Dave the motorhome is once again taking advantage of the good nature of religious folk. He’s parked up for the night in the car park of the Moldovita Monastery just outside Vatra Moldovitei. Confusingly it’s in Suceava County, Moldavia (not to be confused with Moldovia as that’s the country next door) which is also the Southern Bucovina region of Romania.
Last night we didn’t sleep well, our chosen kipping spot might have been quieter if it had been next to the M1. The locals vigorously kept the noise levels up through most of the night with engine revs, wheel spins, singing and sirens. The heat didn’t help either. When this morning finally came things calmed down and we managed to get a few hours kip in during the peace of morning rush hour.
Dragging ourselves out of bed around 9.30 we had a quick bite to eat while checking our map against Kath Davies’ Romanian Your Tour write up. We weren’t far from the painted churches of Southern Bucovina which were collectively designated a World Heritage-listed site by UNESCO in 1993, so decided that a quick trip north to see them was in order. As Jay took our rubbish bag over to the bin he spotted a fella loitering, when he got back to Dave Jay sneaked a peak out of the window to see the fella rummaging through what we’d just put in the bin, which was a pitiful bag with cartons and a bit of a mouldy loaf. Feeling sorry for him Jay went back to the bin and gave him our new loaf – the fella looked confused, then shuffled off – he needed it way more than we did.
The road north was smooth and sweet after the yesterday’s roadwork-a-thon, as we followed the Tihuta pass, retracing the footsteps of Bram Stoker’s character Jonathan Harker, as he made his way to Count Dracula’s castle. Piatra Fantanele at the top of the pass is where Bram Stoker sited his fictitious castle, and in the early 1980’s someone built a Dracula-esque hotel there complete with ‘Dracula’s Room’ in which visitors get a ‘surprise’ – the surprise was supposedly too much for one Canadian visitor who had a heart attack on the spot in the mid 1990’s! Looking at the tall jagged-edged building we decided to carry on, the views around us were amazing enough without any added entertainment.
The countryside was alive with families cutting the meadows, collecting up the grass, transporting it by horse and cart or piling it high into haystacks, funnily enough about the size of Giant Haystacks himself! It is as if you have stepped back in time as you look out across the fields, but then you spot someone sitting on a cart on their mobile phone as the horse pulls them along, or a bloke’s Mercedes parked at the top of the field as he brandishes a scythe further down the meadow. The whole place is a very strange mix of eras. Newly painted houses with polished chrome handrails on a summer verandah sit across the road from a wooden house with chickens pecking in the dirt of the courtyard, it all takes some getting used to.
People scowl as we drive past, but when they see us smiling at them, they smile back – the scowl we’ve taken to be more a look of confusion than aggression. It’s not surprising though, we’ve only seen two other motorhomes today and we’ve covered a fair few kilometres. At the roadsides people sell whatever is in season, right now it’s watermelons – hundreds of them. We’ve also seen people with buckets filled with mushrooms, red berries, blackberries and a few small dishes of strawberries – we won’t go hungry here.
Reaching the town of Capulung Moldovenesc it was just after 1.45pm and Charlie was leaning over into the cab area wondering where his lunch was. We pulled in at the side of the road and fed him, then went for a walk around the town. The Tourist Information place was closed, so we studied the maps on the boards outside as an old chap who was already a tad worse for wear wobbled over, steadied himself on a post and tried to offer us advice in Romanian. We pointed to the big green ‘you are here’ dot, he pointed near the big green ‘you are here’ dot, we smiled, nodded at him and thanked him for his help, he smiled at us and saluted then headed back to a bench in the shade.
We stopped by a cafe in the main square and sat outside while I tried to suss out what we needed to do to get some food. It turned out that you went inside and ordered what you wanted at the counter, however there was no menu, just lots of cakes, ice cream, cold drinks and a wafting smell of food cooking. Other people were eating sandwiches and pizza slices so I went to the counter and thanked the assistant who in perfect English explained what there was. Jay had a kebab and I had a crispy strips menu (chicken and chips) which along with a coffee and pop came to 23 Lei (£4.60). When the food arrived the plates were brimming full and we had to leave some of it.
Back in Dave we made our way to Vatra Moldovitei, passing a couple of policemen who were pulling people over and breathalysing them. They glanced up at us as we drove past, then ignored us, sometimes it’s great to be a foreigner! Reaching the town we saw lots of big i’s indicating tourist information, we spotted a tourist office and pulled in. I jumped out and tried the door, fully expecting it to be locked. It not only opened, but I was greeted with the smell of fresh paint. Daniel, a young smiling man, greeted me and told me that I was their first ever visitor – the place had only just opened this week. He went on to apologise that everything was still being sorted and laid out, as he showed me a range of freshly printed leaflets with images of the nearby monastery. When I asked how we get to it, he said he would show us. I thought he meant he would pop his head out of the door and point in the general direction, but no, Daniel hopped into his car and told us to follow him. It was only about five kilometres away, and as soon as we got onto the main road it was signposted – but we did like the personal service.
At the Monastery we eyed up the khaki coloured wraps to be used by those deemed to be unsuitably dressed and nipped back to Dave to get changed. Five Lei each entry fee and 10 Lei to take snaps was handed over (£4 in total) and after asking a Nun to check our attire and getting approval we headed in.
A bit of history about the place – Stephen the Great, the King of Moldavia from 1457 until his death in 1504, fought 36 battles against the Ottoman Empire, winning 34 of them. He was very religious and built churches after many victories. Stephen’s illegitimate son, Petru Rareș, who also ruled Moldavia had the monastery built in 1532. He was also the chap who promoted a new vision for Bukovina churches, commissioning artists to cover the interiors and exteriors with elaborate frescoes containing portraits of saints and prophets along with scenes from the life of Jesus.
I’m not sure if this place has been repainted since 1532, someone told us the other day that scientists are trying to find out why the paint colour lasts so well, but the colours on the walls were so bright and vivid they could have been done in the last few years – apart from the ancient graffiti where people have carved their names and dates into the paint. Normally I’d frown at this sort of thing, but it kind of adds to the place – a look back at history.
Over the last couple of months we’d already visited several churches covered in frescos in Greece, the monasteries at Meteora and Rila Monastery in Bulgaria so sadly this place, while beautiful in it’s own right, to my eyes looked very similar to these – surely there are only so many ways that you can paint the last judgement? That said, I am glad that we came here to see it, but now we’ve seen this one I don’t think we’ll carry on to see the others – we’re a bit painted-churches-out! Maybe it’s a good thing that we’re on our way back home?
After ten minutes of trying to capture a Nun on the camera – you can hear them approaching by the rustle of heavy, starched fabric as they walk – I asked one of them is we could stay in the car park. Once she saw that I wasn’t planning on sleeping in a car, and despite the fact that she spoke no English, she smiled and said ‘No Problem’.
So here we are, looking forward to a peacefully quiet and cool night so we can all catch up on some lost sleep (although two coachloads of tourists and a pack of cyclists have just arrived to visit, at this late hour? It’s almost 8pm!). Tomorrow it’s time to rethink our plans if we’re skipping the other monasteries – the Ukraine is looking tempting!