We needed another fairly early start today as we are off to see two more of the painted monasteries before we head across to Sapanta - at least four hours drive up and over the Maramures mountains - and going very close to some of the areas we visited at the start of our Romanian adventure. The day is promising to be another warm one with the mountains in the distance clouded in haze. The warm sun certainly does have its benefits though as the fruits of farm labours are transported to market.
Transport in Romania takes three main forms (if you don't include walking) - cars crawling, slower horse and cart for transporting goods and/or people, and local 'buses' - transporter vans that seem to operate to their own set of traffic rules - they pull up anywhere, often without warning and demand right of way at all times. This sign summed it up for me!!
We started with Sucevita Monastery, an hour from Surceava - arriving before the hordes and just as the sellers are setting up their wares.
It actually looks like a fortress from the outside, not a monastery. As we reach the entry gates, there is an animated conversation taking place between two of the nuns and a priest who is leaving the complex, driving like a mad-man.
This monastery was constructed in 1581 and the frescoes were completed in 1596 and painted by brothers Ion and Sofronie. Like many of the other monasteries, the northern exposed external walls are badly faded, but the others are still rich and vibrant. Of particular interest is the Stairway to Heaven, complete with sinners falling of the staircase and being clutched by the minions of Hell.
This, together with the Whore of Babylon (Michael's favourite!) are very prominent.
The interior of the monastery is covered with frescoes, six levels from the floor to the base of the start of the cupolas that lead to the main dome. There is also a collections of saintly 'relics' on display here - teeth, locks of hair, fingernails - even back when, religion must have been a big business with parts of the 'saints' shared out to keep the faithful focussed.
The nuns keep very busy with the 'business' of the monastery. But quietly in the background, I also see a nun tending to the amazing displays of pelagoniums and miniature geraniums that adorn the balconies of the convent. She is so focussed on her work and moves diligently about her tasks.
Two large groups, complete with guides and microphones arrive as we are nearing the end of our visit. One final small act to light a candle for our niece, Rebecca, tragically killed in a car crash a week before we left. Shine brightly little one as you reach the top of that stairway.
From here, it is only another half hour to get to the last of the Painted Monasteries that we have time to visit - Moldovita. In order to get to it, we need to head up and over the 'lower' reaches of the mountains where, just like home, the timber jinkers rule the road - everyone got out of his way, us included - who cared if he wanted more than his share of the road?
We reach Moldovita and for once can park without payment! A local policeman is on hand - probably to deter enterprising locals from trying to 'fleece' the Monastery visitors. We do pay to use the toilets though 1 Lei to a wizened lady bent over in age. The toilets are spotless, but without paper - when I ask for some, I get the bright pink version!
Moldovita Monastery, also fortified, is less imposing than Sucevita. The doors within doors, or gates, are a common feature, although most of the monasteries have the full gates open by the time the visitors arrive. You really need to watch where you put your feet to make sure you don't trip on uneven and worn rocks and stones that have been embedded in the path.
This monastery has an interesting story.
Built in 1532, this replaced an earlier 13th century monastery that collapsed. At the time of this later construction, the fortifications surrounding the monastery was also constructed and the convent was also started.
The nuns here seem more modest. They all seem to have a knack with flower gardening. All the monasteries are undergoing active restoration and I guess that this is an ongoing task, for which the nuns tolerate the imposition of literally hordes of visitors in order to fund the ongoing works.
And don't ever think that graffiti is a modern trend - on the marvelous painted walls is clear evidence that others from time past also want to leave their mark - or maybe, instead of writing (and paying for) a prayer request, this was the 1800's way to entreat the gods.
All too soon, we need to be on our way.
We are travelling back into the Maramures Mountains and the high alpine environments. The vistas are perfect and if it weren't for the power lines that modern life has brung, you would find it hard to date the views of daily life.
The barns, the fences and that view!
Now, there are two really good roads in Romania. And a million bad ones. And the one we are travelling on over these mountains is perhaps the worst we have found. I imagine that it probably started as a logging trail. It is now two lanes, accommodating traffic over the mountains rather than a very protracted route around. I can imagine that without this road, there would have not been any trade between the two sides of the mountain - it is just too far to travel.
To their credit, the Romanians are busy working on this road. They need to be. The nervous Romanian drivers are giving me the willies - no joke, they almost come to a complete stop at every piece of road that had been dug out and replaced with lose gravel (like every 250 m). Good god man, just go over it! We do much of the trip at 20 kph or less. VERY frustrating. I can tell you from all the times that we have driven on corrugated forest roads out to the Puller's place, that you are better with a bit of speed, skimming the top of the corrugations!!
And at one point, I follow an Italian car as we are directed to a newly sealed piece of road at a green light, only to encounter impatient drivers who have come down the mountain road obviously on the red. There is a difference of about 45 cms to the unsealed right hand side of the road where we normally be driving. With no one giving ground, I eventually reverse
back a couple of hundred metres - not usually a challenge, but there is a 10% slope on sealed road that is barely wider than the car, and meandering. Find a bit where there is a bit of loose gravel piled and ease the car down. Fun. No wonder I am exhausted tonight and looking for alcohol!
Still, the improved road is amazing. We pass at least two camps for the workers with 'cabins' the size of an outback dunny. Lots of workers no doubt happy for the paychecks.
And in the midst of this calamity, there is still the beauty in the geometry of perfect hillsides of pine trees - and the smell of the pine on the air.
So from Moldovita Monastery to Sapanta is a distance of of 227 kms and it took us 5 hrs 40 minutes! Just shy of arriving in Sapanta, we make a comfort stop and come across another Monastery - this one very modern. As we leave, the nuns arrive in a black van to collect the 'rent' from the vendors down below the monastery. Yes, as I said, religion is big business here in Eastern Europe.
We come into Sapanta and are being directed down the side streets to the Hotel Gradina Morii, when we come upon blocked streets and a lot of gendarmes. No English, but one speaks Spanish, but we make ourselves understood as to our accommodation booking. They let us through, only to be stopped by the next lot of gendarmes - even more of them! Again, they take pity on the poor english speaking ones and direct us through. The hotel is situated in a park and there is lots of activity. For a moment, after the terrible events in Barcelona and Turku, I wondered whether something bad has happened. But as we check in, the hotel clerk tells us a big festival starts tomorrow.
Down for an earlier dinner, we have an absolute feast. We began by sharing bruschetta and a cheese plate, then Michael had 'Gradina Morii' pork fillet with mushrooms and spinach mashed potatoes, while I enjoyed Snitel Solovan - pork fillet covered in hash brown potatoes with a salad of cucumbers, onions and mayonnaise. The bread we shared was as light as cake.
Dessert followed - chocolate souffle and house made choc-chip ice cream for Michael and flambe ananas (pineapple) for me.
Topped it all with an espresso and I am ready for bed. First we need to re-pack the suitcase so we are ready to fly back to Munich tomorrow late. But not before we explore the Merry Cemetery and the Memorial to the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance in Romania.
Hope we don't have any trouble leaving here in the morning!