Unexpected Neighbors, in Brasov

An essential part of travel is the potential for the unexpected. Obviously I love a good itinerary, stocked with well-researched information and deservedly famous locations, but there’s something magic and alive about finding things you’ve never heard of, especially the small and seemingly insignificant. Those can sometimes illuminate the larger picture better than the main sites do.

Brasov’s Piața Sfatului is famous. (The little tail on the “ț” in piața means it is the “ts” sound in pizza, so “piața” is the Romanian version of the more familiar Italian “piazza.”) Picturesque and lively, Sfatului is lined with colorful houses from the 17 & 1800’s, though the space has been hosting markets, trials, and daily life since at least the 1300s, and just off the square rise the striking gothic walls of the Saxon-built Biserica Neagra, or “Black Church.”

Piata Sfatului in Brasov, the Black Church rising in the corner.

Sfatului had already more than earned its fame by the time my eye caught on an unlikely pair at the other end of the piața: the colorful orbs of a gelato shop, nearly beneath the intricate gold-backed mosaic of an Orthodox Church. Each has their own appeal, physical and spiritual, but I was surprised to see them so close together. My stomach pulled toward the gelato, but my curiosity needed to investigate the darkened holy doorway first. Was it really a church?

She almost looked like she was reaching out for a cone…

Inside, an elegant but hard working hallway led deeper into the block of buildings, while the waft of incense and drift of hymns made it clear that this was indeed a place of worship. Crossing the threshold into the narthex, I found myself in another of Romania’s astonishing little churches. The ceiling was intricately frescoed with Biblical teachings, while the cool marble floor had intricate designs that led my eye forward into the nave itself, where the ornate gold and cherished artwork of the “iconostasis” screen separated the main nave (where the congregation attends services) from the sanctuary (where only the clergy may go). Accustomed to more austere Protestant spaces, I always feel a little stunned when I enter an Orthodox church. This one gave me that same shock, despite its humble presence on the piața outside (or perhaps because of it).

Inside Biserica Sfanta Adormire a Maicii Domnului, Brasov

Big Name Churches can sometimes feel more like gift shops than sacred spaces, but I never had that feeling in Romania, and certainly not in intimate little places like this one. A slow succession of locals was finding time in their day to come offer prayers, and again I felt like I was part of a community, this time a spiritual one. It made no difference that I am not Orthodox, I felt as welcome there as I did over and over throughout Romania.

Inhaling a last deep breath of spiced incense air, I felt my pulse slow to match the rhythm of the hymns, and I embraced the calm that filled my chest. Then I went outside and had a gelato. There’s something for everyone in Romania, and I was happily soaking it all in.