Back in my Interrail days, I took a train from Bucharest to the far northeast of Romania, just to see one of the famed painted monasteries in the Bucovina region. I visited Voroneț, and was very impressed. It was 1985, the Ceaușescu era, and apart from the fact that the blue murals on that little church blew me away, I remember going back to the nearest train station on the back of a horse-cart, meeting a young Romanian couple who were eager to talk to a stranger. I have been looking forward to coming back to Bucovina, and see more of these unique works of art. I now have the luxury of traveling by car instead of horse-cart, which makes going around more efficient but much less romantic. Arriving from Maramureș, we drive through the mountains, with beautiful early morning fog in the mountains, before we arrive at the first monastery: Moldovița. While we have something to eat outside, I have a glimpse through the gate, where I see the brownish exterior of the church. We walk around the Annunciation Church, with remarkably well-executed paintings. One interesting detail is the battle of Constantinople, inspired by the intervention of Virgin Mary to save the city against a Persian attack in 626. The Persians, however, a depicted as Turks, which was more in line with the fight against the Ottomans in the time the monastery was built (1532).
After a beautiful drive over a mountain pass, our next stop is Sucevița, which clearly is more geared towards tourism. This is the largest and newest monastery, surrounded by thick walls and watchtowers. To our dismay, we find part of the Resurrection church with scaffolding, blocking the murals from our view. Fortunately, on the shadow side, we have an unobstructed view of the famous Ladder to Paradise fresco, which keeps you watching to see more details. A ladder, diagonally leading to Heaven, has sinners falling off, taken down to hell by devils, while angels are attending the righteous to accompany them to Paradise. These monasteries were not painted for decoration, but simply because most people in this region were illiterate, and could learn about the Bible through these paintings. The west side of the church has no paintings; legend has it that one of the painters fell to his death and work was stopped. We have a quick look at the museum inside before we head off to our third monastery: Arbore. Contrary to Sucevița, this one is quiet, without even a parking to accommodate visitors. We like it even before we set foot in it. A lady under a tree is on the phone, and turns out to be the ticket seller. She speaks French, and explains us about the worn frescoes, where we see Genesis, and many other scenes, depicted. She does not mind us taking pictures inside, and we are fascinated by the female saints painted on the entrance hall. We enjoy great views of this Beheading of Saint John the Baptist Church, before we continue on our Bucovina quest.
We drive south, and find a parking lot, small park, and even souvenir stalls at Humor Monastery. It is a walled monastery, and was one of the first churches to have frescoes on its outer walls, painted in 1535. Again, we see Persians depicted as Turks in a fresco about the siege of Constantinople of 626. Historically not correct, but politically convenient in an era when Ottomans were the enemy of Moldavia. Fake news avant la lettre: the illiterate could easily be manipulated. We equally enjoy seeing the paintings inside the church, and the tombs of the founders of the church, as is custom in all these churches in Bucovina. Buried inside their own work of art. We climb an adjacent tower, which gives us a different angle to see the temple. Our next, and last, stop will be Voroneț. I am slightly nervous: what if reality will destroy the fond memories I have of my first visit, so many years ago? We walk the cemetery outside the monastery complex, and as soon as we enter, I recognise the famous Voroneț blue, the colour dominating the frescoes. Saint George Church was built in only four months by Stephan cel Mare in 1487, to celebrate a victory over the Turks. It is often dubbed the Sistine Chapel of the East. This is the most famous of all Bucovina monasteries, and has more visitors. Still, it is possible to enjoy the fantastic paintings on the outer walls, with the Last Judgment as the sublime highlight. Apart from the biblical scenes, Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato are depicted in the Tree of Jesus fresco, there is a woman sitting on what looks like a whale, with a ship in her hands, and a landscape with elephants, lions and dragons, rows of saints, and much, much more. I read that, like the monastery in Humor, Voroneț was closed in 1786 by the Habsburgs, and only reopened in 1991; this means that it was closed on my first visit. I ask the nuns, and it turns out that 16 nuns currently live here. Much of the surrounding buildings were built since: when I visited, the church stood in the forest. We watch the stunning Saint George church from the outside, when one of the nuns walks by, rhythmically hitting a long wooden beam with a mallet: the call to prayer. When they ruled Moldavia, the Ottomans stipulated that bells could not be rung, and it was replaced by the new tradition of hitting a long piece of wood. To be honest, I actually find the monastery of Voroneț more mind-blowing than I remembered from my first visit. It feels special to be stepping in the footsteps of that young lad, on his very first independent travel, not knowing how much travel he would actually accomplish in his future.
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Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Bucovina monasteries (Romania). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Bucovina monasteries. Read more about this site.