Romania is usually synonymous with Transylvania and its legendary ruler and lover of human blood, Prince Dracula. While that place is on my travel map, traditionally I was more interested in the less frequently visited, forgotten Apuseni Mountains and the gems of sacral architecture hidden there.

Apuseni is a land not yet fully explored, shrouded in a light mist of mystery, rumor and contradictory information. It can surprise as well as delight with its rich and unexpectedly well-preserved historical legacy. After World War II and the subsequent exodus of residents to the cities, the area went into decline and its abandoned hamlets, houses and pastures were consumed by the forest. Dozens of villages hidden there became almost totally depopulated. The few remaining inhabitants engage in shepherding, woodworking and growing fruit trees. Due to the villages’ isolation, however, they will almost certainly disappear in the near future.

The hamlets are only reachable by roads crossing dozens of slopes covered with forests and alpine vegetation. They were located near valleys where steep gorges have been carved into the limestone. You can only reach them by traversing mountain trails on foot or by off-road vehicle. Old maps, photographs and administrative records from the last 150 years yield some details about them. Thanks to these, I manage to determine the location of several villages. However, it quickly turns out that finding them on a map is one thing – getting to them is a completely different story.


For the first two days, the gravel road runs along mountain slopes crisscrossed by picturesque canyons and glades. They are covered with spruce trees and meadows full of fragrant, colorful flowers that cannot be found anywhere else in Europe. Nature here is still pristine and unspoilt. Every now and then, I pass shepherd’s huts, huge mounds of hay, and flocks of sheep guarded by shepherds and their faithful dogs. Little has changed in the villages that are still inhabited. People here have lived around and from the forests for hundreds of years.

The further I tramp through the mountains, the narrower and more overgrown the road becomes. Eventually, it turns into a barely visible trail winding into the unknown. Due to its complete isolation, there is a unique atmosphere of emptiness and loss. After a moment, remnants of abandoned farmsteads emerge from among the dense foliage – thatched wooden houses, foundations overgrown with trees, the ruins of churches and schools. As I walk along trails that no one has taken for many years, I feel like an explorer. The sight of the huts, once inhabited but now abandoned, reminds me a bit of the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone, although the reasons behind the exodus here were quite different. There are no people here. You’ll find bears here more often. Now it’s their land.

After a few days, I arrive in the area where the Orthodox church I’m seeking should be located. I launch the drone from the top of one of the hills, hoping to make finding the forgotten church, which is hidden somewhere in the thick forest, easier. I manage to spot it during the second flight. Its presence is heralded by a tall, slender spire protruding above the tall spruce trees.


The church is located on the hill opposite me, so to get there I first have to go down into the ravine. A narrow, steep and winding path leads to it. Fortunately, it’s not raining, and the trails are dry. Otherwise, the rain would immediately turn the clay surface into a slippery, muddy goo and make it impossible to get back up. After almost an hour of off-road struggles, I reach the foot of the canyon and a small river whose current has eaten away at the limestone rockface for ages, gradually carving out the vertical walls of the gorge. The old, overgrown roads are increasingly difficult to identify and travel by car, so I decide to tackle the last stretch on foot. The dense vegetation surrounding me on all sides and the oppressive heat beating down on me from the sky make me feel like I’m in a jungle. I take heart in knowing that I’m already so close.

I learned from pre-war publications that, at the time, just over 800 people lived in the village nearby. They mainly cultivated fruit trees on the steep slopes and unyielding soil. For hundreds of years, they lived far from civilization, unbothered by anyone. Today, all that remains of them are their houses and church. When these were abandoned, they were overtaken by moss and thick bushes, and were eventually consumed by the forest. No one ever again returned here.

After several hours of grueling hiking, a small wooden church emerges from behind a screen of dense bushes and trees. Around it, wooden and stone crosses loom over invisible graves obscured by vegetation. I’ve made it!

Although the architecture of the church resembles that of a Catholic church, it is actually Orthodox. It was built in the early 19th century and dedicated to the Annunciation. The wooden structure is covered by a tin roof, above which rises a bell tower and a tall spire made of the same material. It gives the structure a slenderness and monumentality. The church was built in an open area, but today it is literally suffocated by the forest. Suffocated, but at the same time guarded against unseen and unknown danger. Or perhaps it’s simply hiding its secrets from uninvited visitors – thieves or vandals.

Once inside, I feel as though I’ve stepped back in time. The images of Jesus and various saints painted on the wooden walls and vaulted ceiling are illuminated by the frail light of the sun’s rays. Above the balcony, I spot a depiction of Jesus ascending into heaven in His full majesty. Many of the murals depict scenes from the crucifixion: Pilate washing his hands, the soldiers scourging Jesus’ prone body, the crowning with thorns, the nailing of the Savior’s body to the cross.

MThe murals are not the only works of sacral art I can admire here. My attention is also drawn to the dusty woven ensigns leaning against the wall. Next to them are hand-painted wooden candlesticks, likely made by a local craftsman in the mid-19th century. The arrangement is complemented by an old candle chandelier hanging from the ceiling, which once illuminated the church’s interior. Just behind it, damaged icons hang on the richly decorated iconostasis. The paint is peeling off most of them, so it’s hard to determine which saints they depict.

The paintings on the walls of the chancel are far better preserved. They depict life-size figures of the holy patriarchs, whose gazes are directed to the liturgical table, upon which lies an old book covered by a thin layer of dust. I gently turn the pages to look at the title page. It’s the Pentecostarion, a liturgical book containing prayers and devotions used in religious ceremonies from Easter Sunday until Pentecost.

As I admire the beauty of the forgotten church, I’m also photographing it. The initial joy at finding this old, abandoned church and being able to show it to a wider audience quickly turns into a desire to save it. Not from destruction, because it’s probably too late for that, but from oblivion. I use my camera to capture this pearl of sacral architecture – destroyed icons, murals and other unique objects that ought to be in a museum. The atmosphere of silence and contemplation, interrupted only by the soft sound of the camera shutter and footsteps on the large stone slabs covering the floor, sends my imagination into overdrive. I can see the glow of the wax candles gently illuminating the faces of the saints, smell the incense whose fragrance is part of every sacred liturgy, and hear the low voices of the choir resounding throughout the sanctuary.

That’s all in the past, though. When the villagers left their homes, the church also died.

3 thoughts

  1. Love these adventures. Did you travel with anyone on this trip or go solo? Please send me a link where I can send in a donation.

    Thank you,

    David Lowell
    Roswell, Ga.

  2. Woaouah !! So great photos and place, thanks a lot for your work and to let us see all these beauties !

    Michel (in France)

  3. Thank you for sharing this beautiful, abandoned place with me. Your photography always moves me, and these ones are particularly poignant.
    Sheri (in Vancouver, Canada)

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