Thursday, 1 May 2014

The Missing Link: Part 3.4: The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

world-map iasi


And after a break of a month, we are back to the missing link and my explorations of north-eastern Romania. This week’s post will probably not be too popular with most people as it seems to be all about religion and politics, the two subjects that we’re told to stray away from. But in Romania both are a lot more colourful than elsewhere; the election posters at the end are a particular favourite of mine.

By the by, on the travel front, I’ve booked my big trip for next year. I’m extremely excited because it is THE BIG ONE, the one that I have been planning for years and never been able to afford. I can’t really afford it now to be honest, but apart from irresponsible being my middle name, I’ve found a way to save for it bit by bit so it shouldn’t annoy my bank manager too much. Anyway, my trip of a lifetime will be a tour around North Korea! As someone who loves obscure and hard to get into nations then this really is a bit of a holy grail. To get into the mood I’ve been watching loads of North Korean films on YouTube and I can heartily recommend them for those of you who like something a bit… erm… different, so long as you don’t mind lashings of propaganda. Anyway, here’s my favourite so far, no surprises really as it is reckoned to be the magnum opus of North Korean cinema.

The Flower Girl (1972)

I have also been reading a travelogue of both the Koreas entitled ‘To Dream of Pigs’ by Clive Leatherdale. I read it years before when I was in Japan and this is a reread. I shall post a review when I’m finished, most likely after ‘The Missing Link’ is up. But that is for later, for now let’s forget Kim Jong Un’s and head towards Ceausescu's realm instead…

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue



1.1: Konotop

1.2: Chernobyl and Pripyat

1.3: Kiev

1.4: Kiev to Odessa

1.5: Odessa

1.6: Bolgrad

Moldova and Transdniestra

2.1: Bolgrad to Chisinau

2.2: Chisinau (I)

2.3: Tiraspol and Bender

2.4: Chisinau (II)


3.1: Iasi (I)

3.2: Iasi (II)

3.3: Suceava

3.4: The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

3.5: Targu Neamt, Agapia and Sihla

3.6: Suceava to Viseu de Sus

3.7: The Mocanita and Viseu de Sus

3.8: Viseu de Sus to Bucharest

3.9: Bucharest (I)

3.10: Bucharest (II)

My Flickr Album of this trip


Excursion: The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

Tourists tend to visit Romania to do one of two things: to see Dracula’s castle and birthplace in Transylvania and to visit the Painted Monasteries of Bucovina. Back in 2003 on my Trans-Europe expedition with the Sibling I’d checked out the former and so now it was the turn of the latter.

Dating from the 16th century, these monasteries are world famous not for their interior decorations as is the case with many churches, but instead for the wonderful coloured frescos which adorn their exteriors. According to Higgins[1] they were decorated so because at that time the peasants were not allowed to enter consecrated buildings and so each church was painted on the outside so as to act as “an illustrated Bible” for the illiterate peasants. To be fair, I have not heard the assertion that the peasants weren’t allowed to enter a consecrated building anywhere else and so it may not be true, but whatever the case, all sources agree that the purpose of the frescoes was for the religious education of the unlettered locals.

The base for exploring the monasteries is Gura Humorului, a small town just over an hour away from Suceava. I caught the 08:47 from the grand station and then watched as the scenery slowly transformed from a windswept open plain to Alpine views that could easily have been Switzerland.

When I alighted at Gura Humorului it was dead. I’m talking only passenger to get off, café shut, one-horse town dead. I know it wasn’t quite tourist season yet but I’d expected a little more that this. To appease my hunger I bought a 7 Days croissant and a coffee[2] from the shop in the station where the only taxi driver was sat chatting to his mate, the proprietor. I promptly hired him for a very reasonable rate and after our coffees were drained we set off, firstly to Voroneţ.

Voroneţ Monastery lies some 4km out of town over the Moldova River, the waterway that lends its name to the Romanian province of Moldavia and, (rather ironically since it flows nowhere near the place), to the country of Moldova. Enclosed by a high wall, the monastery was smaller than I’d expected, little more than a church within a compound, but the frescoes – and at Voroneţ the prevailing colours are blue and green – were spectacular. That said, I found that the place did little for me spiritually; with all the people milling around it felt more like a tourist attraction than a holy site, even though there are nuns resident there these days. Here was the first place on my entire trip where I’d come across significant numbers of non-domestic visitors, there being two coaches on the car park which had disgorged their contents into the monastery. It was a reminder of a world that I’d mercifully forgotten about.

