These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Wooden churches: a different world

Text by Chris Togneri
Photos by Ján Svrček

 photo: Ján Svrček

In the extreme north-eastern reaches of Slovakia is a land and people that are poor, forlorn and isolated. This is where unemployment often surpasses 50%, where village populations rarely exceed double figures, where there are more roosters in the roads than cars. This is where the single village store is open for an hour and a half a day, where everyone depends on gardens bearing the life-sustaining cabbage and potato, where villages are routinely cut off from the world when a significant snow falls.

This is where locals working humble plots of land lean against their scythes to cast cool, penetrating stares at strangers, where they do not say ‘dobrý deň’ until it is said to them first.

This region has been heavily scarred by the devastation of war. It is where millions of soldiers and civilians died in two world wars, where one valley was renamed ‘Death’ in memory of those who perished there. This region is where buried bombs, rusted artillery and retired tanks outnumber plots of land.

North-eastern Slovakia is a region where death is practically tangible and where people have to struggle to cling to life. It is also a land where one of Slovakia’s greatest cultural treasures is found: wooden churches.

Those who venture into this remote land come in search of something different. Castles are everywhere in Slovakia, historic villages pepper the landscape from Devín to Kremenec. Charming main squares, shockingly beautiful mountains, warm locals - that is the Slovakia people have come to love and expect. But up here, travellers seek something else, something singular.

In the village Potoky is a particularly enchanting wooden church overlooking the untamed vegetation of a cemetery and a removed bell tower. At the top of a walkway, through a stone gate where a lizard bathes in the late spring sunshine, sits the rustic house of worship. Like most wooden churches in the east, it has three spires with the tallest in front descending to the smallest in the rear. The dark, chocolate-brown shingles are sun-stained, ancient and covered with an intricate tangle of spider-webs.

Hoping to view the interior, my photographer and I seek out the village mayor.

 photo: Ján Svrček

Short and sturdy, deeply tanned and shirtless, he greets us at his home warmly, if not a bit suspiciously. After we announce our intentions, he moves closer to us, away from his wife hovering in the doorway, and says quietly: “I’ve been working in the fields all day with the others. We’ve also been drinking a bit. But it’s no problem to see the church. Follow me - I’ll call the key keeper.”

A young woman in her 20s meets us on the village’s only street. We create a curious group - the American tourist with his red-haired Slovak photographer, the attractive blonde key-keeper, and the still shirtless mayor. As we slowly make our way to the church, everyone stops to stare. The mayor sings out an occasional ‘dobrý deň’, but few answer with anything more than a nod.

As the woman fumbles with the door lock, I ask if the church - which looks so make-believe, so like an antiquated apparition - is still used.

“Of course it is,” the mayor says. “Every Sunday we hold services, plus there are weddings and funerals. The whole village comes - all 93 of us fit inside.”

I find that last bit hard to believe. The interior is miniature, no more than 20 feet across, with the few pews reserved for the elderly. Everyone else stands through the services.

The iconostasis - the area between the nave and the altar - is a rich collection of frescos and paintings that the key-keeper delicately dusts as I examine the stunning artwork. Up high on one wall, the mayor points out, is a series of small holes. They are a reminder of World War II, when Nazi soldiers shot at the church with machine-guns.

Outside is the serene cemetery. The names on the rows of tombstones are often the same. At the Dobroslava wooden church, in a small canyon two kilometres from the Valley of Death outside Svidník, nearly everyone buried in the adjoining cemetery is named Berežny, Kmit or Bartko. Villagers are keen to reserve space in these sacred plots of land - at least half the graves are empty, waiting to provide eternal shelter. The living buy tombstones, have their names and dates of birth carved on, but leave a blank space under the date of death as they live out their remaining days in the village.

The churches in this region are largely baroque (Bodružaľ, Miroľa, Uličské Krivé, Ladomirová). Primarily Greek Catholic, they stand on hills away from the village, encircled by groves of trees designed to act as lightning conductors. To further guard against the heavens, each spire has a metal rod running from the peak to the ground to carry the electricity away from the precious wood.

The area between Svidník and the Polish border some 25 kilometres away is dense with these churches. They are often separated only by a few kilometres, meaning that for those travelling by car or bike, up to 10 can be visited on a given day. Signs near the front door announce the name and address of the key-keeper.

The wooden churches are all unique, but they also share several traits. There is nearly always an old woman living nearby who keeps an eye on visitors; cemeteries are uniform additions; and every church is a spiritual experience, leaving guests awed and speaking in hushed tones.

Most importantly, they are all part of something different. They all help in creating an unforgettable, singular Slovak experience.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2002.

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