Explore on MAPS
Contact us
Return to HOME PAGE
View pictures of
See also pages on Romania
Painted Monasteries, Walks and Villages
Bucovina, in the north western corner of present day Moldavia is more correctly known as Southern Bucovina. The northern part was retained by the Soviet Union in 1940 and is now part of Ukraine, one of the outcomes of the division of spoils that split communities and families.
It took a full day to drive from Maramures, across the Carpathian mountains, to Bucovina. This was a spectacular and exhilarating drive, crossing over five passes and discovering valleys where clear mountain streams flowed. One of the passes, the Tihutza Pass, was appropriated by Bram Stoker as the Borgo Pass in his Dracula story. There is a Dracula Hotel and, on this Sunday, a garlic festival which caused a three kilometre traffic jam.
Alongside the road people were selling buckets of yummy looking mushrooms, and sometimes berries. Everywhere there were apple trees laden with fruit. Horses and carts trotted along the road and huge quantities of timber were stockpiled in all the towns we passed through.
A string of small villages have sprung up around the Bucovina monasteries. We were based in Sucevita where we had a spacious room in a traditional house, one of a cluster that was grouped round lawns and fruit trees. There was a big bed with individual duvets, a blue ceramic stove, hand stitched fabrics hanging on the walls, carpets round the walls and all over the floor. We had to leave our shoes outside and it was just lovely.
The domestic architecture of the villages was now quite different. The houses were still simple wooden structures but their facades were often painted in bright colours and always elaborately decorated. Sometimes they also featured ornate metal guttering and downpipes. Most houses had a well in the garden with a pretty little structure built over it. Picket fences or decorative metal structures enclosed well maintained gardens.
Villages in Bucovina
The Bucovina monasteries are remarkable artistic, historic and religious masterpieces. As a group they are listed on UNESCO's list of World Historic sites. They were built from the late 15th century to the late 16th century and, inspired by Byzantine art, their exterior walls are covered in detailed and elegant fresco paintings. The frescoes are exceptionally well preserved and restoration has been minimal and sympathetic. The interiors also are highly decorative and we were able to watch intricate restoration work being carried out.
Constructed as fortresses during the times of Ottoman invasions the monasteries gave protection to armies and the local peasants. The paintings, illustrating historic and religious stories, were undertaken for the edification and entertainment of those sheltering within the monastery.
There are 22 painted churches, eight are in the UNESCO listing and we visited six of them. They are all very active places of religious devotion, still enclosed within their fortress walls. The churches are surrounded by manicured gardens full of colourful roses.
Volumes have been written about these wonderful places and a detailed examination of every image in every panel on every wall is almost a lifetime's study. We could only try to take it all in and select a small number to fully appreciate.
The Monasteries
This was the last of the monasteries to be built, between 1582 and 1601. Some say it is the finest. It was the first that we visited and we were astonished and amazed by our first sight of a blue wall covered with angels.
Sucevita Monastery
This is the so-called Ladder of Virtues or Ladder to Paradise. A painted ladder cuts diagonally across the wall and people are climbing up towards Paradise. Above the ladder are the angels and below are nasty demons (in the detail) trying to pull the climbers down into the underworld.
Above this masterpiece (top right) is a 'comic strip' depicting the story of the creation - a series of panels which move from the Creation to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
The other walls are also richly decorated but this first impression has left a lasting impact. Inside the church the brilliant colours of recently restored paintings could only be glimpsed through walls of scaffolding.
God creates Eve
Eve eats the fruit
Putna was built between 1466 and 1481. There are no paintings on its external walls but the interior walls are covered with stylised, almost modern, Byzantine paintings gleaming after their recent restoration. Still an active monastery, it is cherished by Romanians as the burial place of Stefan the Great, the heroic and much loved Prince of Moldavia who lived from 1457-1504. He claimed to have fought 36 battles against Hungary, Poland and the Ottoman Empire, winning all but two. To mark these victories he built many churches and monasteries.
The monastery was founded in 1530 and its decoration dates from 1535. Here the frescoes are predominantly red and we encountered a remarkable Last Judgement featuring a dramatic river of fire in which unfortunate sinners are struggling. Angels, demons, wild animals and fish are also part of the story. On one of the walls is a faded representation of the Siege of Constantinople in 1453.
With perhaps the best preserved of all the frescoes, this was our favourite. Known as the "Sistine Chapel of the East", it was founded in 1487 by Stefan the Great to celebrate one of his victories over the Turks.
Putna Monastery
Humor Monastery
Voronet Monastery
Built in 1532, its frescoes were completed in 1537. A remarkable feature here was another Siege of Constantinople, this one in superb condition. We see Turkish cannon blasting towards the walls and turrets of the city, spirals of smoke, archers ineffectively shooting from the walls and bodies falling all over the place.

