To the End of the World

by vpundir | September 29th, 2008

My host asks me again if I am sure that I really want to go „to the end of the world”. I am sure.

At the autogara, it is easy to find my bus, for it is the only one around. By the door of the bus, we meet a gentleman headed to Sighet, where he works though he resides in Piatra Neamț. He is a government servant who spends a couple of weeks at work, and then a week off at home. We chat a bit and board the bus when the driver arrives.

The bus snakes along the mountains lining River Bistrița through some beautiful scenery, which I enjoy ever so often when I wake up. That’s how I reach Vatra Dornei (literally „the hearth of Dorna”) – alternating between awake and asleep states all through.

At the autogara my Sighet-bound companion finds that there is a minibus that goes to Borșa (a town on our way) around noon (almost a half and one hour before the direct one to Vișeu de Sus). From Borșa it should be possible to find something for Bârsana, or at worst the originally planned bus to Vișeu de Sus. Time to get a ceai.

After we finish our teas and return to the bus station, there are still 20 mts before the departure time of our bus. So I decide to walk around town a bit and especially have a look at the church in the distance that looks interesting. The church is under renovation and construction work is being carried out even as people turn up in their best Sunday clothes.

Soon, I head back, clicking away as I walk. As I turn around after taking a picture from the bridge, a minibus stops in front of me. My good friend from Sighet is in the bus and signaling me to get on. This was serendipitous timing.

My friend from Sighet / Piatra Neamț is a frequent traveler and has a road map of Romania. Looking at it I realize that about 20km after Borșa, around Moisei, the road forks into two parallel routes to Sighetu Marmației, one through Vișeu de Sus and the other through Bogdan Vodă. The former is just 70km long compared to 85km for the latter and most buses from Borșa to Sighetu Marmației take the former. However, Bârsana is located off the latter, and therefore it is probably hard to hitch a 50km ride from Vișeu de Sus to Bârsana because certainly not many people are likely to undertake the journey involving a U-turn in their day-to-day lives. One option could be to go to Sighet and hitch a ride for the 20km and the other would be to get off at Moisei and hitch a ride for 40km.

At Borșa the bus drops us off at the Unicarm supermarket. It is quite an interesting sight – on your right you see this modern glass and metal building and on the left you see nature growing young in the mountains.

Here we try, unsuccessfully, to find if anything goes to Bârsana. So maybe I should go to Sighet and find a way to continue my journey from there. There is still time for the bus so we have lunch at the nearby restaurant with așa-și-așa food and very interesting interiors, jam-packed with knick-knacks.

At Sighetu Marmației, my companion finds his driver waiting for him. But instead of going straight home, he insists that he’d drop me at Bârsana. So a pear-juice each later, the three of us are off to Bârsana. My benefactor drops me off right at the gate of the monastery.

Mănăstirea Bârsana is a convent built in the post-communist era around a reclaimed church that was reputedly built around 1720 and had been abandoned since 1790. The village itself has been dated to 1326.

As is the norm for the wooden churches of Maramureș, the wooden structures do not employ any metal nails etc., owing to the ban on use of metal during the Austro-Hungarian reign. I don’t know if the little metal stabilizers used in the helical wooden stairs of the peripheral buildings are a later addition. The steeple of the old, main church goes up 56m from ground making the church the reportedly tallest wooden structure in Europe.

The monastery complex is a sight for sore eyes. The tall wooden steeples and floral carvings, the vibrant flower-beds and fruit-laden trees, the haystacks and the pet deer, the scenic mountains and the colorful forests on them, all weave a certain magic, which is only paralleled by the freshness of the air and the peace of the environs.

Beyond the quarters, are the fields belonging to the monastery. I believe they are used to grow food-crops. The tiny reservoir for the little spring in the complex has been converted into a wishing well by the faithful, as is evident from the multitude of coins, and even currency notes (!), in it.

I am lucky to have arrived when I have at the church, as the evening service has just started. A young nun is on her knees doing penance. Two other, relatively young, nuns standing respectively on the left and right side of the room take turns to read (and sometimes sing) from the scriptures in front of them. I like the stand that their open books are kept on – they are essentially turntables for books, and it is fascinating to see that the nuns often switch from one book to other. The fourth, seniormost, nun stands in the background, occasionally joining in the hymns but mostly praying quietly, and every so often goes out to sound the toacă (bellboard).

The monastery also has a little museum, which is surprisingly still open. The entry fee is only RON 1 and the place showcases, apart from historical and religious documentation and artifacts, articles characteristic of life and culture in this mountaneous region. It also does display and sale of handicrafts, mainly wood-carving and weaving related, from the nunnery.

Bârsana is variously spelt as Bârsana and Bîrsana, depending on which rule is followed (the pronunciation remains the same). I prefer „Bârsana” not due to any intellectual leanings towards using the grammar rule favoring the use of â, not î, but merely because in that form it resembles the name of the Indian town of Barsana. Incidentally, the pronunciation of the names of the two towns is exactly the same, though if push came to shove, Romanians would spell Barsana as Bărsana.

Like Bârsana, Barsana has religious significance. The legend goes that Lord Krrshna (Crîșnă to Romanian folk)’s lover Radha grew up in the town. While Bârsana monastery is a female monastery, Barsana town is devoted to Radha and has women in more prominent roles.

Even more interesting than the legend of Radha, though, is the Holi tradition of Barsana. From what I have heard, even as everyone is engaging in color-play, throwing colored water on each other, several packs of women set out with bamboo-staffs and wet sheets twisted into whips in search of unmarried men, especially those from out of town, to flog.

Anyway, it is dark now and I seek refuge in a pensiuna (did they use to be the only source of income of old folks?) managed by a little old lady. Romanians have a saying „Apără-mă de găini, că de câini nu mă tem. (Save me from the chicken, for of the dogs I am not afraid)”, and they probably coined it with the little old ladies in mind. Some would really try to fleece you.

Once in the room, I plug in my laptop and phone. There is a message from Explorish. Făcea treișpe-paișpe (he has been pacing up and down). He is surprised, and happy, to hear that I not only reached Bârsana, but reached here much earlier than expected.

After the SMS’s are over, I figure that I am a little hungry and venture out on the dark, deserted road. The little store is closed, but I am able to find an ice-cream and some sugary, chocolaty drink at the gas station.

Tomorrow we’ll get to see the merry cemetary and the communism museum. Good night!

Click here to check out my pictures from Bârsana of 28 Sept 2008.

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