The painted monasteries of Bucovina are one of the greatest architectural and artistic landmarks of Europe. Though these picturesque treasures of Romania are often overlooked by visitors to the country as they are not easily accessible by transport.
The monasteries are located in the northeastern part of Romania, close to the border with Ukraine, called Bucovina. The region is called Moldova, and Bucovina is a smaller part of it. Bucovina was bigger and stretched all the way to Cernuati(Chernivtsi) in present Ukraine, but great part of Bucovina was taken over by the Soviet Union after WW2.
Bucovina lies in the Carpathian foothills. Here the local leader Stefan the Great (Stefan cel Mare) ruled between 1457-1504 and fought back the Turks in the 14-15th centuries. He built churches and monasteries throughout Moldavia to praise God for allowing him to win. One monastery was built after each won battle. The first and the oldest monastery called Bogdana was built by his father Bogdan.
The inside walls are decorated with very old partly faded frescoes. The place where Bogdan I erected his church and monastery was, at that time, surrounded with forests. He chose to be buried in this church. The beginnings of Bogdana Monastery and St. Nicolae church are lost in the past and the church resisted for centuries to all sorts of invaders.
The church was built in early 14th centruy and resisted for centuries to all sorts of invaders. It is the oldest architectural monument made of stone, built in Moldova.
Stefan’s the Great descendants continued his work by setting the foundations for many other famous monasteries. There are 48 monasteries in total. Some of the churches are fortified with strong defensive walls which used to protect against Turkish invaders and they sheltered large armies of soldiers awaiting battle. Seven of the painted monasteries have been included on the Unesco World Heritage List.
The outside walls of some of the monastery churches are richly decorated with vivid frescoes. They feature scenes from the Bible and were meant to teach people by means of pictures. Most of the artwork has amazingly survived for more than 400 years.
The five main painted monasteries are Humor, Voronet, Moldovita, Sucevita and Arbore. I was extremely lucky to stay only 5km away from the biggest monastery, Sucevita. From outside it looks like a castle. I believe walls served as serious protection during invasions.
The monastery was founded by the Abbot Gheorghe Movila and his brother, and build between 1584-86.
The most outstanding painting is the “Ladder of Virtue”, which covers part of the north wall, presenting the angels who assist righteous enter the Paradise, while sinners are punished by a grinning demon.
The peak of our visit to the Sucevita monastery was a meeting with a nun, who was not really sober. We were told to meet her and get some monastery bread. Yes, the holy bread. Luckily I could not speak Romanian and was just smiling for 30 minutes. Her first question was: “When is the wedding??? You have to have it here in the monastery” ;-) Mara was a bit shocked and answered that the wedding will definitely be in the monastery, though not sure when…. There was a lot of talking, and I am happy i have missed it due to inability to talk the language. And of course, nothing in this world is for free, not even the holy bread. We had to make a donation, so we ended up paying 5 times more for a bread ;-))) Holy church requires sacrifices.
Later that we visited two other importnat monasteries – Putna and Voronets (read here).
Bucovina is definitely worth visiting, not only for its beautiful monasteries, but also for the natural beauty. It is very different from other parts of Romania. People are very competitive and hard working here. Village houses are very beautifully decorated and very well taken care of. The downside is that people can be quite envious of each other’s successes. Local food and wine are worth mentioning as they are very affordable and very tasty. The atmosphere in villagges and towns is very relaxed and peaceful. I was a bit surprised when I saw a horse cart, but got used to cars slowing down or taking over horse carts. It is like going back in time…
If you decide to explore this part of Romani and visit the monasteris I highly recommend to rent a car or find a local driver who could take you around. The bus connections are not very good and buses are not frequent. Another option is to relocate every 2-3 days from one cluster of monasteries to another. It can be fun to explore the area by bicycle though you have to keep in mind that it is very hilly and distances between certain monasteries can be quite big. Besides I am sure you can hitchike around, just keep in mind that drivers will request certain payment. Maybe even just tell you how much you are supposed to pay.