ML113 Voroneţ Monastery

Our next stop was Humor Monastery, also about 4km away from Gura Humorului but in the opposite direction. After we’d retraced our steps I realised why the town had seemed so dead upon arrival: the centre was further on, past the railway station and in its heart it was quite lively indeed, possessing a similar ambience to an Alpine ski centre.

The compound which surrounded Humor Monastery was larger than that at Voroneţ, (perhaps because the latter is earlier), and boasts an impressive tower which you can climb up and view the whole scene as a bird would. Again the frescoes were incredible – at Humor reds prevail – but again I enjoyed it more as a tourist than as a pilgrim. Higgins goes into raptures over how at Humor there is “the instinctive feeling for matching building with landscape”[3] and he is right, but even so, inexplicably, Romania’s crown jewels were not really sparkling for me. Although they were clearly both architecturally and artistically inferior, I much preferred the three monasteries that I’d walked to a couple of days previously in Iaşi, particularly Cetățuia. But then that is the difference between being a pilgrim and a tourist: the two seek different goals and are touched by different things. The pilgrim often alights upon some small detail which focuses his mind on the Divine – the lane at Walsingham, the statue of Our Lady at Marrakech’s Roman Catholic cathedral[4] - whereas the tourist wants to be wowed by scenery, history, art or activity. Of course, most trips to religious sites contain an element of both; I visited Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre predominantly as a pilgrim but the tourist was present too[5] whilst at Međogurie it was the other way around,[6] but at both Humor and Voroneţ, whilst the tourist left largely satisfied, the crowds and the fact that I was driven to both sites with no hardship involved, (in stark contrast to the long walk and steep climb in the blazing sunshine to reach Cetățuia Monastery), meant that the pilgrim found naught.

ML114 Humor Monastery

With much of the day still remaining and chances being that I would never again have the opportunity to return to Bucovina, I decided to hire my laid-back yet jovial driver to take me to one of the more distant of the Painted Monasteries. There were two prime contenders: Moldoviţa and Suceviţa, and even though the former was closer, I plumped for the latter, largely because my guidebook informed me that the road to it: “offers breath-taking views across the surrounding fields and is reason enough to make the trip. It climbs 1,100m and passes small alpine villages. Yet the prize at the end of it is golden too – Suceviţa Monastery is the largest and perhaps all-round finest of the Bucovina monasteries.”[7]

The guidebook was half right. The monastery was the finest of the lot by a country mile, but the trip to it was not quite “breath-taking”. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it immensely, for what it lacked in spectacular views, (the road with the great scenery is the one which approaches Suceviţa from the opposite direction apparently), it more than made up for in quirky interestingness and on top of that, we now had company.

When I asked my driver if he would take me onwards to Suceviţa, he made an unusual request: could his wife come along? I had no problem with such a suggestion, so he took out an aged mobile, called her up and ten minutes later after he’d filled up the car with petrol, we were parked outside their house on the outskirts of Gura Humorului.

Mrs. Taxi was dressed and eager to depart, as if embarking on a WI trip to the seaside. She – and her husband – were grateful to me for allowing her along on an unexpected drive out and to say thanks she presented me with a beautiful hand-painted egg. Then, as we drove along, I learnt through a mixture of hand gestures and extremely broken English, that they had a son who was living in Dublin – for either fifteen years or fifteen months, I was unsure which one – which is a nice place but very expensive, and that they’d much preferred Ceaușescu’s government to the current one since under the Conducǎtor people had had money, jobs and everything, whereas now things were very hard indeed although admittedly slightly better than they had been a decade ago. This was a world away from the gloomy travelogues of the Ceaușescu Era that I’d read in Robert Kaplan’s ‘Balkan Ghosts’ which had made Romania in the 1980s sound like hell on earth.

