Leaving the dismal disappointments of Moldova for shimmering hope of Romania, with pain in our hearts, knowing full well we will never ever return, we were very much aware that reality rarely matches your expectations. Fully recovered from food poisoning and freshly stuffed with juicy apricots and peaches bought from a sweet roadside vendor in pouring rain, we were ready to recalibrate our expectations on the other side of the border and crossed the river Prut back to Romania.
And when you least expect it, good things happen. We were entering a different Romania, not at all like what we saw in Romania Part 1 – the Black Sea Coast and the Danube Delta. No wonder as historically it was indeed a different world all together, for centuries part of “good old” Austro-Hungarian Empire.
One feels sorry for Romanian school kids having to learn their country’s history. The patchwork of tribes, languages, invasions, intrusions, meddling and local feuds is overwhelming! We entered the region of Bukovina in northern Romania along the border with Ukraine and we expected to find yet another backwater area. Well, surprise, surprise! The late afternoon sun was shining, roads were unexpectedly good, our navigational system started working again, and the hotel booked just a few minutes before our arrival was way above our expectations, recalibrated or not, and so was its restaurant with impeccable service. The array of beers and the name – Sonnenhof Hotel should have been a good indication of what was to come.
It has to be stressed again how much the atmosphere in the car and overall mood on this expedition is, unfortunately, dependent on how well the old bastard like me is fed and watered, the frequency and quality of espresso drinks served, the proper welcomes in the hotel lobby by good looking young ladies speaking good English, how he is ushered to his room with orthopaedic quality bed, serving his back very well and finally how thick is the foam in his bath tub full of hot water. Did I mention that the latest available edition of New York Times properly ironed for his comfortable spa reading is awaiting him as well? Or at least fast speed WiFi so he can read it on his phone.
With all of this delivered daily we discovered an area full of stunning beauty and, as a rich froth on my cappuccino, absolutely spectacular churches and monasteries, I never heard of, until my companion dragged me to them!
They are sprinkled in the vicinity of Suceava and as they are quite well known UNESCO recognized tourist attractions, we chose to start with a small one, where we only had to contend with two or three other visitors. Biserica (=church) Luca Arbore was named after its patron Luca Arbore, who had it built over the summer of the year 1503 A.D. (yup, we could only dream nowadays about such short delivery times of builders) after he had defended Suceava from Polish troops for his king Stephan the Great. As he was often partaking of such skirmishes he intended the church to be his burial place and dedicated it to the beheading of John the Baptist.
How strange that he and his sons were soon thereafter falsely accused of treason and beheaded as well.
As you may know, in the olden times the word of God by the order of Roman-Catholic Church could have been spread by the priests in Latin only until Protestants, with Martin Luther as the main culprit, came up with a novel idea of spreading it in the language the local people could actually understand. That meant preaching and translating the Bible into different languages. And if the locals could read neither Latin nor any other alphabet, why not make the bible and the most interesting and educational stories (like this one) in the format we call now comics. Violence was popular in the media even then!
The paintings were executed in “al fresco” technique – if you think of your favorite pasta dish, you are absolutely wrong! Stop laughing and listen!
Hence everybody, even those who skipped school and reading classes, knew what was written in the scripture and lived in fear of God! Having all the churches painted inside and out, these comics were very inclusive, so someone like me – the sinners – would usually be left standing outside of the church door, could still get the most important lesson of what punishments awaited me as the outside was richly and in great detail decorated with scenes from hell with a river of fire and poor naked buggers being tortured by devils.
In the meantime the better members of the parish could make it inside and see the fancier parts and the ladies could check the latest fashion of the rich and famous.
What a huge step in democratization of the religious access in the history of human mankind before Gutenberg’s invention of the press!
