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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  

Romanian Flag ROMANIA: Southern Bucovina


November 6. SUCEAVA "The Fanatastic Painted Monasteries of Southern Bucovina"  We were supposed to leave for our tour at 8:30 and we were on time but our driver, Vila Alice's grandpa, was forty-five minutes late.  After stopping for gas we were finally on our way.  I had the dubious honor of sitting in the front seat which was nice when the heater finally got turned on but was a hair-raising experience for much of the rest of the day.  Grandpa was a jovial guy, tall with broad shoulders, wearing a thick wool sweater, jeans and a big black Romanian hat, but he was a terror behind the wheel.  

As we got started it was raining but the mist have the fall colored mountains a beautiful and ethereal look.  Not far out of Suceava we came to the picturesque village of Guru Humorii, the place where we wish we had stayed - Best Western had already figured that out.  The villages proximity to the painted monasteries was showing and most of the lovely old homes had been nicely restored.  They were large homes and had the distinctive feature of having designs carved into their plaster siding.  It was much the same kind of technique as the sgraffiti we had seen in Cesky Krumlov (Czech Republic) but the designs on these houses were just enough to not be overdone.  The colorful homes were still suited to their rustic surroundings.  Many also had decorated water wells that looked almost like small shrines.  They were often more ornate than the homes, some even adorned with silver roof tops. 

The monasteries of Southern Bucovina (northern Romania) were built in the 16th century by Stephen the Great's son, Petru Raresh, to defend the Romanian principality of Moldovia against Turkish invaders.  Armies would gather inside the fortified monasteries and await battle.  To educate the peasants who were unable to understand the liturgy, biblical stories were painted on the outside of the churches in vivid colors. They have survived the elements of the centuries incredibly well and, as of 1993, they are collectively part of the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites.    

The first monastery, Humor Monastery (AD 1530), was just outside Guru Humorii village.  This monastery wasn't fortified with outer walls but the paintings on both the interior and exterior walls of the church were stunning.  The southern exterior wall depicted the 1453 siege of Constantinople with red being the most prominent color.  A porch adorned the far end of the church and wall underneath was covered with images of the Last Judgment.  Hell was represented by images of women amidst flowing red paint, a remnant of the pagan belief that hell was held up by seven women.  Apparently the devil sought out mortals that were more wicked than he to hold up hell and found that women were suitable and plentiful.  The monastery was still active and the church was opened for us by a young nun dressed in an Orthodox habit and warm mittens.  The interior of this church was the most impressive of all the monasteries and consisted of three chambers - a pre-narthex, narthex, and altar. The pre-narthex was covered in images of martyrs being killed, mostly being beheaded but being thrown to the lions and burned were depicted as well.    

Leaving the monastery grandpa flew like a bat out of hell.  Luckily there was not much traffic on the roads but whenever he did encounter another vehicle it was imperative that he pass it.  We came upon a large truck and, even with poor visibility and not a very wide road to move around on, grandpa started to pass.  As we pulled in the opposite lane I saw a man walking up the road.  Grandpa was flying and showed no signs of slowing down.  The pedestrian seemed unaware that a car was flying towards him and didn't move. Grandpa still didn't slow down.  We were getting very close to the man and I felt myself gasp as grandpa pulled a sharp right to barely cut over in front of the truck and we heard something hit the car.  I hadn't seen someone come flying up and over the hood but there had been a definite thump.  When we looked back the pedestrian was standing and didn't look as though he had been knocked over.   He was waiving his fist angrily.  The left hand mirror on our car was just dangling by wires.  Grandpa pulled over and went to talk with the man.  We couldn't understand what was being said but there was yelling and then an exchange of money before grandpa returned to the car.  He got in shaking his head and gestured that the man had been drinking.  My thought was "then what was your excuse?"  If your are hurling a car at a man who doesn't move then perhaps the brakes would be useful!! The experience left on edge for the rest of the day and remained acutely aware of grandpa's driving maneuvers.

The second monastery, Voronet Monastery, was just on the other side of Guru Humorri and I was relieved to get out of the car again.  This monastery had fortified walls surrounding the church making it more dramatic than Humor from the outside and the generous use of a vibrant blue pigment in its murals made them more vivid.  The blue pigment used is what became known as Voronet Blue.  The Last Judgment was again pictured on the back outer wall but there was no porch on this church and the wide flat wall provided a spectacular canvas for the complex imagery.  The top showed angels rolling up the zodiac to indicate the end of time.  In the middle humanity was seen being brought to judgment with St. Paul escorting the believers on one side and Moses escorting the non-believers (in Eastern dress) on the other side.  The Resurrection was dipicted at the bottom where wild animals are shown bringing back body parts so those rising from the grave can be complete.  The weather was overcast but bright enough to get a good look at the frescos.  On a sunny day the shadows would have made that difficult.

