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
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
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.
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
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.