It was a long drive from our hotel in Sighisoara to Guru Humorului in the Romanian province of Bucovina. Our morning drive involved two stops that broke the journey. The first stop was at Red Lake (Lacul Rosu) in the Eastern Carpathian mountains. It is a ‘Barrier Lake’ formed in 1837 when a landslide blocked the valley and the Red Creek that flowed through it. It is now a tourist stop on the way north and on the morning we visited, there were a lot of canoeists and picnickers on and around the lake as well as taking advantage of the market stalls trading around the edge.
Our road then took us through Bicaz Gorge which winds for 8 kilometres through the mountains before taking us out of Transylvania and into the province of Moldova. Our stop was in a spectacular but narrow section of the gorge where, as usual, market stalls had been set up to lure the passing travellers. It was a little dangerous to be a shopper as there wasn’t much room on the floor of the gorge for the stalls, the road and the river that rushed along beside it, continuing to carve its way through the mountain.
Our route to Bucovina took us through the beautiful countryside of Moldova, passing though towns made picturesque by their gardens and ornate wells and the farms that displayed all shapes and sizes of handcrafted haystacks. As can be seen on the map of Romania above, the Romanian province of Moldova is not to be confused with the Republic of Moldova that sits over Romania’s north eastern border hedged in by the Ukraine. Originally called Bessarabia, it was part of Romania between 1918-1940 and it was taken by the USSR as a ‘compulsory gift’ after the war as a forced token of thanks by the departing Russians for all the help they had given Romania during the war. It became the Republic of Moldova and after the dissolution of the USSR, decided to remain independent rather than rejoin its relatives over the border in Romania. Today it is the poorest country in Europe.
We arrived in Guru Humorului at the large Best Western Hotel which seemed to be the only tourist hotel that catered for visitors to the painted monasteries of the area. We stayed for the next two days in this town and although it was our base for monastery visits, we spent a reasonable amount of time checking out its vibrant market, its churches and its curious little museum that recorded the life style of the residents of the area over the previous centuries. As we were the only visitors to the museum on this occasion, we were given a personal tour of all the complex exhibits by one of the museum attendants; time well spent where many of our questions about the region we had travelled through by bus were answered.
Like the rest of Romania, the Bucovina province has had a tumultuous past, being squeezed between the Ottoman Empire to the south, Austro-Hungarian Empire to the north and the Poles to the east. It was part of Austria until the end of World War One when the area was part of the battlefield between Austria and Russia. Bucovina was ceded to Romania after the First World War.
The other curious story we encountered of the past of Gura Humorului was the tragic tale of Jewish settlers who moved to the area in the middle of the 19th century. They flourished in the area until the town was burnt to the ground in 1899. Jewish donors from the USA provided much of the finance to rebuild the town. However, with the arrival of World War 2, the Jewish presence in Gura Humorului finished. Approximately 3000 Jewish citizens were deported in 1941 over the Moldovan border to Transnistria and perished and any who survived the war in Gura Humorului immigrated to Israel. Transnistria, while nominally meant to be part of the Republic of Moldova, is still today described as being a ‘frozen conflict’ zone, a curious left-over of the break-up of Northern Romania after World War II and then the break up of the USSR in 1991. It claims independence and is the only ‘state’ that still has a hammer and sickle on its emblem and flag. My favourite description of Transnistria is that it is a “geo-political no-man’s land“.
The Painted Monasteries
The reason for our visit to Northern Romania was to visit the painted monasteries that are the treasures of this area. They were painted in the 15th and 16th centuries when Turkish invaders were rampaging through this area of the Balkans. (Vlad the Impaler was having similar issues in Transylvania in the same period.) Rather than follow the traditional approach to church murals of western Europe, the monks of Bucovina decided to paint their teaching stories on the exterior of their church walls. Our small guide book described them as follows; “They feature vivid mural frescoes created to educate and entertain the illiterate soldiers and peasants. Brilliant reds and blues are offset by an undercoat of emerald green.” These external wall paintings have been declared masterpieces of Byzantine Art and seven of the churches of Bucovina were placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1993. We were going to visit three of these sites.
We visited the first monastery on the morning after of our arrival. This was the monastery of Voronet, known in the tourist brochures as the Sistine Chapel of the East and is the oldest of the Bucovina monasteries. The frescoes are beautiful, not just from the composition and artistry of the images, but the intense blue that is the backdrop of all the murals. It is a specific colour known as ‘Voronet Blue’ and the chemical composition of the paint is still a mystery in the art world today.
