Tales From the Painted Churches of Bucovina

By Joyce Dalton

CIMPULUNG MOLDOVENESC, Romania -- Humor monastery's most intriguing frescoes lie within, where graphic scenes warn sinners of their fate: One is strangled, and others boil in a pot or hang upside down from trees. A lot of decapitation is going on. The painted monasteries of Bucovina, designed as visual Bible lessons, are intriguing for the tales they tell and the way they tell them. The artistry rivals that of Europe's best-known masters of the fresco. Located in Romania's northeastern province of Moldavia, these 15th and 16th century structures have been declared world heritage monuments by Unesco.

For clients on their own, travel agencies in the capital, Bucharest, or the Moldavian tourist centers of Cimpulung Moldovenesc and Suceava offer itineraries that visit the most-renowned monasteries. A rental car is a good option for those who can make do with written, rather than live, guides. The print guides are available at major tourist centers like Bucharest, the tourist office in New York or at the monasteries. Clients can set their own pace, studying the frescoes to their hearts' content and chatting with the inevitable groups of schoolchildren, if they wish.

Covering the "big five" by self-drive is simple enough and can be accomplished in one rushed day. Signs are abundant, but roads are two lanes only, and drivers must remain alert for horse-drawn wagons, slow trucks and walkers. Some stretches are hilly and curvy. From Cimpulung Moldovenesc, where the Hotel Zimbrul makes a comfortable, if not luxurious, base, it is a 30-minute drive to Moldovita monastery, founded in 1532. Its roof-to-base exterior frescoes are painted against an intensely blue background.

A further 30-minute drive leads to Sucevita, a late 15th century monastery surrounded by stone fortification walls and towers. One visualizes an equally massive structure, of the medieval castle variety, within. Instead, an array of glorious paintings rises against a background of brilliant green. Sucevita boasts the greatest number of images -- thousands. These frescoes include an intriguing "Ladder of John of Sinai," in which the righteous, assisted by angels, climb toward Paradise while the less deserving fall into the arms of demons.

Continuing northeast to the town of Marginea, noted for black pottery, clients turn south toward Solca, where a detour of 20 minutes leads to the monastery of Arbore. Again, green predominates, this time in five shades. The most valuable frescoes depict the lives of the saints and the Book of Genesis.

The circuit continues south to Gura Humorului and the monastery of Humor. From the 15th century, calligraphers and painters of miniatures practiced their craft here.

On the road back to Cimpulung Moldovenesc, travelers will spot a narrow road on the left that leads to Voronet. This monastery has become a favorite with tourists because of its blue hue and the quality of it frescoes. Guidebooks hail Voronet as "the Sistine Chapel of the East." The monastery was built in less than four months in 1488 to fulfill a pledge by Stephen the Great following a successful military campaign. Voronet's frescoes depict angels with the faces of Moldavian women playing the shepherd's musical instrument, the bucium, and the deceased wrapped in embroidered cloths.

Clients staying in Suceava, a much larger city than Cimpulung Moldovenesc, would drive north, then west to Arbore, to begin their monastery circuit, then continue to Solca, Marginea, Sucevita and Moldovita. From Moldovita, they can take a secondary road to Vama, connecting with the main route to Voronet and Humor.

Most Bucovina monasteries have an entry fee of 70 cents (based on the current exchange rate of 7,000 lei to the dollar), with an additional $1.40 for still cameras. Some charge a modest parking fee (about 10 cents). Despite their age, many frescoes remain vivid and compelling, although time has done its work in places. Interior artwork has fared less well, damaged by candle smoke, incense and dampness. All monasteries are active, and visitors might chance on a service where they'll hear the high voices of the nuns singing in response to the chanting of the priest. Nuns offer tours of all of the monasteries in Romanian, French and, occasionally, English. They do not accept payment.

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A few days in the Romanian city of Iasi (a three-hour drive from Suceava) makes for a pleasant change of pace after exploring the monasteries of the region. Iasi's neoclassic Hotel Traian was erected in 1882 from blueprints by Gustave Eiffel. Located on Piata Unirii, the property is within walking distance of all major sights. Iasi's importance dates to the mid-1500s, when it became home for Moldavia's princes. A university city and center for the arts, Iasi offers ample sightseeing, both secular and religious.

The Palace of Culture resembles the first part of its name and exemplifies the latter. Admission to the four museums under its neo-Gothic roof is 60 cents. Nearby, a pleasant landscaped park leads to the 19th century National Theater. The interior is considered one of the most splendid in Europe. Opposite the theater, four soaring domes identify the Metropolitan church, the largest Romanian Orthodox place of worship in the country.

Half a block farther along Strada Stefan cel Mare, Trei Lerarhi church seems constructed of stone lace, so intricate are the carvings that cover every square inch of the exterior.

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