Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2007/27 posted by hidden europe on

This is a stunning time of year to be in the Maramures area of Romania. And especially in the Iza valley, where russet-gold apples hang heavy in the orchards that cluster round every village, and the fields are full of distinctive haystacks - little architectural wonders in their own right. The first hints of autumn colour tint the oak and beech trees on the hills that line each side of the valley.

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Dear fellow travellers

This is a stunning time of year to be in the Maramures area of Romania. And especially in the Iza valley, where russet-gold apples hang heavy in the orchards that cluster round every village, and the fields are full of distinctive haystacks - little architectural wonders in their own right. The first hints of autumn colour tint the oak and beech trees on the hills that line each side of the valley.

There is something primal about the Iza valley. It is a region where old traditions have not been diluted by modern ways. Wood reigns supreme. Villages like Ieud and Bogdan Voda are richly textured places that take their rhythm from wood. Wooden houses, wooden gateways (often attended by a wooden cross) and wooden barns cluster in complex geometries which have as their pivot a wooden church. It is but a short step from the simple Maramures homestead to heaven. The churches, some Uniate and some Orthodox, have an almost miraculous energy, and, so we were told, are among the tallest wooden structures in the world.

The cosmos finds expression in Iza valley homesteads too, with delicate symmetrical carvings on barn doors, porches and gates. Perfectly regular wooden shingles line the roofs to create powerful silhouettes against the early autumn sky. In the courtyards, cords of oak are neatly stacked, while next to one abandoned house, the unburnt winter wood of yesteryear is home to a riot of late summer clematis. If rural perfection is ever to be found in Europe, it might be in the artistic delicacy of the wooden villages of the Iza valley.

art on Tory Island

Art of another kind features on a tiny island off Ireland's north coast. Welcome to Oileán Thorai (Tory Island). Little more than an hour by boat off the coast of Donegal, windswept Tory takes the full brunt of storms coming in from the Atlantic. In winter, the boat may not run for days at a time. Tory Island is more than just forbidding cliffs, monastic ruins and a jumble of whitewashed cottages. It is also home to a remarkable art gallery that documents the work of the island's artists. It was fifty years ago that the celebrated English painter Derek Hill (1916-2000) spent some months on Tory Island. There he captured seascapes and brooding skies, but local fisherman James Dixon took a look at Hill's canvases and said he could do a whole lot better.

Derek Hill accepted the Dixon challenge and in the years thereafter, tutored and encouraged by Hill, there emerged a very distinctive school of Tory Art. A first generation of Tory artists established a colourful naive style that still finds expression in the paintings of their successors. Nowadays, the acknowledged leader of the Tory artistic community is Patsy Dan Mac Ruairí (Patsy Dan Rogers) who is often dubbed the King of Tory by the island folk. As a young man he resisted the plans of the Dublin government to resettle the islanders after a particularly fierce winter in which Tory found itself cut off from the mainland for two whole months. Patsy Dan's work, like that of other Tory artists, captures the vibrancy of Tory's native Gaelic culture and celebrates island landscapes and the sea. But it is not completely introspective. Patsy Dan has painted portraits of Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and of Derek Hill, the man whose encouragement kicked off this Tory tradition. The gallery, named in honour of James Dixon, houses many works by Tory artists. The island's art has also featured in visiting exhibitions in New York, Chicago, Paris and elsewhere.

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.