The history of the monastery is as curious as that of Bucovina itself. It was apparently built with great speed, taking only three months and three weeks in 1488 to be finished. Its driver was Stephen III of Moldova who was canonized in 1992 as “Stephen the Great and Holy”. Given that he was supported in taking the throne of Moldova by Vlad Dracul III as well as copying his supporter’s practice of impaling his enemies, it’s a ‘long bow’ to suggest he was particularly holy. The adjective ‘Great’ is perhaps justified as he was able to dodge and weave for 47 years of a violent and turbulent period in the history of the ‘Principalities’ of the region (eg. Transylvania, Wallacia, Moldova) as well as keep at bay the Hungarians, the Polish and the Ottomans. He is said to have fought 36 battles against the Ottomans and won 34 of them, a good ‘for and against’ record of any Captain!
Monastic life continued for three centuries at Voronet before it was interrupted in 1785. A community of Nuns returned in 1991 and they combine their prayer life with care of the monastery, a painting workshop and providing guided tours of the monastery.
The frescoes were not only aesthetically beautiful, the detail of the stories they captured were fascinating, particularly in the major painting of the processes of the ‘Last Judgement’ on the back wall of the Monastery Church.
Our second day in the region of Bucovina was a busy one. On the way to visit our first monastery of the day at Vatra Moldovitei, we stopped at a town along the way to get a more detailed idea of local culture. Our guide Irene knew one of the local farmers and so we stopped and visited her house and farm.
Our visit to the farm illustrated so many features of interest in Moldovia. The farm still was run along old-fashioned lines. Note the wooden farm trailers in the shed in the picture above. Behind the shed, the potato crop stretched in perfect symmetry to the edge of the farm. Looking out the front gate was a scene typical of the Moldavian countryside. The power pole held the usual huge stork nest with one of the parent storks at home feeding the chick. The carefully manicured field in the background illustrated one of the many idiosyncratic forms of the local haystacks; we were reliably informed that these were termed, the ‘Shaggy Dog’ style. The farmer was also happy for us to visit her house of which she was justifiably very proud.
The Monastery of Moldovita was built in 1532 by the illegitimate son of Peter III, Petru Rares. His statue is in the garden outside a small museum in the grounds of the monastery (See photo below). His image in this beautiful garden looks reflective and reasonable but his life story illustrates the usual violent life of warlords of the time. He roamed Moldova and Transylvania waging constant battles, particularly trying to gain the support of the famous Ottoman ruler, Suleiman the Magnificent, the most prominent European monarch of the time. Whilst he had two periods of lordship over Moldova, his character was described as being “marked by inconstancy and a lack of political instincts”. Of course the other side of his character resulted in him repairing and building churches with the support of his second wife Jelena, including the Moldovita Monastery.
Like Voronet, the murals on the external walls of Moldovita are amazing using mainly gold and deep blue colours. The three most impressive murals depicted were the ‘Siege of Constantinople, the ‘Tree of Jesse’ and another ‘Last Judgement’ in similar style to what we saw at Voronet.
From Moldovita, our bus climbed up over a range of the Carpathian Mountains and down the other side to the Sucevita Monastery. We stopped along the way for lunch and afterwards Gayle was able to check out the profusion of flowers that was the restaurant’s front garden.
Most of the monasteries of Bucovina had been placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1993 but Sucevita’s time did not come until 2010. I am not sure if this was connected to the fact that it was the last of the monasteries to be painted in the same elaborate style as the others in the region. It was built in 1585 but its high walls and defensive, buttressed towers were added by Ieremia Movilă (a grandson of Petru Rares), who had two short periods of ruling Moldova in 1595-1600 and, after a short time driven from the throne by his foe Stefan Rasvan, 1600 to 1606. This was period in the history of the region called the Moldovan Magnate Wars where anybody who could raise troops attempted to conquer their neighbours. The doomed enemy of Iremia, Stefan Rasvan, ended up impaled for his ambitions like so many other strongmen of the period who found themselves on the losing side. No wonder monasteries of the period were fortified to keep the rampaging vandals at bay. The artist monks might have been reflecting on the horrific battles taking place elsewhere in Moldova when they were working on one of the great murals of Sucevita, the ‘Virtuous Ladder’. It is a complex alternate version of ‘Judgement Day’ where the narrow road to Heaven is replaced by a ladder where the rungs symbolise alternately virtues and sins. Angels are helping the monks on their climb, but if you hit the wrong rung, you fall down amongst some ugly winged devils. The murals were painted from 1601 so if Ieremia Movilă came to check on the progress of the ‘Virtuous Ladder’ being created, one wonders if he made any link between the fallen sinners and the rampaging impalers that rode the countryside of Bucovina and Moldova. His post-life destination is of course unknown but Iremia’s tomb veil is preserved in the museum in the grounds of Sucevita.
Peace reigned in the countryside of Moldova as we twenty first century tourists visited Sucevita and enjoyed the artistry of these seventeenth century monks who created their masterpieces in the midst of the chaos around them. It was a long drive back to our hotel in Gura Humorului but our dinner that night in a beautiful local restaurant finished off a great day touring Moldova. We needed a good sleep that night to prepare us for our next day’s long bus ride down through the centre of Moldova and on to the province of Dobregea, where we were to visit the delta of that great European River, the Danube.