On the painted monastery trail

The lure of seeing Romania’s treasured painted monasteries took us to Southern Bucovina in the northwest of Moldavia (not to be confused with Moldova, which is a separate country to the east). These lands were long subject to the threat of invasions and claims on them from all directions. Back in the fifteenth century, Stephen the Great (a cousin of Vlad Tepeș) was victorious over the Turks in more than 40 battles, and after every one of these he built churches, each one in a similar style. Subsequent rulers and rich families continued the tradition of building churches, monasteries and other religious buildings. The interiors were painted, the exteriors decorated with glazed brick details or mouldings, typically a rope pattern round the outside.

Detail from Sucevița

Later, it was thought to be the fifteenth century Metropolitan of Moldavia, Grigore Roșca, who had the idea of painting the exterior walls of the monastery churches with biblical scenes for the peasants, an illustrated book open to all to understand. The frescoes are a much thinner layer than those found in Italy, so it is remarkable that any have survived the buffetting of the elements over centuries. The subjects recur and scenes are often depicted in a similar way, the Day of Judgement takes pride of place on many walls, but the tree of Jesse (the biblical family tree) is also seen a lot, then there are the rows of saints and events of the Old and New Testaments. The imagery shows a Byzantine influence, but little is known of the artists. The colours they used are extraordinary and vary from place to place with the blue used at Voroneț being the most famous.

There was a whole list of monasteries and churches to see, but where to start? Should we just do one or two, if so which ones? Or all of them? They were spread round and about across the area to the east and north of the town of Suceava and up close to the Ukrainian border.

After a few days in the area we got to see nearly all the major painted monasteries, as well as many minor monasteries and churches and a lot more besides. A feast for the eyes, the pleasing colours and forms, shapes of the churches and other buildings are among the finest things to see in the whole of Europe, but little known.

As we’ve seen elsewhere in Romania, people are really devout and nearly all these places are active. They don’t exist just as tourist sites. The many Romanians who flock to see them pay scant attention to the frescoes and instead perform acts of devotion – the kissing of the icons, elaborate crossing of themselves, lengthy prayers, lighting of candles. Everywhere has its little candle chapel or ‘cupboard’ outside or in a side-chapel, to protect the interiors from smoke damage. There are usually with two areas within these, one for the living, one for the dead,  as wells as a holy water dispenser of some kind nearby.

Seven of the locations are on the UNESCO World Heritage list and several of these have restoration work underway, wooden scaffolds obscuring some of the interior and exterior images, but tucked away are scores of restorers working painstakingly at odd angles to clean or add in paint where it’s missing.

We have also seen a great number of new churches and cathedrals recently built or in the process of being built throughout the country. The Turks, Austro-Hungarians and Communists may have tried to alter, suppress or eradicate religion, but they did not succeed, and together with Tunisia, this is the most religious country we have visited.

It turned out that our days here coincided with Holy Cross Day, so there was even more going on than usual. This religious day celebrates the cross that Jesus was crucified on and marks the change of season, alms are given to the dead and cemeteries are decorated with colourful wreathes of artificial flowers on each grave marker.

At Rasca, our first painted monastery, but not one of the most famous ones, the car parks overflowed and smartly and traditionally dressed people were everywhere. A service had just finished and as they came out of the grounds, people were being given food – a simple lunch on paper plates – out of a car boot. We felt a bit under-dressed and entered through the passageway into the monastery itself discreetly, and there amid the well-tended gardens was the church, the frescoes adorning the south facing wall were magnificent. Due to centuries of prevailing weather, it tends to be the art of the south facing wall that survives more intact. The interior was busy with people milling about writing prayers on slips of paper or buying candles to light and we slipped in to peek inside.

The big name painted monasteries are Voroneț, Humor, Sucevița and Moldovița and are impressive for the range of art and artifacts both inside and out. Voroneț was particularly touristy. Every conceivable house in the village was a guest house and the car park was huge and heaving. Not with worshippers this time, but tour groups. The late afternoon sunshine was catching the beautiful south side and end of the church, with its special colour blue shown off to its full glory. Voroneț is deserving of the attention it gets, but we were relieved when the groups disappeared and we finally had it almost to ourselves.

