One of the joys of visiting cities and villages in Europe is arriving in the heart of their old medieval centres. Brasov was no exception as the image above hints at. It had the usual fountain in the centre with city hall and the outstanding medieval cathedral, the ‘Black Church’, on the perimeter. Going off from various points of the square are the usual cobble-stoned alley-ways with restaurants and pubs serving the local fares and wares. The square was a great place for dining on both the nights we stayed there. On our first night, the square was filled to capacity as the local orchestra was playing and all the locals families were taking advantage of the food, music and great weather.
Brasov was where we were staying as our base camp for visiting Bran Castle but it was a very interesting place to visit just for itself. Let me pick two examples that made our trip there worthwhile; both were based around local churches.
- The Black Church.
- The Cathedral of St Nicholas
The Black Church of Brasov is one of those early Middle Age Churches whose history is littered with tragic stories of both violence and social upheaval. It was built around 1385 and even its construction is marked with tragedy. There is a legend physically attached to the edge of the roof-line of this church about a boy who fell or was pushed off the roof for being cheeky to one of the Bulgarian builders. The story speaks of the guilt of the ‘pusher’ who apparently later admitted his guilt.
Built as a Roman Catholic Church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, one can imagine the conflict and heart-ache of the parishioners dealing with the change in their church community when, led by the town Burghers, they converted to Lutheranism in 1542. The first priest who led this Evangelical revolution away from Rome was Johannes Honter and his statue still overlooks the square at the side of the church.
Brasov, like the rest of Transylvania, was a never-ending passageway for different warring armies attempting to control the regions that would make up the future Romania. The citizens of Brasov were caught between the hammers of Austria and Hungary and the anvil that was the Ottoman Empire. Vlad the Impaler was also the occasional dangerous blacksmith in this scenario. In 1689, as part of the “Great Turkish War”, invading Hapsburg troops set fire to Brasov and it is amazing that the church itself wasn’t completely burnt to the ground. It was badly damaged and covered with black soot, thus gaining its name as the ‘Black Church’. The parishioners noted the ‘miracle’ of the image of Our Lady and the baby Jesus (above one of the internal side doors) that had remained unaffected by the black soot that covered so much of the rest of the church.
Looking at the surface of the exterior stone blocks that the Black Church is built from, you would be forgiven for believing that they had been sprayed with bullets at some point in their existence. However these are just the holes made by the clamps of the original builders when the blocks were being lifted into place. But there are some real bullet holes on some internal stone columns. Our quietly spoken guide explained that they appeared there in December 1989 during random, chaotic shooting that took place when the anti-communist revolution was erupting in many places across Romania.
The bullet holes were not the only signs of warfare marking this sacred building. The grooves in the church wall (see above) were made by soldiers ordered to guard the weapons of their mates that had to be left outside the church during services. These soldiers on guard was responsible for sharpening the swords/bayonets in their care, on the stone wall of the church.
Internally, the Black Church is a museum of what a medieval church would have looked like. In front of each section of pews along the sides of the walls, there are the paintings paid for by the city’s guilds (bakers, leather-workers, metal-workers etc) designating seats for the members and the families of particular guilds. These paintings were held in slots at the front of the pews so they could be removed if the guild didn’t pay their fees to the church.
The Black Church being a Lutheran Church, has an associated parish made up mostly of elderly Saxons of German origin. The size of the parish is dwindling, not only by the natural loss of young people no longer attending Church, but the loss of large numbers of those Romanians of German background who have immigrated to Germany during the Communist period. Our Church guide envisioned a time when the Black Church would no longer have enough worshipers left to continue to celebrate its long but often tragic history.
The other Church we visited on our tour of Brasov was the Orthodox Church of St Ignatius. It began life in the 13th century and it was rebuilt in stone by the parishioners in 1495 with help from Vlad Calugarul, none other than Vlad the Impaler’s brother who was known, in contrast to his brother, as Vlad the Monk!
It was memorable for our group as we met two contrasting individuals who represented this Church Community. The first character we met was the long-term priest of the parish who was both a teacher and a scholarly historian whose interest was in the preservation of old Romanian books. We met in the school room in a building nearby the church where he taught our ‘class’ a lesson in the history of his church. Not all students were co-operative as can be seen by the image below of the corporal punishment that had to be dealt out to those less co-operative.
In some stage in the history of this church, a large number of books and religious texts had been secreted away in a hidden room in the church for protection, some so old that their language was old Romanian and so, difficult for contemporary Romanians to read. The priest had made it his job to translate them. He was an absolute delight to meet and our travelling group enjoyed his lesson and his charming and amusing ‘show and tell’ of his texts and his old printing press that must have been made not long after Gutenburg’s time.
(Note uncooperative students and on right, fading mural on side of church.)
After meeting the priest, our next step was to have a look at the inside of the beautiful orthodox church that was nearby. The lady who was meant to show us the church was very uncooperative to our Guide’s request and her welcome of visitors was in strong contrast to the Parish priest’s welcome. She was even mentioned on Lonely Planet’s guide to the church. “Romanian Orthodox church with a very strict caretaker – the woman is crazy about NO CAMERAS. Better to keep her calm and just admire the fine details of the frescoes on the walls.” Her approach to tourists however didn’t interfere with our appreciation of the beautiful interior of the Cathedral of St Nicolas.