The Bucovina region in northern Romania is famous for its spectacular ‘painted’ monasteries. We visited four of the most beautiful – all Unesco World Heritage – by arranging a private tour with a car and driver as organized tours were hard to find and visiting them using public transport would be sheer impossible in a short time. It was worth every lei (the currency in Romania) we spent.
Unique in the world
The monastery churches were built in the 15th and 16th centuries and are unique in the world because of the frescoes that cover the church walls both inside and out. The frescoes are picture stories (like 500 hundred year old comic books if you will) of tales from the Bible and of historical occurrences, painted on the walls to educate the illiterate peasants. Wind and rain have eroded much of the frescoes on the northern exterior of the churches but on the southern exterior and inside the churches the pictures are amazingly well preserved. After removing dirt and soot in the past two decennia many frescoes sparkle like they’ve just been applied.
We started our tour at the small Humor monastery near the town of Gura Humorului. It was founded in 1530 and was one of the first monasteries to be painted with frescoes, the dominant color being reddish-brown. The monastery was closed between 1786 until 1990, when it was reopened for visitors. It has a lookout tower that can be climbed for views of the surroundings.
Next was the Voronet monastery in Gura Humorului itself, where a small community of nuns still live. It took only three months and three weeks to build the monastery church back in 1488. The interior paintings were completed eight years later. An intense blue color, known in Romania as Voronet blue, catches the eye. These frescoes are probably the best preserved of all the Bucovina painted monasteries, hence its nickname ‘Sistine Chapel of the East’. The most famous painting is that of the Last Judgement on the western exterior wall.
The Romanian orthodox Moldovita monastery from 1532 has a fortress like appearance because it was constructed as a defensive barrier against the raiding Muslim Ottomans. The predominant colors in the frescoes here are yellow and blue. The historically most interesting frescoe is the one on the southern exterior wall depicting the siege of Constantinople in AD 626. Moldovita is still a working monastery and it has a small museum.
Last but not least on the painted monastery route is the Sucevita monastery, reached from Moldovita by a scenic mountain road. Like Moldovita it is a fortified monastery, but much bigger. In fact it is the biggest of the Bucovina painted monasteries and has several buildings within its enclosure. The picture postcard church was constructed at the end of the 16th century and has some magnificent frescoes, both inside and out. Yellow and blue are the most notable colors here as well.
We visited Bucovina in July 2013
Travel tips Bucovina
Stay – We tried to sleep two nights at the Socim Hotel in Suceava. This was no easy feat with dogs barking outside most of the night, but we managed. The room was ok and we were happy to have our own private bathroom. A real budget option.
Transport – We traveled from Maramures to Bucovina. There were only two options: a long detour by train or a crowded daily minivan (which could be full), so we decided to combine sightseeing with a private transfer. A big backpacker expense but worth it. From other parts of Romania Suceava is easier to reach.
Tour – There are only a few local operators offering guided group tours of the painted monasteries, but departures are only guaranteed when enough people book the tour. When we visited no tours were guaranteed so we decided to book a private tour which was only a little bit more expensive. This was more time efficient than using the much cheaper alternative of using public transportation, which is infrequent and would involve a lot of backtracking and is only recommended if you have 2 or 3 days to spare.