From Sighisoara in Transylvania we moved on to Sukeava in the Moldavian region of Romania. The geography here is all a little confusing for me; these are historic names that I recognize but I don’t really have a good sense of where the historic regions are. In the case of Moldavia it’s all particularly complicated. Moldavia was either independent or at least autonomous most of the time after the 14th century until 1859 when it merged with Wallachia to form modern Romania. But historic Moldavia is today split between Romania to the west, Moldova to the east, and Ukraine to the north. All confusing.
We’re here to see the famed painted monasteries of Bukovina but I’m confused with that, too. What’s Bukovina? Historically, I learned, it was a region of historic Moldavia. But even that’s confusing since today northern Bukovina is in Ukraine while southern Bukovina is in Romania. So now that’s all clear, right?
Here we are, then, up in the northwest corner of Romania, which is southern Bukovina, and the goal is to see these painted monasteries. The good news is that Lonely Planet has a guided driving tour connecting four of the best; the bad news is that the tour runs in a loop of about 150 miles. That’s a lot of driving on what is supposed to be a day off from driving. It’s a lot of time in the car, but as it turns out totally worth it.
I’ve mentioned before our surprise when, after all our travels, we discover something utterly new. And here we go again. I’ve come to love the little Orthodox churches we find throughout Eastern Europe; so different from western churches but so beautiful and peaceful. Usually not as grand or imposing as Roman Catholic churches but beautiful in a peculiarly Eastern way.
What’s different about these Bukovina monasteries is that when they were built in the 15th and 16th centuries the exterior was frescoed as much as the interior was. And what’s amazing is that 500 years later and more, those exterior frescoes are still there and in many cases notably vivid. We were honestly bowled over when we walked up to the first of the monasteries on our tour; we’d just never seen anything like it. On top of that they were all in such beautiful, serene, bucolic places. Of course, the art in the churches, particularly inside, was often about the various martyrs getting their heads chopped off – you couldn’t believe how much head-chopping there was in these places – but if you ignored that it was calm and peaceful. The drives from one monastery to another were always beautiful and then you’d get to another beautiful church in a beautiful setting. Made for a pretty nice day.
And it made for a great way to say goodbye to Romania. We spent one more night in the country, dropping off the car in Iasi. Iasi (pronounced “Yash”) is Romania’s second city, a university town, and I probably could have learned to really like the city but we were there too briefly to get my arms around it. What I saw was nice, but we were ready to get to Moldova.
Meanwhile, I have to say, I was crazy about this little section of our adventure. The whole car-renting thing worked well for us, even though we don’t like cars. It was a lot of driving (for Mark; I’m without a drivers license at the moment), but it was really the right way to get around quickly. And modern technology makes driving in strange places so much easier: we would just map the route on my phone, plug it into a USB port in the car, and we then had access to all our music and the little woman inside my phone would read out turn directions as we went along. The routes weren’t always perfect, but it was a massive improvement over trying to read old maps.
Meanwhile the Balkans, overall, were great, and Romania may have been the crown jewel. Cobblestones, Dracula’s castle (but not really…), horses and buggies, adorable little town squares, great hiking, beautiful parks, old ladies walking on country lanes looking just like old ladies probably did 200 years ago, great wines; Romania has it all, and at a fraction of what you might expect to pay. In fact, September, essentially all of which we spent in the Balkans, was the least expensive month we’ve had in nearly two years, since we were in Mexico and Guatemala. When your costs are akin to Mexico and Guatemala, you’re doing fine!
One thing about the Balkans in general and Romania in particular that stands out when I look back: how safe they felt. When I think of the parks in Sofia that we were at first reluctant to walk through at night, until we say parents and little kids playing in there, or when I think of 50-year-old women hitchhiking in Romania, it occurs to me that this must be just genuinely safe. Where else do you see pretty much anyone trying to catch rides with strangers? Makes me feel good about humanity. Until I read news from Washington, but we’ll leave that behind for now.
Next stop, the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldavia, now the Republic of Moldova.