Mark admiring the interior of one of the monasteries we toured. They were often stunning, especially when you noticed all the heads getting chopped off. Apparently the Turks chopped a lot of heads off.

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?

Rural Bukovina was beautiful and so peaceful

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.

Everywhere we went we’d see another 500-year-old (or more) monastery with painted walls like this

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.

It’s stunning that these exterior frescoes could retain the color and vibrancy after literally centuries of exposure to the elements

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!

Did I mention horses and buggies? Lots and lots of people still get around this way. Mark was particularly amused by the picture in the top left: a flashy Mercedes being held up on what passes in Romania as a highway by a horse and buggy.

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.

It’s fall here, with all the colors in the fields to prove it

The Last Judgment on one of the exterior monastery walls

The siege of Constantinople on another monastery

More painted walls

And more

Mark posing outside one of them

The fortress of Suceava where Stephan the Great – Moldavia’s greatest ruler – held off an attack from the Ottoman sultan Mehmed the Conquerer. Twenty years earlier Mehmed had captured Constantinople and he was still on the march into Europe. It is reasonable to say that had Stephen not defeated him here the history of Europe may have been quite different.

The route from Suceava’s city center to the Fortress. This was one of those places when I was struck by how safe Romania seems. It was starting to get dark when I walked out there and there was no lighting or anything, but there were others on the walk as well, seemingly unconcerned about being vulnerable.

It’s worth adding that these monasteries aren’t just historical artifacts. This was a very modern one we stopped by on our way to Suceava.

Of course, there was food, too. On the long drive up to Suceava we looked at TripAdvisor to find a restaurant en route. There was a well-rated Italian place in a town along the way so we stopped. Turns out the owner was originally from Naples and his antipasto, in particular, was genuinely authentic Italian. Oh, by the way, that’s my glass of wine posing by Mark. He was driving, so I enjoyed the wine on my own.

Speaking of food, what’s not to like about sausages, ham, good mustard, and sauerkraut?

It’s been a while since we had a kitty picture, but this one was particularly friendly. He climbed up on Mark’s lap and sat there purring and purring.

And dogs, too! Don’t they look a little big for that poor mamma?

The clock tower, one of several old towers still standing on the town walls

Our fourth stop in Romania was Sighisoara (pronounced something like sig-ee-shwo-ara; I had to practice) another wonderfully beautiful old town settled in the 12th century by Transylvanian Saxons. The oldest part of the city was built on a hill, surrounded of course by impenetrable walls, and that area – the citadel – retains much of the feel of medieval Europe. It is so historic, in fact, that in 1999 UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in honor of the 850-year history of those Transylvanian Saxons.

The main thing to do in Sighisoara, then, is to just wander around the citadel and admire the architecture and remaining walls and towers. And you will be reminded, should you somehow forget, that Vlad the Impaler – also known as Dracula, was born here when his father, Vlad Dracul, Prince of Wallachia, was here in exile.

There’s an old cemetery up in the citadel that seemed particularly eerie knowing that Dracula was born here

Meanwhile, fall is upon us, moving in fast. On the morning of October 1, it was barely above freezing when I went out for a morning run, the first time I’ve needed hat and gloves in many months. Then we needed to scrape the frost off the car (with my ATM card; the rental company didn’t provide us with a scraper) before we could drive away. When was the last time I did that?

By now we’re definitely getting a feel for Romania and I have to say, I’m loving it. Mark is a little harder to please when the food isn’t so great but I’ve loved the beautiful medieval town centers and the landscape as we drive through. The wine is little short of remarkable. Who ever knew Romanian wine would be so good and cheap?

I think this is the third dinner we’ve had in Romania in a vaulted cellar. Mark is enjoying a Greek Salad (sort of; they don’t really have corn in them) along with a very typical eggplant salad and some delightful Romanian wine.

There are some peculiarities, though. We’ve seen more hitchhikers in Romania than anywhere in the world, just lots of people – young, old, men, women, you name it – hitching a ride. And the horses and donkeys pulling carts; didn’t that end like 30 years ago? But no, they’re everywhere, just adding to the ambience of a beautiful country. Two more stops to go!

We stayed at a Mercure hotel that they’d just opened after remodeling. It had a great feel, as though we were in a classy Best Western in a small town in Colorado.

