Leaving Sighișoara, we were heading eastwards towards Moldavia. First off though we went north to Târgu Mureș, just a slight detour, and spent a few hours there. This was once one of the biggest Magyar cities of Transylvania, though nowadays only half the population is Hungarian. We began tentatively using the Hungarian word for thank you and it brought smiles of surprise and encouragement. With pockets of Germans and Hungarians dotted about in this part of Romania, it’s hard to know quite when to use which language.
Târgu Mureș has a modern thoroughfare where the highlights include the Prefecture and House of Culture buildings with their colourful roofs and ornate frontages. We took a peek inside the latter to view the highly decorated golden walls of the interior.
We couldn’t see much of the fortress, which was being restored, but walked through very pleasant tree-lined streets of villas on our way to find the wooden church of St Michael. It has a wooden shingle roof with onion dome and is daintily picturesque. Unfortunately it was locked to visitors and we had no idea where to start playing hunt the key.
Back in town we found a popular Hungarian restaurant set in a modern rendition of a csárda, or inn, and had the £2.50/€3 for three courses lunch menu – the meatball soup was good, the mains a bit less than thrilling, and the desert eminently forgettable.
Back on the road we managed to find our way out of town heading cross country through some lovely villages, vaguely east-ish, a little bit north and then definitely east and a bit south towards Sovato, which with a choice of good campsites made a logical stopping point. I rested at the campsite, while Adrian jumped on his bike to explore the nearby lake resort of Sovato Baile. A short but steep ride, he said, and not much to really see or do when he got there.
Next morning our route took us very definitely east over the hills and through forests towards Moldavia. We followed the signs to Lăzarea where we stopped to look at the castle, joining the small group of Hungarian motorhomes parked in the car park (another motorhome tour).
Dating from the sixteenth century, with a few frescoes on its facade, the castle is being gradually restored by a group of artists who come every summer. We entered a large refectory where there is an exhibition of their work, as well as some examples of local ethnographic items.
The cleaner was busy washing the floor, but she beckoned us in. When we had seen the pictures on the walls, she motioned for us to climb onto the podium and go through the curtain behind it. It lead to a staircase and up to the next floor, a beautiful light eaves room. Here we saw everything from prints and paintings to sculptures and installations, some inspired by the location, some not. On the floor above this we could climb out onto a covered roof terrace to get a good view of our surroundings.
Further east we came across Lacu Roșu, formed after a landslide dammed the River Bicaz. This happened in 1838, but you can still see the tops of the trees poking up through the water. The river continues through a dramatic gorge, the limestone cliffs almost touching in the centre of the road above you as you wind between huge rock slabs.
North of Bicaz town, our road crossed a manmade dam and followed the eastern side of the resulting lake, with views across the water to mountains beyond, including the distant hulk of the Ceahlău massif. We’d read about a campsite at a motel north of the lake and were kind of heading there. On our way we saw a sign to a monastery and followed it. The rough track took us through a couple of villages, then wound around through the woods and eventually came out at what looked like a newly built wooden monastery, busy with nuns, and the builders were still there building more new bits. The church itself was in the middle of being cleaned so we couldn’t enter. Back to the main road again.
The camping motel showed no signs of life, and it was hard to see how we would have got the van into the overgrown parking area anyway. Onwards, but where? Another motel that supposedly did camping was closed too. Time to start looking for a wild camp spot. There was a sign to the left to Neamt Monastery, one of our ‘to see’ places. We followed the road up there. It is a large complex, and with the oldest buildings dating from the 12th century, it’s the oldest monastery in Moldavia. It’s also the largest men’s monastery in Romania and we went through the high walls to see the church and the grounds around the main building.
Outside it sits an onion domed building, which our guidebook said was where the water is blessed and people can take it home with them. Not anymore, it is now a large bookshop. Well there are shelves and piles of books everywhere, trays of soft drinks, rosary bead stands higgledy-piggledy. Perhaps the building is still in transition from one use to the other? We browsed a little while in the silence, then a voice started speaking. It was the bearded monk behind the counter. He was very proud of having learned English from a book entitled ‘English without a teacher’. He’d also taught himself German in the same way. It was Brother Anthony, the book monk.
As we were talking he asked us where we were staying. We don’t know, we replied, explaining that we were in a campervan. Why don’t you stay here? He asked.
The evening service of chanting was on the PA system, so we were entertained by the beautiful sound for two and a half hours, with the odd cow, horse drawn cart, and random dog and monk wandering by.
Agapia was the next monastery on our list. The term monastery refers to religious communities comprising either sex and here were nuns again. On the way there, we caught sight of nun sheep- and cattle-herders, and the monastery itself was lovely, with the flower gardens and deeply holy atmosphere we’ve come to expect.
The nun’s chanting echoed round the homely cloister of small cottages, the monastery farmyard just beyond it. Fruit trees groaned with their ripening fruit in the early autumnal morning light.
If I was to become an Orthodox nun, this would be where I would like to live.
The garden shows Popa’s totemic sculptures. Popa’s son was showing a French tour group round and although it would have been good to tag onto the end of this, they didn’t all fit in the rooms as it was, so we followed our own route through.
We then drove north towards Southern Bucovina, famous for its painted monasteries, of which more in the next post.