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My Bloody Romania: The Painted Monasteries of Southern Bucovina
Dateline: Suceava, Romania
First, a quick geography lesson. Don't go looking for 'Southern Bucovina' in the south on your map of Romania. It is, in fact, in the north. Like many parts of Europe, land was grabbed and dealt during WWI and WWII without regard for historical ethnic and cultural boundaries. I'm writing this offline, so I can't research and confirm, but relying on my perennially air-tight knowledge of world history, the region of Bucovina was split in half when Southern Bucovina was handed to Romania and Northern Bucovina was packed up and trucked up to Sweden as a part of the Helsinki Convention of 1492, brokered by Abraham Lincoln, Attila the Hun and Buddha.
Most of the Painted Monasteries in this region were erected by Stephan the Great and his son Petru Rare?? in the 15th and 16th centuries and are collectively honored with UNESCO World Heritage status. The story goes that armies gathering and waiting to do battle with the Turks would hunker down inside these fortified monasteries. Since most of the peasant soldiers were illiterate and unable to enter the churches (and bored senseless after their Gameboys died), biblical stories were painted cartoon-style on the exteriors to educate and entertain. Many of the two millimeter thick frescos have miraculously survived despite centuries of direct exposure to harsh weather, neglect and the efforts of medieval vandals – keep an eye out for the "Dave was here" and "Clapton is God" engraved graffiti with dates in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Tours of the Big Four monasteries (Humor, Voroneţ, Moldoviţa and Suceviţa) are the primary attraction in this region with most tours originating out of Suceava. I invited myself along on a monastery outing (my fourth visit to some of the monasteries) with the area's Energizer Bunny of tour guides, Monika Zavoianu, owner and operator of High Class Hostel.
Our first stop was Humor (founded in 1530), whose primarily red exterior frescos, including a badly faded depiction of the 1453 siege of Constantinople, have not held up as well as the others, but its interior is splendid. Once you've gone blind squinting at the endless paintings of saints, you can squeeze up the three flights of steep, anorexic stairs to the striking photo op at the top of the brick and wood lookout tower – an endeavor that will test people who dread both small spaces and small lunches.
Next was Voroneţ Monastery, with exterior paintings dominated by a singular and vibrant shade of blue that has been coined as an internationally recognized color: 'Voroneţ Blue'. The massive and detailed Last Judgment fresco here, covering the entire exterior western wall, is far and away the primary enticement and roundly hailed as Bucovina's finest fresco. Equally, the profuse parking lot souvenir stands sell Bucovina's finest Dracula ashtrays.
After a quick stop for lunch we pressed on to the predominantly yellow Moldoviţa Monastery (Monika's favorite). While the painted church here is also in miraculously good condition, what's equally striking is the otherworldly tranquil atmosphere within the fortifications. The beautifully tended grounds and stone buildings would undoubtedly make location scouts for a live-action remake of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" go to pieces.
Finally we careened over a winding mountain road with beautiful views (never mind the uninspired Communist sculpture sullying the peak) to the largest of the Bucovina monasteries, Suceviţa. The red-green dominated exterior fresco series is punctuated by the Virtuous Ladder covering most of the northern wall, which depicts the 30 steps from Hell to Paradise (I checked, no picture of Natalie Portman in Paradise, but maybe when Paradise II comes out...). There's also a well here that has tasty water, in as much as water is tasty, that's safe to drink.
I'm afraid space and Average Human Reading About Churches Fortitude has forced me to gloss over most of the arresting details of the Painted Monasteries - the tour, including lunch and a few other stopovers is a vigorous nine hours long. The splendid churches and fortifications notwithstanding, the sheer size and detail of the exterior frescos alone could fill years worth of observation and theological study. Monika has visited each of these monasteries hundreds of times and spent five years educating herself about the significance of the frescos and she still claims to see something new at each visit.
Me, I can't tell you what color my last laptop was much less recall house-sized frescos in detail, which is why I have taken hundreds of pictures to jog my memory. Please excuse the absence of pictures from Suceviţa and Moldoviţa. They were lost in a tragic data transfer debacle.
Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-authored the current edition of Lonely Planet's Romania and Moldova. Visit his personal blog, Killing Batteries, for more creative world history riffs and plagiarizing from his chapters in the LP book.