After settling into our camping spot in the grounds of a guesthouse in the village of Humor, we went for a stroll up the village road, where at the close of the working day, people sit on the benches outside their houses for a chat and to greet anyone passing by. Sometimes it’s small families, though often a gaggle of scarfed old women gather together, or the older men in hats chew the fat. They were all friendly, but although this area is much frequented by tourists, we did feel rather conspicuous. There were a couple of shops, one in a container, which doubled up as makeshift bars.

It was at the quieter, but no less beautiful Humor monastery, first thing on a dull overcast Saturday morning, that our borrowed camera’s battery failed. It was completely flat in spite of being on charge all night, and the spare was no better. So here we were in a region full of photogenic ancient works of art and places of outstanding beauty, with no viable means of taking photos. We had hoped to limp on with our existing cameras, but it was crunch time. We had to have a new camera like NOW. So with the weather turning from cloudy to wet quite quickly, and being close to Suceava, a sizeable town likely to boast camera retail opportunities, we opted to head there.

Of course, the route took us past two more sightseeing visits. Firstly to Cacica, not a painted monastery this time, but a salt-mining town with a largely Polish population. The mine sounded intriguing from the description in the guidebook, and down a hundred or more steps we went into the cold black-walled tunnels, which lead first into a wide church area. Then after another descent, a chapel, and a passage where figures, religious and otherwise had been sculpted into the rock. We walked for what seemed like miles underground, along the disused railway where carts had been pulled by dogs, and to another surprise. A ballroom. Yes far underground, cold and black, and smelling of petrol, which was used in the salt extracting process, here was a ballroom! Near this was a pond where people used to take a boat to the ball and betrothed couples used it to declare their intentions.

Salt mine pulpit

That was surprising enough, but then after a few more tunnels were followed, we came out at a basket ball pitch. There was an underground sports club too. We walked through this and came out at the café and picnic area in a large open space way below the surface by now.

After gradually climbing up again, it was a relief to get out into the fresh air, as the petrol smell was quite overpowering after a while. We wouldn’t have missed this exciting and rather different experience for the world though. At Părhăuti the bells were ringing, the stone church was a familiar shape but wasn’t painted apart from the porch. It wasn’t open though and the two old boys who appeared at the bottom of the narrow stone spiral stairs from the bell tower didn’t have the key. Oh well, we would see plenty more churches on our travels.

Suceava is a large sprawling industrial town, once known for its chemical works that spewed out so many noxious substances that the babies were born deformed. Hopefully those days are gone and things have improved. Shopping malls certainly seem to be filling in a few gaps in the industrial wasteland. The old part of town, has a fortress and monastery though, and after lunch at a good Romanian-Mexican restaurant, we made a quick dash through the rain to see the Monastery of St John the New. We would have liked to spend longer inside but the priest kept roping bits off separating Adrian and I, as well as the old lady in the zimmer frame, into different sections. It was a large space with spectacular imagery, but we took the hint and hurried back to the van for an afternoon of camera shopping.

The intention was to get a viable ‘stand-in’ camera for the rest of the trip until we found what we wanted, probably back home. Was it worth spending money on a temporary fix though? Our old faithful camera was a Panasonic Lumix TZ5, and after looking in a few other places in recent months, we had given up hope of finding anything like it at an affordable price. We found a media superstore that had a later Lumix model at a surprisingly decent price and were about to buy it.

While Adrian went to check if our existing memory card would work in the new one, I turned the corner of the aisle and spotted a display case we’d missed. These cameras were more expensive, but there was a Panasonic Lumix TZ18, with a far greater zoom plus a lot more scope to play with settings. Very tempting, but it was close to double the price. The more I thought about it though, the more it seemed worth the extra money to get this one. This would be the replacement camera, not a quick solution. And also I hadn’t bought my birthday present yet! So we had an exciting new camera, which turned out to be the same price in the store as on the world famous big South American river named website.

