Crosses, Skulls and a Thousand Churches: Religion in Romania

Sun rays on a church in Neamt, Romania

Castles, forests, Catholicism. And gypsies. And Dracula.

I’m not proud of it, but these have long been the sole buzzwords I’ve always associated with Romania. Along with a lot of countries in Eastern Europe (and the continent in general), it’s been a place I’ve always vaguely wanted to visit but never really made the push to do so.

But last month, people from the land of the vampires invited me to pay them a visit – and not in any ordinary sense, either.

Instead of going solo and working out my own itinerary, I was part of a group of English, American and Romanian writers and photographers, all working together on the #PriNeamt campaign. This crew of sixty people journeyed around Neamt, a county in the north east of Romania, for a week– and in that time, our objective was to gain a better understanding of the region, experiencing as much as we could of what Neamt had to offer.

Seeing as I was armed with a collection of stereotypical preconceptions of Romania, I probably didn’t have the best concept of where I was travelling to. But after spending little more than a week in the country, I’m actually really glad I had no idea what Romania was about. Because sometimes the best trips are the ones that completely surprise you.

View from a dam bridge in Neamt, Romania

Stuff like this – standing on a bridge holding back a huge dam of water, and then realising how ridiculously beautiful the other side was.

 Hunting out Romanian traditions

If I’m honest, the main thing I was expecting to write about was the traditional elements of the country – the little glimpses of Romanian life that I started seeing from the moment we began to drive through the countryside.

My tired mind tried to swat away the too-recent memories of a twelve hour transit day as our small car zipped down an arrow straight highway, passing countless one storey houses with a shared grass verge outside. My camera lens wasn’t quick enough to catch each tiny glimpse of a story, be it the man with a giant belly, chopping an entire tree into kindling while his wife and son watched; the woman in a tight woolen jumper smoking a cigarette and pulling a dog on a leash; the little wooden table filled with fruit for sale outside a house.

And obviously I tried to take a photo of every single horse and cart that trundled past.

Untitled

But I figured I’d have plenty more opportunities during the week to understand the traditions of Romanian culture. The die hard travelling romantic in me fully expected to spend hours chatting to gruff farmers about life in the countryside, probably riding in their carts and helping them out with making hay bales.

Or maybe I’d befriend a little old woman on the bench outside her equally little house and end up with my very own Romanian grandmother?

 Getting to the heart of my time in Romania

Of course, the trip I was taking part in didn’t exactly leave much time for these ‘spontaneous’ (yet heavily hoped for) Romanian interactions. On our first night, we were firmly ensconced in the best hotel in Piatra Neamt, and spent the next 24 hours embroiled in conference room talks about the tourism industry, focusing specifically on how to bring more visitors to Neamt county.

I was given a headset, with the voice of a translator stoically relaying every word from each of the speakers into my ears (which made me feel pretty special, I won’t lie) – and when I looked around the room, I saw people busily taking photos and typing away on their phones, all too similar to the English speaking bloggers I know so well.

I started to realise, somewhat belatedly, that this trip wasn’t so much about me single handedly revealing the joys of Romanian traditions, complete with every horse and every haystack; it was much more about a group of people joining together to discover Romania itself.

And I was lucky enough to have forty odd Romanians to do it with.

The PriNeamt 2014 group

Thanks to the opinions and perspectives of my writing and photographing contemporaries, I began to build up a more realistic picture of modern day Romania in my head. Most of these Romanians were from Bucharest, so hadn’t spent time in Neamt county either. Unlike me though, they obviously knew a lot about the country itself.

The fact that the haystacks in every front garden are built to feed that family’s cows; that seeing at least twelve wedding parties on a Saturday is totally normal because it’s the day when everyone gets married; that people kept making references to ‘Dr House’ because the country is obsessed with the Hugh Laurie drama; that the local firewater liquor is, unsurprisingly crazily strong – and that makes it all the more popular.

An obsession with religion in Romania

The more time I spent in Romania, the more my interests in the country’s details began to change. I noticed the ornate crosses at the side of the road; pictures of Mary Magdalene and Jesus, surrounded by flowers and candles; churches squeezed into every available space, springing up out of nowhere.

I watched strangers crossing themselves in the street whenever a church spire came into view, and I realised how deeply engrained religion is to Romanian culture – not just in a traditional sense, but everywhere.

Church amongst houses in Piatra Neamt, Romania

Romania is a deeply Orthodox country, with ten new churches being built each month. Most of the Romanians on our trip weren’t religious, but they’d all grown up with it – a direct result of their parents and grandparents who went to church each day, or at least each week.

I listened as a few of my new friends spoke bitterly about the huge cathedral currently being built in Bucharest – second in size only to the Vatican, and which is estimated to cost over 500 million Euros – and about the poorest villages in the country which forego necessary repairs on their communities for the sake of donating yet more money to the church.

Inside Neamt monastery

When the whole group visited a huge monastery in Neamt whose main church didn’t have any pews, a friend whispered to me that this is the same in all Romanian churches; people kneel directly on the floor when they go to church services, sometimes for hours at a time.

The decor inside the place was mind blowing, with gilt and gold everywhere, but what struck me more was the number of the Romanians in our group who crossed themselves when entering the church and covered their heads demurely; stood solemnly in front of a gilded painting of the Virgin Mary; ducked their bodies three times under a sacred portrait, said to bring luck to its visitors.

