Bukovina: What the guidebook doesn’t tell you

Jay Martin visits Bukovina in Romania – famous as the home of the unique “Painted Monasteries” – and finds a region with much more to offer a peace-seeking visitor.

‘I’ve seen these monasteries around 800 times already,’ Monika told me, pulling out onto the road. ‘Don’t you get bored?’ I asked. ‘Never,’ she replied. ‘I see some new detail every time.’

With a few days up my sleeve, I’d headed to Bukovina in northeastern Romania. It’s a seven hour trip from Bucharest by fast train, and only on the way somewhere if you happen to be heading to Ukraine or Moldova. It is home to a set of famous Painted Monasteries, and this is about all the guidebook has to say. On the one hand, it sounded relatively relaxed. On the other, I harboured a slight, nagging worry: Would ‘relaxed’ mean ‘dull’? So meeting my guide, Monika Zavoianu, still bubbling away with such infectious enthusiasm after seven years guiding visitors to these sites infused me with some hope.

Orthodox monasteries are typically decorated inside with colourful frescos. What makes Bukovina’s fifteenth and sixteenth century set unique is that their outside walls are also covered with paintings; hence their moniker, the ‘Painted Monasteries’.

The first of the Painted Monasteries we visited was Sucevita, where I walked through a large fortress-like set of ramparts into the interior courtyard where the monastery stood. The bright blues, reds, and golds of its frescoes hit me immediately. I’d seen plenty of photos of them already, yet in real life, their colour and beauty still stopped me in my tracks. The photographs didn’t capture the details. Like the tiny mites of dust drifting in the air, glinting in the sun like champagne bubbles. If I’d needed any more convincing it was worth coming here, just this first glimpse was enough.

Each monastery also boasts some special feature that makes it unique. At Sucevita, it’s a stunningly detailed Virtuous Ladder, showing the 30 virtues leading from hell to paradise. I personally doubt I could come up with 30 virtues, let alone achieve them, but I’m consoled that at least plenty of others are tumbling off before the top. At another of the monasteries, Voronet, built in 1488 in just four months, it’s a truly magnificent Judgment Day fresco filling the whole westen wall with vivid detail that it’s worth lingering over.

The colours of the images are so vibrant and their detail so clear you’d believe they were done yesterday. Yet Monika explains that they’ve never been retouched – despite half a millenium of exposure to the elements. Apparently the scientists who’ve conducted tests on the frescoes aren’t even sure exactly how they’ve survived.

Why these churches were painted outside remains similarly mysterious. One theory is that the growing influence of Protestantism led to a desire to make the Orthodox churches relatively more attractive. It is known, though, that while the churches were constructed over a 100 year period, from 1488 to 1595, the exterior paintings were only done between 1535 and 1595. ‘So maybe it was simply the fashion for a while,’ Monika suggests.

The murals inside each of the churches are just as remarkable. At Moldovita, there’s an entire Orthodox calendar split over two chambers, with panes showing each day of the year along with how a saint met his or her untimely end. You can’t help but admire the inventiveness of the persecutors, with early Christian martyrs being variously boiled in a vat, crucified upside down, and fed to bears.

Yet in the face of each fate, the Saints exude calmness and peace. Which I guess is why they’re saints, after all. Monika tells me that thinking of them helps her to remain calm in the face of daily life. ‘You think of what they suffered, and it makes it easier to deal with your own difficulties,’she explains. Calmly, and gently.

A typical tour of the ‘Big Four’ – the monasteries of Voronet, Humor, Sucevita and Moldovita – makes for an easy one day trip by car from the regional centre, Suceava. The route loops 100 kilometres through yellow fields tilled by oxen, over a 1,100 metre pass flanked by fir forests, and past shingled wooden houses painted bay leaf green, butternut pumpkin orange and borlotti bean red. I wonder if might not have been fashion, but rather something in the crisp, mountain air here that has inspired both monks and villagers alike to decorate their homes so brightly. We need to slow down to pass a horse and cart loaded with hay or logs every so often. Looking around and breathing in the countryside, it strikes me that slowing down every so often is not such a bad thing to be forced to do.

The monasteries are the main thing tourists come here to see. Normally I, too, might have headed home at this point, feeling happy with this glimpse  of rural Romanian life and culture. But as I have another day here, Monika suggests that I spend a night at one of the monasteries, Dragomirna, that takes in paying guests.

On arrival I’m greeted by Maria Magdalene, a nun there who speaks English. She can’t be more than 25, although the all-black habit cloaking her from head to toe make it hard to judge. Dragomirna means ‘love of peace’, and as she finds the key and shows me to my room, I can’t help think how everything about her suits this name. Her every movement exudes calmness, stillness and grace and leaves me feeling clumsy and bumbling by comparison.

The name perfectly suits the surrounds, too, I think, as I wander around the monastery’s grounds. It’s dusk already and the mist is settling in an extremely photogenic way on the orchards and fields around the monastery’s seventeenth century walls. Its church boasts its own frescos inside, and I find myself applying my new knowledge of Orthodox iconography to spot a few details I wouldn’t have seen even hours before.

The grounds around provide all the food the nuns need to be self-sufficient, and emerging from the church I disturb someone’s future dinner scratching about in the dirt for its own sustenance. It scrambles out of my way, expressing its displeasure with some fractious clucking.

By the time I sit down to the home-grown dinner of bean stew, tomato and noodle soup, field mushrooms and polenta, I feel a connection to the food I’m eating. I chew every mouthful, conscious of how it came to be on my plate.

Maria comes to check on me. ‘It’s beautiful here,’ I comment to her. ‘It’s peaceful,’ she responds, I sense gently correcting me. I wonder if it’s the pace of life or something else that seems to infuse residents and – perhaps – visitors here alike with calmness and quiet peace. Bukovina is calm, quiet and peaceful. But definitely not dull.

None of that’s in the guidebooks. It is in Bukovina, though.

* Suceava takes around seven hours to reach by direct fast train from Bucharest North train station (several each day). The journey costs around 80 Leu each way.

* The Big Four monasteries can be reached as an easy day trip from the town of Suceava by car, or with some difficulty on local transport. A guided tour is highly recommended to make the most of the experience. I toured the Monasteries with licensed guide Monika Zavoianu, who has been running tours and a local hostel for some seven years.

* Bukavina is haven for vegetarians and vegans. Many of the region’s members of the Orthodox church follow a vegan diet several days of the week as well as for up to 14 full weeks during the year. As such, almost every restaurant in town offers a vegan menu every day. Ask for the Meniu de Post.

* Dragomirna Monastery, 10 kms from Suceava, accepts paying guests from April to October. An overnight stay (including three course dinner and breakfast, made entirely from ingredients produced organically by the nuns) costs 200 Leu for one person / 240 Leu for two.

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