However, there were still signs that perhaps everything had not been all so rosy and perfect back then as they made out; my driver pointed out a village just off the road that was completely abandoned. He explained that it had happened during the Ceaușescu Era as part of the Conducǎtor’s systemisation drive. This was one of the dictator’s biggest projects and, arguably, the greatest tragedy that he inflicted upon Romania.

It all came from a visit that he paid in 1971 to North Korea. Impressed by the mass ideological mobilisation inspired by Kim Il Sung’s Juche ideology[8] that he saw there, he began his own project along similar lines upon his return. The idea was to bring the advantages of the modern age to the Romanian countryside by resettling people in villages into cities, either existing ones or newly-established settlements. Smaller villages, (such as the one that we saw from the Suceviţa road), with populations under one thousand, were deemed to be “irrational” and so their inhabitants were forcibly removed to a city. The programme was, understandably, not particularly popular with the peasants, but it continued being implement until around 1980 when it petered out. It was particularly enforced in Moldavia. Although largely abandoned as the country entered the 1980s, its ideology was revived for the remodelling of Bucharest in the middle of the decade and it is seen by most historians as being a key factor behind the violent overthrow of the Conducǎtor in 1990.

I said before that Suceviţa was good and I was not lying. In my opinion it was by far the best of the three painted Monasteries that I visited, although considering that it was also the latest, it perhaps should have been. After all, they’d had more time to perfect the concept.

Suceviţa was very different to both Humor and Voroneţ. They’d both been small in scale and nestled in close wooded valleys, but Suceviţa was large and expansive and situated on an alpine plain with space to be seen. Like the others though, its most spectacular feature was again its frescoes, or to be exact, the fresco which dominates the northern wall of the church and is considered to be the finest in all Bucovina.

It is of the Ladder of Virtues and depicts the thirty steps to Paradise. It shows vividly – and gruesomely – the poor beleaguered souls attempting to ascend the steps to the Heavenly Abode but being assailed by devils on the way, their sins causing them to fall into the inferno below. Only a few get very far up but even some of these – monks of course – fall just before the entrance to Paradise and their suffering is all the greater for they have farther to fall. It was a powerful and resounding masterpiece although I have to admit that it jarred with my own personal theology: I cannot imagine the merciful God of the Gospels being so plain nasty and spiteful.

ML115 The Ladder of Virtues fresco, Suceviţa

I liked Suceviţa. I liked its space and its aura. I also liked the tiny chapel on the hilltop above the main monastery and dearly wished I had the time to climb right up to it and stop awhile, but of course, I did not. On the next visit perhaps.

ML116 Suceviţa Monastery

On our way back I gazed out of the window and admired the fine Bucovinan cottages that we passed with their fine latticework and broad gables. The countryside, whilst not spectacular, was pretty and a glorious place to be.

I was dropped off in the centre of Gura Humorului and after bidding adieu to my driver and his wife, I retired to a nearby restaurant to enjoy my first meal of the day and whilst waiting for my food, (service here too was Laotian standard), I spent time examining the posters on the nearby billboards.

In Romania there were elections on. Not a full general election, just local ones, but the posters were out in force. However, unlike in Britain where we generally just get a name and the symbol of the party that they represent, these election posters were well worth looking at. All showed photos of the candidates and most of those candidates looked, well… interesting shall we say? Some were full on gangsters; others just dressed in strange, pseudo-traditional costume; others still rather scary whilst some were just plain strange. The one opposite my restaurant terrace however, was the best of them all, a moustachioed guy who looked like your mate’s dad who stands you drinks in the pub. And he had his thumbs up too! Yes indeed, he was the man for the job!

ML117 ML118

ML119 ML120 ML121

ML122 Romania: The country where democracy is eccentric!

Suceava (II)

That evening I had an appointment with Sebastian, the rather morose kid from the internet café. Before we met up I took a stroll around the city and popped into the Roman Catholic church solitary priest was practising on the organ. It was Spartan and classical in style, a total contrast to the gorgeous dark intimacy of the region’s orthodox churches and spoke of lands far to the north and west where the Germans, Hungarians and Poles predominate. It had some poor quality murals including one of a priest being tossed into a river off a bridge by some nasty-looking soldiers.[9] I popped a coin into a slot which lit an electric candle and then left.