A friendly tourist office guy had suggested a campsite by Dragomirna monastery, about 15km north of town. It turned out to be really quite a nice location, with, for a change a shower, toilet and washbasin all in the same room! The weather had cleared up a bit by the morning, and we strolled across the road into the monastery. Not painted, Dragomirna is famed for its tall narrow church, set inside the fortifications, with rope mouldings around the edges. Very elegant. Being first thing on a Sunday, the service was in full swing, so we didn’t get to do more than peer inside before going for walk round the grounds.

The nearby Pătrăuti church was, like its near namesake, sadly closed but we could see the remains of the painted exterior.

Then it was on to one of our favourites – Arbore. Again this was a ‘standalone’ church rather than a monastery. It was open, and the guardian cum guide was an enthusiastic lady who spoke French, although this was difficult to hear with the echoing acoustics.

She gave us a tour of the imagery on the interior and exterior, and gave us the rare opportunity to take pictures inside. The frescoes here were more luminous and alive than some of the others we’d seen.

Putna monastery was way north within sight of hills in the Ukraine, and although not painted on the outside, it has the tomb of Stephen the Great and his wives, both called Maria. It is an important religious centre and national poet Mihai Eminescu famously stated ‘Let us make Putna the Jerusalem of the Romanian people’.

The service was over but there were monks milling about, and many worshippers, all of whom seemed unperturbed by the metal framed bed with a monk lying obviously in the last throws of life, placed close to the altar. We, however, felt we were intruding rather.

After a picnic lunch in the car park, trying to ignore a couple of scrounging kids, we found Dragoș-Voda. Built in 1346, this is supposed to the oldest wooden church in Romania. It was very picturesque, in spite of being closed!

Further south along a different valley, Sucevița is a huge draw, and its exterior paintings even on the exposed side are in very good condition.The paintings inside were also some of the most captivating that we’ve seen. Time was drawing on, and a nun walked around the grounds playing the call to prayer percussion on a long piece of wood, called a toacă. This tradition stems from the Turks forbidding the ringing of bells.

Moldovița, our last late stop in Bucovina, suffered our, by this time, slight monastery overload, and together with the poor light and rather terse nuns, was rather less enthralling. If we’d been there first though, and if the sun had been shining and the nuns more smiley it could have been our favourite. Weather, mood and cultural overload all affect our impressions of a place!

Getting on into the evening we had a few more kilometres to go to reach Camping de Vuurplaats, at Fundu Moldovei, another Dutch-run campsite, where we spent a couple of nights. We were much in need of a down day to recover from so much beauty and religious fervour, and to try and catch up on the blog.

We met a Dutch couple, Paul and Marlieke, only three weeks into their motorbike trip to Nepal, and other points east before planning to transport themselves and their bikes to New Zealand. Adrian spent the morning changing our worn-out front brake pads and then helped Paul with some bike fettling. We chatted well into the evening over some beers.

About EllieGee

Following the road...
This entry was posted in Art & Culture stuff, By Country - Romania, Personal stuff, Travel stuff, Van stuff. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to On the painted monastery trail

  1. Ros and Ray says:

    What utterly beautiful frescoes!
    Oh, by the way, don’t hurry back. It’s awful here.

  2. Beautiful pics, and love the new camera now that you are heading home! Does it do rain and storm pictures?? Or Arctic Chill Coming Next Week pictures!!

  3. Peter Granger says:

    We have just arrived in the Suceava area after visiting many other areas of Romania in our small motorhome and found your blog on the monasteries in this area very interesting and helpful. We hope to follow in your wheeltracks as we slowly make our way back to the UK. The lack of camper stops in this area prompted us to find your story on the net and we now realise that the best solution is to find local pensions of panzios or wild camp in quiet locations. Seems like wherever you go you will never get away from the barking dogs at night though!

    • AdrianC says:

      Hi, Peter – glad that we could be of help to you!

      I guess the lack of “camper stops” probably depends on what you’re driving and what you’re looking for? If you’re after the Aire-kind of stop, you might be out of luck, but we found some wonderful campsites, although some might be a bit inaccessible for big motorhomes. We absolutely loved http://baboumaramures.com/, in the midst of the wooden churches of Maramures, but we found a couple of great stops outside some of the painted monasteries. Just ask a friendly monk!

      You may also bump into Ju and Jay from http://www.ourtour.co.uk – they’re in Romania at the mo.


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