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Wooden Churches of Zakarpattya


Olena Krushynska, whose wooden-church enthusiasm never wanes, continues to explore Ukraine in search of architectural marvels and curios. This time takes her readers to Zakarpattya.


Kolochava Nehrovets Mizhgirya

Last time I took you to Hutsulshchyna (see WU #12010), and now I take you back to Zakarpattya, the westernmost part of Ukraine. If you go there in winter, you can combine culture tourism with skiing. Another proposition just walk around, climb to vantage points and enjoy the stunningly beautiful sights. Among the winter joys are the crunching sounds the snow makes when you take a walk in subzero temperatures, and sliding down the slopes on hills on whatever happens to be your favorite way of going down inclines. In the evenings, local wine of excellent quality can give a special touch to your romantic mood, particularly if you are located in front of a fireplace with a cheerful fire dancing inside.

Incidentally, the area Im taking you to this time will be appreciated best by people with romantic inclinations. It is situated in the valley of the River Tereblya, in between the National Nature Park Synevyr and the Carpathian Biosphere Reserve with most picturesque mountains around. The places well be visiting are all located within Mizhgirsky Raion of Zakarpattya Oblast. We start from the little town of Mizhgirya and proceed to the village of Kolochava.


Museums in Kolochava

Kolochava is an enchanted place where time has got suspended. It does not mean the locals live in the past and are of touch with the present-day almost every house has one or two dishes for satellite television. But the women continue to do laundry at the river, the way they did for hundreds of years. In winter, you are as likely to see horse-drawn sleighs as cars moving around.

It is for experiencing this effect of time standing still that many tourists come to Kolochava. Incidentally, if you see a group of tourists in Kolochava they are most likely to be from the Czech Republic. In contrast to the Check tourist agencies, Ukrainian tour operators have hardly started to tap Kolochavas tourist potential.

Kolochava, the land of fairy tales, was described in his books by the classic of Czech literature Ivan Olbracht. As long ago as in the 1930s, he often visited Kolochava and put his impressions into his short stories and novels, the best known of which is Mykola Shugai the Brigand, published in 1933. It is a story of a Carpathian Robin Hood. The novel was a great hit in the then Czechoslovakia. In the wake of the novels success, Olbracht and two other writers came to Kolochava to make a film. The film, Mariyka the Rebel, also dealt with episodes from the life of Mykola Shugai, the character from Olbrachts book. No professional actors were employed to play in the film the locals proved to have acting talents even without any professional training. They played themselves, they talked their language nobody from the outside would have been able to do it the way they did. Im sure there are descendants of the villagers who took part in filming that movie and who still live in Kolochava.

Olbrachts lively descriptions of Kolochavas scenery continue to inspire thousands of Czech tourists to visit the village whose general appearance these days looks rather exotic in the eyes of Central Europeans wooden peasant houses, wooden galleries, wooden roofs. The village does look like an open-air museum and makes a jaw-dropping impression upon the visitors.

But we have come to Kolochava primarily to see the church which is situated in the part of the village which the locals call Kolochava-Horb (Hill). The tall bell tower that rises above the church is easily spotted it provides the direction following which you easily find the church which is dedicated to the Holy Spirit. Its best to find and talk to the local named Vasyl Hleba. He is a history teacher at the school and a guide into the bargain. He does know a lot about his village and the area in general, and he can tell a lot of interesting things. He also has the keys from the church. Vasyls stories deal with the rather turbulent history of the village which alternately found itself under the Rumanian, Hungarian, Czech and Soviet rule within the last hundred years or so. In his opinion, the local traditions and customs were not always as idyllic as one can imagine them to be. If, for example, an unmarried woman gave birth to a child, she would be forced to stand on Easter under the tree The Spot of Shame, that grows near the church, and everyone on the way to the church for the Easter services could come up to the woman and hit her or verbally abuse her. I saw that tree it is a hundred-and-fifty year old pine. The last time a woman was punished in the way described happened only fifty years ago. I shuddered inwardly as I passed by that tree.

The Church of the Holy Spirit is one of the prettiest wooden churches in Zakarpattya. The date of the construction is carved into the doorframe: This church was erected in 1795 by master [architect] Ferenz Tekk under the auspices of the priest Ioan Popovic during the rule of Franzisek II at the time of a great famine. This inscription with such a gruesome detail added is unique among desrpitions of this kind carved on churches usually it is only the date and a name that are mentioned.

I climbed the tall bell tower to take a look at the old bells, one of which had a date on it 1925, as well as the names of donors who donated money for making the bells.

Inside the church, there is little left from the time of the construction. In the soviet times, the church was turned into a museum of atheism, and wonderful seventeenth-eighteenth-century icons were removed from the church and put at a museum in Uzhgorod (the icons are still there).

Kolochava boasts several museums one of which is an open-air museum located right next to the village. It was a native of Kolochava, Stanislav Arzhevitin, a politician and businessman who initiated the creation of an open-air museum and then donated money for the project. So I was eager to see it.


Old Village Museum

The museum sits at the foot of the hill that rises above the river, so to get to see it youll have to cross the fast-flowing stream over a bridge that is not too solid. Passing through a nice-looking wooden gate, you find yourself in an old village that looks what typical villages in that area used to look like in the times of old.

Over twenty peasant houses, barns, a smithy, and other buildings have been brought from elsewhere. All of them are real McCoy old buildings found in outlying villages were dismantled and brought to Kolochava to be re-assembled and installed in the museum. I was lucky to see the process of one such building being put together right before my eyes.

