I really wasn’t expecting much as far as tourism goes when I decided to go to Romania for several months in my early 20s. In fact, my purpose in going there was strictly as a volunteer to teach English in a high school in the city of Cluj-Napoca, Transylvania.
I had heard very little raves about the ex-communist country. Struggling in the aftermath of a communist era, Romania was just a poor and abandoned country with nothing to offer except orphans, beggars, gypsies, run-down homes, stray dogs and eggplants…right?
Not quite. Sure, these are realities; at least they were in Cluj. But I discovered that Romania has so much more—its rich culture, inviting people and some magnificent sights—landscapes, castles and many beautiful churches and monasteries.
The painted monasteries, in particular, are more than worth mentioning. Everyone at the school where I was teaching had a week off in October, and I decided to head northeast to visit the famous painted monasteries, although I had never heard about them. They are considered among the best treasures in Romania, ranked higher than Dracula’s castle in Transylvania and the Black Sea beach resorts.
Romania’s painted monasteries are found in Bucovina (Bukovina), the northern part of Moldavia, in northeast Romania. I drove up there with several locals I had befriended through the school, and we stayed in the nearby city of Suceava for several nights. I was told one day was not enough to visit the painted monasteries.
These monasteries are all Romanian Orthodox churches that I learned were built in the late 1400s and early 1500s, currently preserved by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. There are 10 churches in 10 villages, so a bit of travel on our part was required to see them all. We used a rental car rather than a tour in order to explore the sights via narrow, winding, bumpy roads. Each monastery was about a half-hour drive apart.
It’s difficult to describe exactly what I saw and felt. “Beautiful,” “spectacular,” and “breathtaking” don’t give these delicately painted monasteries justice. The monasteries have mostly religious fresco art, but what makes them so unique is that on many of them, the art is found covering the interior and exterior of the buildings. It’s an incredibly overwhelming and powerful effect at first glance. In a myriad of vibrant colors, the intricate, very detailed drawings depict various themes and images of biblical stories, hymns, prayers and characters.
I discovered that the last monastery we visited—the Voronet Monastery—is considered by Europeans as “The Sistine Chapel of the East,” with its spectacular blue hues (known as “Voronet blue”) and the high quality of the frescoes inside and out. One entire wall of the Voronet is completed covered with an amazingly detailed portrayal of the Last Judgment, including animals and people moving toward heaven, greeted by angels blowing long horns.
While all the painted monasteries of Moldavia are must-sees when visiting this region of Romania, I definitely recommend visiting the Voronet last. It’s the climax, the completion of the entire experience.
Heading back to Cluj after my week in Suceava, Bucovina, Moldavia, I thought about the striking beauty I’d witnessed, unlike anything I’d ever seen. I began to look at this often-misunderstood country of Romania through a new lens.