Saturday, November 26, 2011

Wooden Churches # 11 - Broumov, Czech Republic

This church is found at the edge of the town of Broumov in Eastern Bohemia, just a few kilometres from the Polish border. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it is the oldest wooden church still standing in the Czech Republic and one of the oldest wooden buildings in Bohemia. The settlement of Broumov was originally founded in 1171 and the first church was constructed on this site a few years later in 1177.
An invasion of the town by Hussite troops in 1421 caused severe damage to the church, and in 1449 it was struck by lightning and burned almost to the ground. The church was completely rebuilt in 1450-1451 in the form that we can see today. A windstorm damaged the tower of the church in 1550, which required extensive repairs. Further alterations to the tower and roof were made in 1811.
The church stands on a stone foundation and follows the plan of an elongated octagon in the Gothic style. Originally there were two entrances, one on the northern side and another on the western side. The roof is dominated by its slender tower which is one of the most striking features of the building's design.
The roofed porch gallery which surrounds the church was originally enclosed with wooden siding, but this was removed in 1779. Wooden planks attached to the walls of the gallery are covered with inscriptions which provide a chronicle of the town's history, recording the years of disasters such as fires, floods, invasions and the plague.
The wooden beams of the ceiling are decorated with stencil decorations of plant and animal themes. These decorations likely date from the time of the reconstruction in 1450, and they have a strong resemblance to those found in wooden churches across the border in Polish Silesia.
The main altar is designed in the rococo style and also features a late-Gothic statue of the Virgin Mary. In 2008 the church was declared a Czech national cultural monument.
The church is open daily for visitors in the summer months, but is kept locked for the rest of the year apart from occasional services and events. Broumov is at the end of a branch railway line with regular local trains running to Starkoč, a station on the main Trutnov - Prague line.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Wooden Churches # 10 - Topoľa, Slovakia

This church is found on a small hill in the village of Topoľa in the north-east corner of Slovakia at the edge of Poloniny National Park. The name of the village means 'Poplar tree' in the Slovak language, and the first record of the settlement dates from 1337. The church is thought to have been built around the year 1700 and is dedicated to the Archangel Michael. The structure has an enormous shingled roof which is disrupted only by a small tower above the entrance topped by a simple pyrimidal steeple.
The eaves are supported by horizontal wooden pillars which support the weight of the oversize roof. The interior of the church contains a well-restored baroque iconostatis from the first half of the 18th century, though not all of its original form has survived. Some of the icons were painted in the 17th century, though the most precious one has been moved to the icon museum in the nearby town of Svidník. The nave has a barrel vault structure and was originally decorated with many icon paintings on canvas.
In the 1960's and 1970's the church underwent renovations which removed the other two towers which originally formed part of the roofline. A small bell tower built in the early 20th century stands in front of the church at the edge of the hill.
Beside the church there is a small cemetery of wooden crosses which act as grave markers for 240 Austro-Hungarian soldiers from the First World War who were killed in action in the region. Regular Greek Catholic services are held in the church for the local congregation; Rusyn identity is strong in the village since it was the birthplace of Alexander Duchnovič, a priest who played a leading role in the 19th-century Rusyn national revival.
Several hiking trails start from Topoľa which continue into Poloniny National Park towards the Polish border, and one trail continues over the hill into the next valley to the west where the village of Ruský Potok contains another Greek Catholic wooden church. A section of forest land near the village is part of the UNESCO heritage listed Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians preserve which stretches across the border into Ukraine.
The keys to the church are kept by a couple who live in the house next door to the church on the northern side. They are friendly and helpful and eager to show the church to visitors for a small donation. No buses run directly to the village itself, but several buses per day travel from Snina to Nová Sedlica and stop at the turnoff for the local road to Topoľa two kilometres south of the village.

Wooden Churches # 9 - Lukov-Venécia, Slovakia

This unique church dedicated to Saint Kosmos and Saint Damian stands on the top of a hill at the edge of the village of Lukov-Venécia in north-eastern Slovakia, not far from the city of Bardejov. The village was a regional centre for glass production throughout the centuries, first mentioned in records in 1410. Construction of the church started in 1708 and finished the following year.
The structure features a tall bell tower placed above an entrance area with a porch on the front and sides set on vertical pillars. The tower contains several bells cast between 1755 and 1866. The central tent-roof covers the nave which has an unusually elongated shape for a Greek Catholic church. A large stone foundation allows the structure to sit level on the side of the hill, with enough space below that a cellar is included, making it the only wooden church with a cellar in Slovakia.
Most of the interior design is influenced by the baroque style. The iconostasis contains sections painted in different periods, with the upper part dating from 1736 and the lower part from the late 18th century. A number of the icons in the nave are older than this, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries.
The key to the church is kept by the local priest who lives in a house on the opposite side of the village on the road into Lukov. On weekdays a few buses run to the village from the city of Bardejov, but hardly any on Saturdays or Sundays. It is possible to take one of the frequent buses travelling on the main road between Bardejov and Stará Ľubovňa and then get out in the village of Malcov, which is a two-kilometre walk from Lukov-Venécia.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Wooden Churches # 8 - Loučná Hora, Czech Republic