The Old Village Museum is complete with a real well which provides crystal-clear water of excellent taste. The presence of tritons in the water attests to its perfect purity many water wells in the Carpathians have newts living in them.

In the building that used to be a Hungarian gendarme station (and which looks today as though it is still functioning), I looked into the basement through the bars on the floor and was surprised to see a young woman there, evidently under custody for an offense of some sort. It took me a couple of seconds to realize that the woman was an effigy but made very realistically.

In the building of a carefully recreated nineteenth-century school which was used to be run by the church I did experience a feeling I was actually on a visit to an old school, in which students of various ages shared one and the same classroom and wrote not in pads or copybooks but on small tablets with slate pencils. Those who misbehaved or were found in some wrong doing were punished with birching.

In the 1920s, the Jews constituted about one fifth of Kolochavas population, and in the Old Village Museum you can see a whole Jewish quarter, which can give you a pretty good idea about the conditions of life in the early twentieth century. A korchma (tavern) serves drinks and food, 1920s style. On the counter, you can see a debtors ledger which contained the names of those who owned money to the korchmas Jewish proprietor for the drinks and food they had had. The interior in one of the houses of the Jewish quarter displays the things that were in everyday use in the early twentieth century. There is no synagogue but there is a house of worship where the Jews gathered on Saturdays to observe the Sabbath.

In the Old Village Museum I discovered a loggers cabin. Logging was and to a large extent remains to be a popular occupation. The cabin displays a collection of axes, saws and other instruments that were used by the Carpathian lumberjacks. Timber was transported by the rivers rafts, made of the cut logs tied together, were piloted down the rivers by borkorashs professional raftsmen. It took a lot of physical strength and steering skills to take rafts down rapid mountain rivers. If a raft got out of control and hit another raft or the shore, it resulted in bad injuries or death of the rafters. When the rafts arrived at the destinations, they were taken apart and timber transported further overland. This mode of timber shipping was used well into the twentieth century.

The Old Village Museum contains the Kolochayivska Vuzkokoliyka (Narrow-Gauge Railroad) section which is a sort of a museum in a larger museum. The thing is that in the early twentieth century many miles of narrow-gauge railroads were laid in the Carpathians primarily for the purpose of transporting timber. Later, their use was suspended, and they were abandoned to rust away. History and culture enthusiasts did find some pieces of the narrow-gauge rails, freight and passenger cars and a locomotive. They were brought to the Old Village Museum and put on display you can see Czech-made cars, Hungarian cars, Soviet-made cars for transporting cattle, timber and passengers. The interior of the cars was carefully restored and each car is like a miniature museum in itself. On big holidays, the ancient locomotive is brought to life and some time soon tourists will be able to take a 800-meter ride in an old restored passenger car. At present, tourists and locals are taken for rides on a small handcar. The racket can be heard over a long distance. I do not think there is another museum like the one in Kolochava.

It would be wrong not to mention other museums in that amazing village of Kolochava the Radyanska shkola (Soviet School) Museum; the Cheska shkokla (Czech School) Museum; the Ivan Olbracht Museum, and several other museums are to be opened soon.



No matter how much Kolochava can offer a tourist, I moved on. The next stop was in the village of Nehrovets, next door to Kolochava. In fact, Nehrovets used to be administratively a part of Kolochava but now it is a separate village in its own right. Ivan Olbracht, in his description of Kolochava, wrote: This village stretches for such a long distance that it comes as no surprise that a newcomer who walks along the valley past the peasant houses, then past vegetable gardens, then the houses again begins to experience, depending on his character, either anger or resentment or resignation when he asks the locals where he is and gets one and the same answer Kolochava.

I did not walk to Nehroves the car is a much faster mode of transportation these days.

It was the Church of Archangel Michael and the architectural complex around it which date from the eighteenth century that I wanted to see. The priest Dmytro Voron takes care of it. He told me that in 2009, he, assisted by other locals, had built a small wooden church for keeping in it the iconostasis from the big church [Archangel Michaels] when the repairs were being carried out there. He took me up the bell tower to show me the bells which were made in the early twentieth century in Uzhgorod.


Back to Mizhgirya

There are no old wooden churches in Mizhgirya but there is one which was built quite recently in 2006 in the section of town known as Potochyna. It is a rare case when a new wooden church was built in a full accordance with the traditions of the old wooden churches. The ancient wooden church in the village of Krekhiv (I wrote about that church in one of my previous essays) was used as a model for the new church in Potochyna. The church is dedicated to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.


A panoramic view of the village of Nehrovets.
If you ignore the dishes of satellite television and some other not very
conspicuous signs of the twenty-first century civilization,
the village, particularly buried in snow,
looks the way it did a couple of centuries ago.


The church in Mizhgirya, built several years ago,
attracts not only worshippers but tourists as well.
The carved pillars and arcades create a visible architectural rhythm.


A view of the Church of the Holy Spirit from its former bell tower.


The fancy galleries provide a cheerful artistic touch
to the church in Kolochava. The carved pillars and arcades create
a visible architectural rhythm.



The Church of Archangel Michael
stands close to the road and can be easily spotted from passing cars.
In the cold season, after the trees have shed their leaves,
nothing impedes the view of the churchs impressive tower and tall spire.


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Photos by the author

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