It happened at the ITB, the world's biggest tourism fair in Berlin last year: We walked through the Romania section and saw some pictures of the painted monasteries of Bucovina in one of those glossy brochures on UNESCO World Heritage sites in Romania.
The exterior walls of those churches are completely covered with frescoes of saints and biblical stories – and in a second we knew that we had to see the real thing, not only the pictures. Only a few months later we were indeed travelling in Romania – and then we almost decided to give them a miss! Romanian transport turned out rather slow and complicated, and the Bucovina churches are situated in the far-flung north-eastern corner of the country, and quite off the main roads at that.
Luckily, in the end we did decide to go to the Bucovina, and it was by far the highlight of our two weeks in Romania. Eight of the best-preserved painted monasteries, all dating from the 15th and 16th century, are registered as UNESCO World Heritage, and the frescoes served not purely as decoration, but were rather a means of conveying the stories of the Bible and life details of important and less-important saints (most of them in very detailed blood-curling depictions) to the mostly illiterate population.
During our three days in the area we managed to visit seven of them (with the exception of Probota). The most visited ones are Humor, Moldevita, Sucevita and Veronet. They are the best preserved of the churches and (by comparison) the easiest to reach. Each of them is worth visiting for a different reason.
Often called „the Sistine Chapel of the East,“ the monastery of Veronet is probably the most famous of the Bucovina monasteries. Built in 1487 and painted almost 100 years later, its well-preserved paintings feature a stunning shade of blue, commonly known as „Veronet Blue“.
Sucevita on the other hand is best-known for its marvellous depiction of the so-called „Ladder of Divine Ascent“ – winged angels help the righteous to climb a steep ladder leading directly into paradise while sneering devils are waiting beneath for the less-surefooted who would fall down ….
Doomsday was one of the events depicted in great detail on all the monasteries: Fish and other beasts are forced to spit back out the victims they have devoured; the orthodox saints are already seated in a VIP section of pre-heaven, waiting to step in front of god. Others are standing in line, and angels are also guiding the Muslims and Jews to the last judgement.
A church less visited by tourists, but which we liked very much, is Arbore, the only one without a belfry, but surrounded by a lovely garden. Perhaps the least amazing one (for us) was the St. George church in Suceava, because there the frescoes on the outside are not that well preserved.
Reasons to visit the UNESCO-rated monasteries of Bucovina:
We have seen a lot of churches and outstanding monuments during our travels, but the UNESCO-recognised monasteries of Bucovina were definitely a highlight. They unfold like a huge comic book, the colours are amazingly preserved and because they are (again) used as monasteries they provide a serene and peaceful atmosphere. You could just sit and look at the frescoes for hours and could still detect new details. This impression will stay with you – Isa's mother remembers them vividly although her visit was some 40 years ago.
How to get to the monasteries of Bucovina:
It is possible to visit all the seven monasteries mentioned above by public bus. This would take a few days, because buses in Romania are very infrequent and you would sometimes have to wait for hours for the next connection, or take some inconvenient detours, or walk a lot. We visited in a combination of taking public buses and hitchhiking, and contrary to many websites who strongly advice to hire a car, we found it absolutely doable without – and we met one other tourist who also determinedly visited the monasteries (all eight even!) by bus and hitchhiking.