The next monastery was a bit of a drive.  En route Grandpa made a detour and stopped the car at someone's house.  He motioned for us to wait as he took a bag out of the back seat and went inside.  He was gone for about ten minutes before carrying on with our tour.  

Moldovita Monastery (AD 1532) was my favorite.  Its outer walls were higher than at Voronet and the more compact courtyard and taller church made the monastery feel very safe and cozy.   A small wooden roofed water well stood near the front of the courtyard and we watched as a nun emerged from the housing that lined the outer wall and cranked up a bucket for some fresh water.  A bust of Petru Raresh, the founder of Moldovita, stood at the opposite end of the courtyard.  Another, but similar, rendition of the Last Judgment was painted under the porch at the church entrance but a more interesting feature of this monastery was the depiction of the defense of Constantinople in AD 626 against the Persians, who were represented in the fresco with Turkish dress.  Whether they were Turks or Persians it was all the same kind of war.  The frescos were painted against a bright blue background. 

It was getting late and we were getting hungry so we gestured to grandpa that we'd like to find some lunch.  He nodded and we headed off towards Sucevita Monastery.  It was up and over a small pass and from the descriptions of the winding road in our guidebook I wasn't sure I wanted to take that ride with grandpa.  There was still snow on the hills but it hadn't snowed enough to keep the road covered.  Grandpa managed to drive sanely through the hills and as we started to come down from the pass we pulled into a restaurant.  He ate his own lunch while we ordered some food and got warm.  After getting back in the car we didn't have far to go before we reached our final painted monastery of the day.

Sucevita Monastery (1582-1601) was by far the grandest of them all.  It was much larger and had heavy fortifications with towers and high walls that made it look more like a fortress than a monastery.  Some stray dogs tried to follow us down the tree lined path to the but were distracted by other visitors before they got very far.  A small door in the large gate let inside the monastery.  The beautiful frescos that covered all but one wall on the exterior of this large church were not as dominated by one color as the other monasteries has been but made good use of greens and reds.  Stories ran from one to another through the frescos.  We saw Moses accepting the ten commandments and an image of Plato.  There was a wonderful depiction of the Virtuous Ladder where a ladder represented the 30 steps from hell to paradise. Angels tried to help people climb the ladder while demons reached up from hell to pull them through the slats.  The western wall was left blank because the artist supposedly fell from his scaffolding and died before he could finish.

It was starting to get late in the day at this point but we still had a few stops to make.  The first stop was in a small village that made pottery but they were already done for the day so there was little to look at there.  We stopped in Marginea at an active church that was the oldest stone church in the region, pre-dating the monasteries but similar to them in style.  Cabbage patches covered the countryside.  One farm house after another had cabbages spilling out onto the streets from barrels and wagons.  Grandpa pulled over to pick up a couple of heads. 

Dragomirna was our final monastery of the day.  It wasn't a painted monastery but the dramatic proportions of its towering walls and tall, narrow church were impressive in themselves.  It also had a unique ornate spire.  Grandpa thought it was getting to dark and asked if we still wanted to make the last visit.  After he was 45 minutes late starting out and he spent time out of our day running errands I was annoyed that he wanted to cut the last monastery and decided I wanted to see it even if it was in the dark.  It was late dusk when we reached the monastery.  It was still open and there was just enough light to make things out so it had been a good decision.

When we rolled back into Suceava we had grandpa drop us off downtown so we could check departure times for the next day and grab another dinner at McDonald's.

SLOVENIA Ljubljana Oct 7-8 Piran Oct 9-12

CROATIA Istra Peninsula Oct 13 Split Oct 14-15 Hvar Oct 16-18 Korcula Oct 19 Dubrovnik Oct 20-29


BOSNIA Sarajevo Oct 30 Oct 30 Nov 1

SERBIA Belgrade Nov 2-3

ROMANIA Bucharest Nov 4 Suceava Nov 5 Nov 6 Cluj Napoca Nov 7 Sighisoara Nov 8-9 Brasov Nov 10 Nov 11

BULGARIA Sofia Nov 12 Nov 13 Nov 14

MACEDONIA Lake Ohrid Nov 15 Nov 16-17

KOSOVO Prishtine Nov 18 Nov 19 Nov 20 Nov 21

GREECE Thessaloniki Nov 22 Athens Nov 23 Nov 24