A blogger praying in Neamt monastery, Romania

The real shocker of the visit, though, was venturing into a tiny basement attached to the monastery to find a room filled with the bones of priests past; each grinning skull marked with its owners name and the date of his birth and death.

I’ve been to plenty of churches around the world that store the relics of people they deem important (one of the worst was an actual tongue in a jar, belonging to a Peruvian martyr), but this was the first time I’d been within touching distance of so many human remains.

Particularly being that close to remains that are actually arranged into a skull and crossbones.

Skulls and crossbones inside Neamt monastery

Maybe it was the lack of protection around those bones – the idea that anyone could have picked them up – that made me feel uncomfortable. Then again, they were presumably more accessible to anybody who wanted to visit them?…

An unexpected introduction to Romania

My expectations for Romania before arriving were stereotypical, and probably very dull as a result. What I actually gained from my week there was totally unprecedented, and though I didn’t befriend any farmers or little old women, I did leave with a group of wonderfully creative people to call friends.

I’ll be writing quite a lot more about my time in Romania over the next few months, and there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll be going back whenever the next chance comes around.

I still need to ride in somebody’s horse and cart, after all. And attempt to make a monk like this one crack a smile.

Edit of a monk selling votives in Neamt monastery

 Have you ever been to Romania? What country have you been most surprised by when you’ve visited? 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

, , , ,

17 Responses to Crosses, Skulls and a Thousand Churches: Religion in Romania

  1. Heather Widmer September 26, 2014 at 8:23 am #

    Great article! I’m actually in Romania now (Bucharest), visiting for the first time. The country is absolutely beautiful. I was surprised when visiting Sighișoara. I expected the historic town, but we also really enjoyed taking a day trip to ride bikes in the nearby countryside. We passed small towns, farms, historic churches, and plenty of horse & carts.

  2. Andreas Moser September 26, 2014 at 9:20 am #

    What a coincidence: I am going to move to Romania in a few days, and I will stay there for 9 months. I have never been to Romania before, but I am already very excited. :-)

  3. Aggy September 28, 2014 at 5:51 am #

    How wonderful! I lived in Romania for a few months during my study and was well surprised with the country and the locals too. All I knew before arriving was a few stereotypical facts about the country and was quite ashamed that I knew very little about the country. So glad to have lived there and experience that not all the stereotypes were true and met a lot of good friends at the end. Definitely will come back!

    • Flora October 16, 2014 at 11:17 pm #

      I’d love to spend longer in Romania – maybe I’ll experiment with living in Bucharest at some point..? Or maybe a little more rural could be a good idea! Sounds like you had a great time there Aggy :)

  4. Victor October 18, 2014 at 6:10 pm #

    I have been to Romania about 20 years ago. Now, I often think that it’s time to visit it again. The country strongly changed.
    Thank you for your impressions.

    • Flora October 26, 2014 at 6:02 pm #

      I also need to get back to Romania – there’s too much to see and I only spent a week in the country! Glad you enjoyed my first impressions though, Victor :)

  5. adjustable easy on October 23, 2014 at 11:29 pm #

    Greetings from California! I’m bored to tears at work so I
    decided to check out your blog on my iphone during lunch break.

    I love the information you present here and
    can’t wait to take a look when I get home.
    I’m shocked at how quick your blog loaded on my mobile ..

    I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .. Anyways, superb blog!

  6. Anusia December 23, 2014 at 10:28 am #

    Love to know all such things about this place. This is an amazing place. I love to visit the place.

    • Flora January 6, 2015 at 3:45 pm #

      I hope you make it to Romania eventually, Anusia!

  7. Franca January 3, 2015 at 3:14 pm #

    I’ve never been to Romania, I have to admit though that is a country that fascinates me a lot even if I don’t have many expectations, maybe it’s for that reason that interests me as a country, because I’m not sure what to expect from it :)

    • Flora January 6, 2015 at 3:52 pm #

      I think that was my initial reasoning too, Franca – there are so many places I’ve built up in my head so it was really great to arrive in a country I knew nothing about! Happily enough it worked, and I’ve just come back from my second trip to Romania with potential plans for a third.. There’s something rather fascinating about it :p

  8. Loki January 13, 2015 at 10:40 am #

    It’s a piece of shit country full of piece of shit people. Not everybody, just the bulk of the people. It is the last country in Europe.

    • Daniela Dumitru January 9, 2016 at 4:34 pm #

      Shame on you!

      • Flora January 10, 2016 at 9:28 am #

        Thanks for bringing Loki’s insulting & grossly inappropriate comment to my attention, Daniela.

  9. Andreas Moser May 16, 2015 at 7:29 pm #

    This church-building frenzy is rather annoying to many of us living in Romania: https://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2015/05/16/a-harmless-church/ It’s an obvious waste of resources and very rarely is there real demand for a new church in the respective community. If people were asked, they would prefer sanitation or a road.

    • Flora May 28, 2015 at 2:58 pm #

      That was definitely something I wondered about while in Romania (and writing this post). Thanks for your insight as someone actually living there, Andreas.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Romanian Radiologist who Lives at the Top of the World - November 5, 2014

    […] breaking through on an almost biblical scale. I realise I haven’t been truly alone so far on this trip, and I revel in the silence around […]

Leave a Reply