Romania: Cold comfort and the Last Judgement

Some of the finest frescoes in the world are to be found in the convents and monasteries of Romania. But don't expect a warm welcome...
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Indy Lifestyle Online
`The Mother Superior says no one told her you'd be arriving today. She's sorry but you won't be able stay." Teddy, an English-speaking guide for Bucovina Estur by day, and football-playing bass guitarist by night, looked as though he was about to burst into tears as he put down the phone. My spirits sank as I thought of the tired, state-run hotels with their shabby decor and chillingly impersonal staff.

I had flown to the far north of Romania from Bucharest to visit the painted monasteries of Southern Bucovina. I had set my heart on staying within the fortified walls of Dragomirna Monastery.

Designated a world heritage site by Unesco in 1993, these magnificent Orthodox citadels were built during the 15th and 16th centuries at the instigation of Stephen the Great to ward off would-be Turkish invaders.

"Is there nothing you can do?" I pleaded. "I'll try the community at Sucevita for you." Teddy picked up the phone again and called the operator. "They say it's OK." He looked relieved. "But I'll tell your driver to show you a couple of the private houses on the way - in case you change your mind." Teddy handed me a leaflet on Casa Lucretia, a large house set on a hill, with pictures of pine beds, log fires, a Jacuzzi and local people in traditional dress frolicking in a bucolic landscape.

Thanking him I set off with Ovide, relieved to be leaving behind Suceava's belching factories and cold, grey buildings. The original 18th and 19th century houses had been razed during the rapid industrialisation of the town in the 1950s and 1960s, and replaced by the institutional monotony of the present concrete constructions. The human price of the industrialisation is Suceava syndrome: toxic emissions from the pulp and paper works have left many people suffering from respiratory and nervous disorders.

Once the stately capital of the region, Suceava is now used primarily by visitors as a base from which to explore the monasteries and fortified churches that are scattered among the sprawling hills of Bucovina or "beech- covered land".

As the monasteries form a natural loop to the west of Suceava, hiring a car and driver is the simplest way to explore the region, although in the summer months many visitors choose to hike from monastery to monastery across the mountains.

Driving across the wintry landscape, we passed villages where the houses were topped with tin foil roofs and featured carved gateways and ornate wells. The streets were empty except for the occasional horse and cart, or the odd person huddled in sheepskins, head down against the biting cold.

Our first stop was Voronet, dubbed the "Sistine Chapel of the East". The outside walls of the monasteries' central churches were painted with frescoes, their images intended as a form of education for the local illiterate peasants. A mixture of Byzantine art and folk lyricism, cartoon-style figures act out Biblical scenes against the backdrop of the local Carpathian landscape.

Famed for a striking blue pigment, "Voronet blue", a fresco of the Last Judgement covers the entire west wall of the church. Angels and devils push sinners into the flames, while Christ sits in majesty. To create these scenes the artists used natural dyes to produce reds (made from an herbaceous plant) blues (from lapis lazuli) and yellows (from sulphur) and, amazingly, most of the frescoes remain intact, 450 years later, beneath the shelter of the churches' mushroom-shaped roofs.

As I wandered around the church, a nun dressed in long black robes approached me and held out her hand for money. The minimal fee for photography was duly paid and she nodded curtly and drifted noiselessly away. Jumping back into the car, Ovide stubbed out his cigarette and we accelerated down the deserted road towards Humor.

The smallest of the monasteries, Humor has no tower and it is surrounded by wooden ramparts rather than stone fortifications. The interior, however, hides frescoes which are the most impressive of all those in Bucovina's monasteries and the sense of peace is almost tangible. A single nun hoeing the frozen rosebeds looked up briefly and ignored me as I strode off in search of The Last Judgement.

Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Humor version of the scene has an ironically misogynist element, with the devil depicted as the Scarlet Woman. Peasants at the time believed that Hell was ruled by seven old crones who were more wicked than Satan. However as the women were mortal, the devil had to scour the earth continuously looking for replacements. Apparently, he never had trouble finding them.

The clouds were descending as we drove through pine forests over the Ciurmina Pass to our final destination of the day, Sucevita, and our next less-than-hearty welcome from the women in black. The pale grey monastery walls blended into the sky as the snow began to fall.

The most imposing of Bucovina's fortifications, Sucevita is isolated and forbidding. I got out of the car and approached the enormous wooden door with Ovide reassuringly by my side. Searching for a sign of life within the muted courtyard, we knocked on one of the doors. It was answered by a large red-faced nun whose demeanour was not entirely friendly. She proceeded to lead us along a gloomy corridor and up a flight of stairs to my "cell" - bare floorboards, a single bed and a traditional tiled stove heater.

It was a few degrees below freezing and, as I collected my bag from the car, I stumbled across the leaflet on Casa Lucretia, with its picture of friendly Romanians in traditional dress picnicking in the woods. I looked beseechingly at Ovide and he let out a huge laugh before producing a coin. "Heads Sucevita, tails Casa Lucretia."

It was tails and we headed off to be welcomed by the same young couple in the leaflet, disappointingly dressed in slippers and leggings rather than pretty embroidered smocks and scarves. Sitting in front of a blazing fire I drank hot fruit tea as they fussed around me, laying a dinner table with plates of spicy sausage, cheese, olives, bread, soup, half a chicken, chips and pickled red peppers and gherkins, all washed down with a bottle of rough red wine. Bloated and bilious, I eventually rolled into an enormous double bed, and snuggled under a thick goose down duvet, silently thanking Teddy for slipping me the leaflet.