Romania: Superbly Scenic, Marvelously Medieval

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Sucevita Monastery.
Sucevita Monastery.

The focus of our trip to Romania was quite singular: to see the unique painted monasteries of Bucovina, a region of rolling hills and dense forests within the northeastern principality of Moldavia. Deemed masterpieces of Byzantine art, they did not disappoint. With the support of the Romanian National Tourist Office in New York and my on-location guide, Ionut Maftei, I followed a highway that winds and climbs through the Carpathian foothills to find a treasury of some the most spectacular works of art and architecture in the world.

romania’s painted monasteries
There seem to be no run-of-the-mill churches in this corner of Romania, whose regional hero, Stephen the Great, fought back the Turks in the 15th century, and then he and his descendants built 48 monasteries and Byzantine churches throughout Moldavia to celebrate his victories. My wish-list only registered Bucovina’s seven Romanian Orthodox monasteries, covered floor to ceiling, inside and out, with vibrant and vivid scenes from the Bible and history; their exteriors in particular were designed to serve as lessons for the masses who remained outdoors during services during the Middle Ages. And those storytelling frescoes have amazingly survived exposure to harsh elements for more than five centuries: all good reasons to also be included on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

One gateway to the monasteries is Suceava, formerly a princely capital, although today no beauty. Tell your clients to leave time to see the Bucovina History Museum and the Schaun Citadel—a fortress built to hold off the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1476—and drop in at the hectic market, where particularly on Thursday, cartloads of peasants (many in traditional dress) roll into town to sell their produce. The monasteries are spread out in all directions from Suceava, dressing Bucovina up like Joseph in a biblical coat of many colors. At Moldovita Monastery, built in 1532, the dominant color is golden yellow, and frescoes depict scenes from the “Siege of Constantinople” and “The Story of Jesus’s Life.” As in all monasteries, a votive painting inside shows the founder, in this case Stephen the Great. The color red takes over at the monastery at Humor, dating from 1530; here you focus on the “Return of the Prodigal Son” fresco, as well as the interiors, bedecked with sinners hanging by their feet, boiling in a pot, being strangled or decapitated.

Sucevita, built as a fortified monastery, is known for its huge fresco, “The Ladder of Virtue,” covering much of the church’s north wall. The backgrounds of the exterior painting are green,
as are those at Arbore, where weather has unfortunately erased many exterior images, with the best-preserved illustrating the “Lives of Saints.”

Founded in 1488, Voronet is perhaps the most beautiful, certainly the most famous. Spellbinding, for instance, is the full-blown rendition of the “Last Judgment,” where against a vividly blue background (fashioned out of crushed lapis lazuli), biblical figures, saints and even animals await the verdict on passing to heaven or hell as the scales weigh deeds and misdeeds. Also known as the “Sistine Chapel of the East,” this monastery (and others) is actually a convent, powered by some 20 nuns who combine farm work, painting, singing and housekeeping with a life of prayer and contemplation.

Frescos Moldevita Monastery.
Frescos Moldevita Monastery. (Carla Hunt)

transiting through transylvania
Of course, getting to Bucovina from the country’s capital of Bucharest proved half the fun. We crisscrossed Transylvania, driving along well-paved highways, historically following in the steps of the Romans and Goths, Magyars and Saxons who beat us all to Romania’s most beautiful region. Famed as the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, Transylvania’s a region of alpine meadows, peaks, caves and dense forests, occupied by waves of sheep moving through the valleys, and populated by people who live in medieval walled towns and villages with spooky Gothic citadels and castles nearby. Among our favorite places are:                                                                                                                                              The medieval and lively Sibiu is both a center of culture and intellectual life. Attractions and events center around its main square, as beautiful as it is vast. At one end, a Baroque palace houses the Brukenthal Art Museum, Romania’s oldest. Other museums—History and Pharmaceutical—occupy even older, 16th century buildings. Across Liar’s Bridge is the Lower Town, a maze of stone staircases, archways and narrow streets bordered by colorful houses. Sibiu’s open-air museum, Museum of Traditional Folk Civilization, is on display in a lovely park setting with dozens of reconstructed rural homesteads and two wooden churches.

On the grounds of Sibiel’s intriguing little Orthodox church and graveyard is a Museum of Glass Icons displaying a fabulous collection of more than 700 icons; they are naive in style, traditionally painted by local artists from Transylvania and Moldavia. At a roadside market of crafts, I purchased a glass icon of baby Jesus sleeping on a pillow lying flat on a cross in a field of tulips (the seller was pleased I chose the one painted by her sister).

A brooding skyline of ramparts, towers and spires marks Sighisoara as Transylvania’s most atmospheric medieval town, whose centuries-old houses are still inhabited by its residents. Visitors can also step back in time and check-in to the beautifully restored Residence Fronius, which adds five-star amenities to 500 years of history. Sighisoara is also the place where visitors can dine in the house where Prince Vlad Tepes—Dracula himself—was actually born.

A Sampling of  Tours to Romania
Alexander+Roberts offers a 10-day Journey through Romania and Bulgaria tour that includes a traditional Romanian pottery-making workshop; lunch in the house where Vlad the Impaler was born; time with a professor at a museum dedicated to Romania’s first school, where he delves into the country’s history; and dinner with a local family in their home in Sibiel. Priced at $4,499 pp. (800) 221-2216; or
Perfect Tour schedules a 7-night Family Adventure in Transylvania, staying in a charming, family-owned guest house/hotel in the town of Gura Raului. Daily adventures include taking part in local and rural village life and traditions, as well as touring Siebel and Sibiu with private guide/driver, and spending a day at a lake resort. This all-inclusive adventure is priced from $1,599 pp. (818) 907-9800;
Quest Tours offers a good choice of tours and packages to Romania. Its 7-day Best of Romania tour visits Bucharest, Gura Humorului (for visiting the monasteries), Sighisoara, and Sinaia. Departures are scheduled through October, and the tour is priced from $1,557 pp. (800) 621-8687;

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