I met Sebastian and we went for a drink in Biblioteka, a bar more fashionable than those I’m used to and which had books on the shelves as décor, (hence the name). There he told me that he has no money, no friends except those he’s met on the Web and that he rarely leaves Suceava. I realised that I’d hit the jackpot here with regards to stimulating drinking conversation, so I asked him about the ladies since his blatant ogling at a rather pretty pair on the table opposite suggested that he might not be gay. “Yes, girls are great,” he agreed, staring at the rather long and most definitely uncovered legs of a passing waitress, “but I don’t have a girlfriend. I have no money and you need money to have a girlfriend.” It was sad that he’d realised such a fundamental truth at such a young age – when I was seventeen I still believed that some women cared little for the pennies in your pocket – but fortunately it was not all doom and gloom; his father was working in Italy as a welder and he hoped to join him there. I wondered how a gaming addict who rarely left Suceava would cope in Italy. It all depends on the speed of the broadband connection I suppose.[10]

We walked up to a shwarma place where Seb thought the football, (England were playing France), might be on, passing an enormous new cathedral still under construction. When we got there though, the football was not on, but it was showing next-door so after devouring the kebab, we decamped there to watch an incredibly dour 1-1 draw.

After that Seb had no money but fancied a smoke so I took him to a shop and bought us a cigar apiece and whilst in there encountered a pair of Japanese tourists who were trying to explain to the bemused monolingual shopkeeper that they wanted to buy some of the local liquor. I translated their request into English and then Seb into Romanian and they got their bottle of tuica whilst I Seb was impressed at his new friend’s linguistic abilities and I felt pleased as punch at having spoken in Nihon-go for what was probably the first time in over half a decade.

Seb left then, ashamed to receive anymore handouts, but I was no finished so I retired to the bar where I’d watched the Ireland game the night before to watch the hosts Ukraine unexpectedly defeat Sweden. One of those watching was a Swede and after the game had finished we got talking, a pleasant conversation even if he was, understandably, somewhat glum.

ML123 With Seb in Suceava

Next part: Targu Neamt, Agapia and Sihla

My Flickr Album of this trip

[1] Travels in the Balkans, p.73

[2] Which brought back memories of my time living in Bulgaria where I’m basically existed on 7 Days croissants and coffee whenever I’d taken the train anywhere, (which was a lot), since the croissants were the tastiest thing on offer and the coffee, (which is very good in those parts), not only woke me up but also offset the chocolate centre of the croissant perfectly.

[3] Travels in the Balkans, p.74

[4] See my travelogues ‘Nazareth in Norfolk’ and ‘Travels in 2007’ respectively.

[5] See my travelogue ‘Holy Land Pilgrimage’.

[6] See my travelogue ‘Balkania’.

[7] Lonely Planet Romania, p.283

[8] Literally the Korean word for ;mainstream’, Juche has been interpreted as ‘individual stand’ and is a philosophy which states that the Korean masses are the masters of their own development. It is closely related to Stalin’s ‘Socialism in One Country’ and Chairman Mao’s ‘Zili Gengsheng’ and arose from a desire to escape Soviet control in the communist sphere. As Ceauşescu was also aiming to forge his own brand of communism, independent of Moscow, the appeal of Juche to him is obvious.

[9] I’d assumed it to be some local martyr but in fact it was of St. John of Nepomuk (1345-93), a Catholic martyr venerated across Central and Eastern Europe who was thrown to his death off the Charles Bridge in Prague because he was the queen’s confessor and refused to divulge the secrets of her confessions to her husband, King Wenceslas.

[10] Incidentally, if this conversation does not seem to tally with that of the day before when I talked with his “girlfriend” Delia online, it is because Delia, I later learnt, was an “online girlfriend”: They had never actually met.


  1. I have read your Romania travelogue and I'm impressed. All very accurate. It is the first time when I see a british traveller writing correctly "Ceauşescu". Also a lot of information about politics and everyday life, also very accurate.

  2. Marin, thanks for your comment and I feel honoured that you enjoyed my posts about your country. I had a fantastic time there and wish to return one day soon, maybe to explore Wallachia more and also the Delta.