This beautiful Roman Catholic church stands in the centre of the tiny village of Loučná Hora in Eastern Bohemia. It is an unusual example of Late Baroque style built of timber, featuring elements more commonly seen only in stone buildings. Its perfectly symmetrical shape also borrows techniques generally used in the design of palaces and castles.
Construction of the present structure started in 1778 and was completed in 1782, though the church stands on the site of an older wooden church which is mentioned in records of the village.
At the time of its construction wood must have been chosen over stone as the building material for economic reasons, since other churches of this style are typically built of stone.
In front of the church stands a separate bell tower which was completely reconstructed in 1942 based on the plans of the original tower. Long ago the grassy area that surrounds the church was the village cemetery, though it has now been moved to an area at the edge of the village. In the church interior the central room serves as the nave, while the eastern end forms the chancel and the western end contains the choir.

The roof is covered with shingles and features mansard-style edging. The church was originally covered in plaster on both the exterior and interior, though this was later removed to reveal the beauty of the wooden beams beneath. The interior of the church is mostly empty nowadays and is used for occasional church services and other village functions.
The village of Loučná Hora is quite easy to reach by train, arriving at the station called Smidary which is less than one kilometre to the south-west. Smidary station is connected by local trains with the town of Chlumec Nad Cidlinou which is on the main rail line between Prague and the city of Hradec Králové.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Wooden Churches # 7 - Korejovce, Slovakia

This small church dedicated to the Protection of the Mother of God sits on a hill in the centre of the village of Korejovce in north-eastern Slovakia. It was originally built in 1764, though today only some parts of the structure and the interior are still original.
The church has a typical Greek-Catholic style of a tower and two tent roofs rising above a three-room floor plan. The tent roof over the nave and the gabled roof over the sanctuary are topped by shingled onion domes with wrought iron crosses. The highest cross is placed above the entrance door, which must face west according to tradition. The roof is covered with intricate hand-made wooden shingles. In the interior the 18th-century iconostasis is only partly original, but the remaining section has been beautifully restored.

In front of the church near the road is a separate wooden bell tower with a shingle roof. It contains three bells which were cast in 1769, 1771 and 1835, and the bells are decorated with images of the Holy Family, a cross and a pattern of oak leaves. Since 1968 the church has been a protected national cultural monument. The church and bell tower both underwent major repairs in 2002, and new wooden shingles and siding were added in 2008.

The keys to the church are kept by a family who live in a house across the road and a few doors down. They are willing to open the church to let visitors see the interior but they will expect you to leave a donation (about 2 Euros is enough).
Many local buses from the nearby town of Svidník stop in the village of Hunkovce on the main road to the Polish border, and from there it is a walk of about 2 kilometres north on a small sideroad to reach the church in Korejovce.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Wooden Churches # 6 - Potoky, Slovakia

The tiny village of Potoky, near the town of Svidník in the north-eastern part of Slovakia, contains a beautiful example of the Lemko-Rusyn style of architecture. The church, dedicated to Saint Paraskieva, was originally constructed in 1773. A large bell tower was built in front of the church at a later date, and it contains a bell cast in 1839. The most unique feature of the church is the height of the three narrow steeples, since they are significantly taller than those found on most of the other wooden churches in this region. In keeping with Rusyn building customs, the tallest steeple and the front entrance face towards the west. Unfortunately the original interior of the church, including the wall paintings, icons and the iconostasis, have not survived to the present day. A modern replacement of the iconostasis was added during restoration work conducted in 2010, but the appearance is thoroughly modern and lacks the traditional appearance of Greek-Catholic church interiors. The exterior wooden shingles and wall panels were also restored in the summer of 2010, with the finished wood being treated with a preserving coat of brown varnish. This remains a controversial point among conservationists who feel that the churches of the region should be restored and left in their traditionally intended form with untreated wood. The original plans for the church site included a low stone wall that surrounded the church and the bell tower, and this feature was also restored during the renovations of 2010. An electronic device was added to the bell tower which automatically rings the bell twice daily without the need for human involvement. Potoky is off the main road between Svidník and Stropkov, making it rather difficult to reach by public transport directly. A few buses from Svidník head to the village daily, with fewer operating on Saturdays and Sundays. Many more buses follow the Svidník to Stropkov main road, and it is possible to take one of these buses and ask to be dropped off at the turnoff towards Potoky and then walk the remaining two kilometres in along the road to reach the church. To see the interior of the church you will need to find the key keeper in the village. The family which has it lives in a house on the same side of the road as the church, three houses further along the road from the church when you are coming from the beginning of the village.

