Tuesday, April 28, 2009


This section is courtesy of Travel Lady Magazine
"More religious frescoes?" Yes and no. Frescoes, surely, and unquestionably religious, but in northeastern Romania's Bucovina region, the "big five" painted monasteries greatest treasures aren't hidden behind closed doors. Instead, they cover the exterior walls, eaves to ground, ready to overwhelm viewers at first glimpse. They've been doing just that for some 500 years.Easily accessible from bases in Campulung Moldovenesc or Suceava, these UNESCO World Heritage Monuments can be viewed in one frustratingly rushed day, but are better savored in two or three. Most packaged tours of Romania include at least three of the monasteries. Joining a locally based tour or hiring a taxi for the day are other options. Those not intimidated by narrow, winding, often pot-holed mountain roads will find a rental car the best way to explore both scenery and sights.A sample circuit could begin from Campulung Moldovenesc's comfortable Hotel Zimbrul. The hotel is right on the main street, as is the turn-off for the first monastery and the return from the last. A 30-minute drive through mountains thick with fir trees leads to Moldovita, founded in 1532. Hundreds of tableaux bring childhood Sunday school lessons to life, but there is also the chance to learn a little history. One of Moldovita's most valuable compositions recreates, in vibrant reds and blues, the siege of Constantinople. For centuries, Romania suffered Turkish invasions and many of the country's 2,000-plus monasteries were built in gratitude for various victories.Although the monasteries builders could hardly have anticipated 20th Century driving times, the fact remains that a 30-minute drive separates one from another. A wooded stretch brings travelers to Sucevita whose powerful stone fortification walls and towers seem more likely to enclose a bleak medieval castle than wall after wall of glorious paintings. Dating to the late 16th Century, Sucevita boasts the greatest number of images — thousands — painted against a green background often compared to the color of a lawn just after the rain.At the town of Marginea, noted for black pottery, drivers should turn south to Solca where a short detour leads to the monastery of Arbore. If time demands skipping something, Arbore would be the choice as its exterior frescoes have faded considerably. However, the interior offers a chance to observe the Romanian Orthodox custom of hanging embroidered scarves around icons and from chandeliers. In all the monasteries, interior paintings have not fared too well, proving that incense and candle smoke can be more destructive than wind and rain.To reach the next monastery, return to Solca, continue south to the town of Gura Humorului, then follow signs for Humor monastery. You'll know you've arrived when a roadside display of painted eggs, hand-embroidered vests and cloth comes into view. Prices are low, the quality of workmanship high. In the 15th Century, calligraphers and painters of miniatures practiced their craft at Humor, whose walls have been described as "pages of a manuscript covered with miniatures, left lying on a lawn." Here, the devil is portrayed as a woman, humorous to today's viewers, but true to ancient peasant belief, while a "hora" (traditional dance) danced in celebration of the Biblical prodigal son's return could have been modeled after a 20th century Moldavian village gathering.Doing the circuit in reverse, starting rather than ending at Voronet monastery, would detract from the sense of perfection and completion that strikes almost all who view this gem. Chronicles state that Stephen the Great, Romania's most renowned ruler, erected the monastery in only three months, back in 1488, to fulfill a pledge after defeating the Turks. Its gentle, yet vivid, blues (popularly known as "Voronet blue") plus the quality of the frescoes have led to Voronet's billing as the "Sistine Chapel of the East." A magnificent Last Judgment covers an entire wall. Animals, including elephants and whales, join people in procession toward the open gates of heaven. First, though, they must pass the seat of judgment. Here, Byzantine-style figures have the soft faces of Moldavian women while angels blow the traditional shepherd's long horn, the "bucium," and the paradise-bound are covered with embroidered cloths.These monasteries remain active, so visitors might chance on a service where the high voices of nuns sing in response to the chanting of the priest. If a clacking sound is heard, it signals a nun circling the church repeatedly striking a long wooden board, or "toaca," with small mallets to announce the start of services.

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