The cannon were supplied to the Turks by an mercenary Hungarian knight.
According to the Romania Tourism website the "Siege of Constantinople" frescoes were inspired by a poem dedicated to the Virgin Mary who saved the city from a Persian attack in A.D. 626.

The actual fall of Constantinople (1453) was a calamitous event for the eastern Europe of the day and may account for some of the apocalyptic 'rivers of fire' frecoes elsewhere.
Moldovita Monastery
Abore Church
This is a simple and very small church built in 1503. It was painted four decades later but has not retained the intensity of some of the others. We loved it for its quiet simplicity.
The frescoes were added 60 years later, the highlight being one whole wall on which is depicted a colourful Last Judgement. Again the river of fire runs through the painting, the sainted goodies line up on one side and those about to be thrown into the fire on the other.

The intense blue of these walls that has retained its colour for 500 years is called "Voronet Blue"
Walking in Bucovina
Between visiting churches we did some great walks from village to village, climbing over rolling hills and crossing through dense forests.
Sucevita to Putna
The first walk was through the forests, starting on the outskirts of Sucevita and finishing near Putna along a route that was sign posted in a rudimentary fashion. Again Dan left us at the start and found us at the end of the trail. It was a pleasant walk climbing over a small mountain from one valley to another and enjoying the valley roads on either side.

We started on a vehicle track that ran alongside a lazy stream and climbed slowly, observing more and more forestry activity. First there were stacks of logs and gradually the road became very muddy till we left it and climbed up to a shady forest track. There was a continual buzz of chainsaws in the air.
Reaching the crest, we walked along a ridgeline with glimpses of the distant valley and after a while slid down a steep track to the road in the next valley. From here it was an easy walk along another stream. We stopped for lunch on a pile of logs where we were joined by some forest workers and their two strong Polish horses, bought on the Internet, said their proud owner.

The job of these sturdy horses was to pull the fallen logs out of the forest to where the heavy machinery would take over and make more mud. On the road through the valley there were forestry shelters, hamlets and farmhouses and, always, horses and carts trotting along with the business of the day.
Through the Polish villages towards Humor
A significant population of Polish people live in several villages in the region of Bucovina near Sucevita. They are descended from miners brought here in the 18th century and a more recent wave of immigration in the early 19th century when the region was part of the Austro Hungarian empire. The three main villages are Plesza, Nowy Solonutu, Pojana Mikuli.
One of our most enjoyable walks was through these villages and the hilly country that hid them from view.

Dan dropped us at a crossroads on a main road and we set off along a stony minor road winding up and down a couple of hills with farmland and forests on either side of the road.
A few hours later Dan met us at the other end and we were off to see another monastery.

It had been the monasteries that had brought us to Romania and they overwhelmingly met our expectations. But equally delightful was the countryside and the picturesque villages, all different and quite unique to their particular geographical area. From here it was to be different again as we crossed the mountains again to
Transylvania and the Saxon villages
We walked through two of the villages and in one of them stopped to chat to a Polish babushka. We passed lots of horses and carts and were carried away photographing the picturesque houses in the villages.
In other pages are descriptions of our experiences in
Return to Top
Near Tihutza Pass
The cottage in Sucevita
Sucevita Monastery