Classic Castles # 3 - Krásna Hôrka, Slovakia

This large and fully intact Gothic castle sits on top of a rocky limestone hill above the small village of Krásnohorské Podhradie in south-eastern Slovakia. Built to protect the trade route running north from the Hungarian plains into the Spiš region, the castle has an ideal defensive position and appears to be virtually unconquerable when viewed from a distance. The first written record of the castle dates from 1333, when it was owned by the Bebek family. During the Turkish invasions of the mid-16th century, the family fortified and enlarged the structure in order to boost its already impressive defensive capabilities. The Bebeks occupied the castle until they were discovered to be counterfeiting currency (and supporting Protestantism) in the late 16th century, whereupon they were unceremoniously turfed out and the castle fell into the hands of the powerful Andrássy family. In 1910 the Andrássys owned enough properties in the region that Krásna Hôrka wasn't needed as a place of residence, so they decided to convert it into a family museum. Today the castle appears much as it did a century ago and the guided tour of the interior takes in lavishly decorated rooms full of artifacts and furniture collected by the Andrássys. Outside on the hill that surrounds the castle goats and sheep wander and graze on the grass, while the bells around their necks make a tinkling sound which adds a rustic soundtrack to the pretty pastoral setting. The village of Krásnohorské Podhradie is located on the main road between the city of Košice and the former medieval mining town of Rožňava. While you are in the village don't miss having a look at the Andrássy family mausoleum, a fantastic Art Nouveau building constructed in 1904 by Dionysus Andrássy in memory of his wife Františka, a Czech opera singer. Most buses travelling between Košice and Rožňava stop in the village, so it is quite easy to reach by public transport. There are several accommodation options and quality restaurants to choose from in Rožňava, so it makes a suitable base to explore the surrounding region's castles, caves and other attractions.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Natural Wonders # 2 - Adršpach-Teplice Rock Towns, Czech Republic

The fantastical rock formations of Adršpach-Teplice are undoubtedly one of the most unique natural attractions the Czech Republic has to offer. Tucked away in a quiet corner in the north of the country near the Polish border, the two 'rock cities' receive far fewer international tourists than they deserve. There are several different locations scattered around the Czech Republic which can boast bizarre limestone rock formations (The Czech Paradise, Bohemian Switzerland National Park, Kokořinsko) but those found near the small villages of Adršpach and Teplice nad Metuji are probably the most impressive when taken as a whole.

To give an idea of the scale and appearance of these 'rock cities', imagine walking through a canyon just a few metres wide where pinnacles of stone rise like office towers on all sides, some of them reaching up more than 25 metres with trees clinging to their sides. A unique ecosystem exists in these clefts between the massive stones, attracting large ferns and unusual plant formations which thrive in the cold, damp environment. The paths along the canyon floors will lead you across tiny streams, past raging waterfalls and up and down a series of metal ladders attached to the rocks. The stone formations that tower above you often have shapes that resemble objects or human figures, hence they have been given colourful names such as 'The Dwarf', 'The Lovers', 'The Mayor and His Wife', 'Smetana Playing the Piano', 'Grandma's Armchair', 'Goethe's Table', and 'Butcher's Axe'. The trails are well-marked and don't involve any difficult climbing or scrambling, so people of all ages can be seen walking among the stone formations. Between the two rock cities there is a small lake where rafts are waiting to ferry visitors across to the other side. The oarsmen who steer the boats sing traditional songs and tell jokes to entertain the passengers during the crossing. One of the most memorable portions of the trail is the region called 'Siberia' in the Teplice rock city. The name is fully appropriate since this is the coldest and narrowest of the canyons, with blades of rock soaring up on both sides so that little light reaches the path floor. Ferns grow out from every surface reaching for the sun far above.

It is possible to see the best stone formations in both rock cities in a long day if you start early enough. Both are equally worth visiting, though perhaps Adršpach has a slightly more impressive set of geological oddities. A route starting from the train station in Adršpach leads past a small lake and then follows a green-marked path into a pine forest before emerging in a grove with the first of the formations. A circular loop path takes in the best of the Adršpach rocks and can be completed in one or two hours depending on your pace. A yellow-marked path connects the two rock cities, while a blue-marked trail makes a loop that includes the highlights of the Teplice formations. Along the Teplice trail it is worth making a diversion up a series of steep ladders to see the remains of a rock fortress called Střmen which was built by Hussite soldiers. An ideal place to finish a walk is at Teplice nad Metuji Skaly, where there is a train station as well as a number of good restaurants and hotels. A plentiful assortment of accommodation and eating options can also be found in the village of Adršpach. The rock cities are typically packed with Czech, Polish and German tourists during the peak summer months, but if you can visit in the off-season times of early spring or late autumn you'll be able to experience the walk with less waiting time at ladders and narrow sections of the canyons. Visiting in winter is also possible, when the canyons take on a completely different appearance under a heavy blanket of snow.