These asters are everywhere this time of year

Lots of beautiful flowers in Sighisoara

Did I mention that Vlad the Impaler, aka Dracula, was born here?

One day I climbed out of town up to a park full of oak trees that are allegedly hundreds of years old. I was rewarded with this view as well as perfect place to sit and read for a while.

Another view of the approach to the citadel and the clock tower

When a friend saw on Facebook that we were in Romania, she told us about Jimmy the dog, who protects the main square and whom she met a few years ago. Jimmy is still here but he’s not so lively these days. Every time we saw him, well, this was his notion of protecting the town square.

For me, at least, the highlight of Sibiu was a beautiful hike we did on a cold morning. On the trail for nearly two hours, we saw just two other hikers, which makes it pretty nice.

Still in Transylvania we stopped for two nights in Sibiu, another pretty little Germanic town with a great Medieval feel to it. Sibiu was the capital of Transylvania for much of the 18th century and again briefly in the 19th century. More recently it was named Europe’s Capital of Culture in 2007, so we figured it must have had something going on. As late as 1945 the city was primarily German and known by the name Hermannstadt but after the war most Germans emigrated to Germany or Austria leaving only a very small German minority there. One of the Germans who remained, however, was Klaus Johannis who was elected mayor in 2000, the first ethnic German mayor of a Romanian city since the Second World War. Apparently he did well as Mayor as today he is the President of Romania.

How did we spend our time in Sibiu? Well, the one full day we were in town we left, driving about an hour to the town of Paltinis to go for a hike. It had been a little frustrating because I’d asked at the hotel desk about hiking in the area; the woman there said she didn’t know of any trails. Yet if you Google “Sibiu hiking” you get to the county’s tourist website that opens by saying “With over 500 marked hiking trails, the county of Sibiu is truly a hiker’ paradise.” That’s the stuff a hotel is supposed to know.

A view from the trail

At any rate we had an absolutely lovely hike around Paltinis up in the Carpathians and still got done in time to get back to town for lunch. We’re still not enamored of Romanian food as we’re finding it just too heavy and Germanic. Somehow, though, we’re not starving. Beyond that there was an interesting art museum that was worth an hour, a beautiful orthodox cathedral, and – as we’ve learned to do so well – hanging out in cafés.

And just like that after two days we’re back on the road, off to another cute Romanian town.

Liar’s Bridge is a Sibiuan landmark. There are a variety of legends about how it got its name – from the market people who once worked near by and couldn’t be trusted, from the creaks and moans the older wooden bridge would emit if someone was lying while on it – but whatever the basis it’s supposedly the oldest cast iron bridge in Romania.

A quirky feature of Sibiu’s architecture is the weird third-floor windows you can see on buildings here. When I first saw them I thought they looked like eyes and sure enough, they’re called the City’s Eyes. Never seen anything like them.

Sibiu is a diverse city in terms of religion. Lutheran is the biggest religion but they account for less than half the population. There are sizable populations of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Catholics, and even some Jews. The Lutheran churches, though, are largely boring inside. This is the Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral and it was stunning. I’m thinking that means the Orthodox God is better than the Lutheran God.

One of the challenges we’ve had in this tour of the Balkans is that because we’ve done very little advance planning often the hotels we would like to stay in are full. In Sibiu we ended up in a distinctly inferior place, perhaps because we were there during Cibinfest (Sibiu is on the Cibin River). That’s a very German-sounding Oom-Pah band playing to a pretty big crowd that was hogging all the good hotel rooms.

The Brukenthal Museum is housed in the one-time palace of Samuel von Brukenthal, once the Habsburg governor of Transylvania. The museum was nice; I particularly liked the way they mixed the art collection with furniture and other stuff from the period when von Brukenthal was governor. What annoyed me is that although the entry ticket was a little over $5, a ticket that would allow you to take pictures would have cost over $30. I asked about the disparity and was told in essence “Because we want you to buy a book about the collection instead.” I honestly didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to take pictures when I snapped this but I was annoyed anyway.

A statue in Sibiu

And finally, back on the trail, just because it was my favorite part of the stop

We saw the most amazing mushrooms on our hike, and even saw a small family leaving the trail just as we got on it with buckets full of wild mushrooms. Mark suggested it would be unwise for us to try our luck with them.