It was interesting to note that visitors in the centuries past were just as bad at wanting to leave their names behind stretched on the walls expect that this sort of vandalism wasn’t done in secret but with a lot of precision. Here a certain CK dated his visit in 1845 by the painting of the Fall of Constantinople. Many of the richly decorated churches and monasteries were built by king Stephen and his illegitimate son Petru Rareș like Voronets and Moldovita. Those were more popular with the crowds, triggering a flood of Chinese and other guided tours in buses. Encountering those selfie yielding maniacs I felt like running away and screaming “After you saw one (meaning monasteries, not tourists!), you’ve seen them all!”Fortunately, the cultural and artistic director of our trip was well aware of my mind’s fragility and cultural immersion limitations. She diversified our itinerary to allow drives through the green countryside into the Romanian mountains to rehash my sweet memories of trekking there in early 1970s. We undertook a few short hikes into my old haunts enjoying beautiful Carpathian Range now without huge backpacks, just chasing the best shots of local wildlife (they say there are 3000 bears in Romania) and
less wild animals and also the local tribe’s way of life and produce with merciful supportof newly built ski lifts. Which leads me to the next question:
What happened to me that I was suddenly requiring so much comfort in our travel arrangements? I was not always demanding like this. Looking at old photos from my mountaineering years my meals were not served on a silver plate. I was my own chef warming simple packages of dry soup, or rice and baconon a gas cooker fixed between three rocks. My bed was made of thin foam separating my then not so spoiled derrière from the freezing ground! And what about my hot tub? A mountain lake full of near freezing crystal clear water was enough to take care of the aforementioned body part.
I guess, the wear and tear of my body and psyche after the many years of physical and mental abuse and more available travel funds made me lazy and demanding and definitely not a better human being. While I was turning the wheel of our car and pressing the pedal to the metal (being reminded frequently there is something called a speed limit), my wife was exerting a gentle (OK, sometime not so gentle) gentrifying guidance so I could (not always) do better and see there is more to life than reaching a mountain top with the last bottle of beer still unopened in my backpack.
Our zigzag travel from the northeastern to southwestern corners of this large and interesting land open my eyes to countless places I missed on my Romanian conquests before. In Maramures I was introduced to stunning soaring wooden churches and monasteries covered by shingles. The complex of Bârsana monastery in the hidden Ima Valley was a total surprise and a revelation in wood. If ever there was a location Games of Thrones should have used for filming, this was it. Every angle revealed a new beautiful view of fantasy land. We agreed that our favorite was the structure we dubbed the Twirling Church with a double skirt to boot. The complex is newly established and ruled by a stern looking abbess Filofteia. In a nearby Dragomiresti we came across a new construction. A small group of skillful village master builders working with a part time architect with the help of just one crane was building a new wooden church. We were lucky to get a personal guided tour. It is a remarkable undertaking to do this by hand, do not forget the church spires can easily top one hundred feet (30m) of height! While master builder explained the building process, the priest explained the iconography behind the parts, which looked like a novel information to the builder, too.
The supporting column is the symbol of Christ on the cross himself. As per the Book of Revelations: I am Alpha and Omega. Alpha are his feet, Omega his head and on the sides are the nails.
To diversify further my Romanian cultural enrichment my wife introduced me to a home of the most famous Romanian genius – violinist, pianist and composer George Enescu. After overcoming serious navigational difficulties we finally arrived at a small villa, now converted to a museum.
Enescu found a forested lot close to the railways station (because he loved trains and their whistle), designed his villa and paid for it making big bucks as an international violin prodigy. He was also the teacher of famed American violinist Yehudi Menuhin. He said of his teacher that Enescu was “the Absolute by which I judge all others… the most extraordinary human being, the greatest musician and the most formative influence I have ever experienced.”
He spent in his villa a few good years with his muse Maria Tescanu Rosetti, known in the Romanian Royal Court as Princess Maruca Cantacuzino, a good friend of Queen Marie of Romania. He met her at the royal court in Sinaia and fell madly in love with her, despite her being very married and very difficult. He had lived with her for many years, married her finally in 1939, moving between France and Romania. Unfortunately for this poor chap, the end of WWII came to Romania with Red Army tanks in 1944. Enescu was chased out of his homeland by the communist government into an illness and financial difficulties fraught exile in Paris (better than Siberia, I have to say).
And lo and behold not far from his old home, we had a
chance to listen live to his compositions during the annual musical festival in Brasov. How fun!
But Brasov is in Transylvania and famous Dracula’s Transylvania most certainly deserves its own post.