they asked if I spoke English or German and played a recording for me with an English explanation.

It confirmed a lot of what I'd guessed from visiting the other churches and added some information that made me say "Ohh... now I get it". First of all, the iconostatsis in these Greek Catholic wooden churches always had the same form. There were four figures along the bottom: St. Nicholas, Mary with Child, Jesus, and the patron saint of the church or parish. The next row showed scenes from the New Testament, with the Last Supper in the center panel. Above that row was one with individual icons for the tweleve apostles and Jesus. The top row had Old Testament prophets. I also learned the churches were made without metal nails because nails were used to crucify Jesus. A final bit of history was that even at the time of my visit the liturgy in the area churches was given in Old Church Slavonic. (Remember that from my Nitra entry?)

Fans of the Da Vinci Code would also have appreciated this church. The Last Supper depicted on the Ladomirová iconostatsis had Jesus plus thirteen other guests. The recording said no one knew why. One theory was the 13th was the owner of the home, which one bible verse mentions. Another was the person was Matthias, an early disciple of Jesus who didn't make it as one of the first twelve apostles, but later replaced Judas. I'm sure Dan Brown could have come up with a much more interesting theory...

Towards the end of my visit, I found out one of the reasons it had been so easy to get into the church was because villagers had already begun gathering for evening mass. The priest came in and started organizing things while I was listening to the tape, so I made a quick exit after the recording was finished. I figured if mass was starting at that chuch, it might not be a good time to visit any more, plus I didn't really want to go knocking on any doors after 5pm, so I decide to call it a day.

On the way back to my hotel, as often happens, I was distracted by a bright shiny object. In this case, the object was a Soviet tank running over a Nazi tank, and a road sign labeled "Death Valley". I decided to take a detour and see what that was about.

The area was along the path of a fierce, weeks-long contest between primarily German and Soviet forces as the Soviets attempted to advance into German-held Slovakia during WWII, known as the Battle of the Dukla Pass. The casualties numbered in the tens of thousands as the Soviets attempted to take advantage of the Slovak National Uprising during 1944 to enter Czechoslovakia.

I made only a brief visit because I was running low on gas and it was dusk. Although the battle began in Poland, the road forked at one point, and the branch I chose ended at a hiking trail so I didn't make it to the border. In addition to a few memorials beside the road, there was a smattering of old tanks and artillery. Several of them were overlooking the street in threatening positions.

At one point I thought I was seeing things when the gun of one of the tanks appeared to be pointing in a different direction when I drove out of the valley than it had on my way in. I have photographic evidence, though, that it wasn't my imagination and the turret had in fact been rotated after I passed. Was it the ghosts of old soldiers or the family with small children playing near the tank?

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