Sat Nov 10, 2001 | day 61
On Saturday (Nov. 10), Cristina and Marius wanted to show me some little-known treasures of Romania's past. I agreed full-heartedly and we took off at 5:30am on a train bound for Northern Romania. I had no idea what to expect and any questions related to what we were going to see were responded to with "You'll see" and a sly grin.
At 9:15a, the train pulled into a small country town in Bucovina County. As the train slowly came to a stop, I studied the sleepy town of Gura Humorului. "If this place was any sleepier," I thought to myself, "someone would be checking for a pulse." To my surprise, Cristina jumped up and said "O.K.! We're here! Let's go!"
We walked out of the train station into the town. I think it would be called a village if it didn't have the station. The single main road through Gura Humorului lacked any streetlights, making the town a just a blur out the window for most motorists passing though. Most of the small towns in Romania remind me of towns throughout Oregon, and I sometimes forget the differences... until a horse and cart full of wood and farmers passes by. Although the horses used for such tasks would seem worn down after years of service, they keep their pride and trot proudly with their heads in the air down the road. A rhythmic geyser of heated air erupts out of the steed's nostrils as it pulls the cart.
I would guess the temperature was just a little below freezing. A silent flutter of snow fell and dampened the ground and our ears. Although I wore four layers of clothing, it wasn't enough to keep out the cold. Any exposed skin immediately became numb, as if I had been using them to dig in snow for an hour.
Cristina, wearing a brand new ski jacket which only left her nose and mouth exposed, was unsurprisingly joyful. "We will need to walk about a mile before we reach our first destination," she said with a smile. "Isn't this great guys? Can you feel the air?" Marius and I grumbled. I didn't know if our grumpy moods were due the white-knuckled chill of the mountain air or jealously towards Cristina's insulated attitude.
Nonetheless, the cold left my bones after we began out brisk walk on a country road lined by pines slightly covered by snow. My attitude started improving after yet another horse and cart passed us. I figured that if a naked horse could do this walk, so could I.
We arrived at our first "treasure" of the day around 10:30a: a 500+ year-old monestary named Voronet. It was revealed to me by Cristina that we were going to spend our day traveling around the county and visiting as many of the fourteen ancient mountain monestaries as we could! "Wow! This was going to be great!" I thought.
Monastery Voronet was built in 1488 as a token of gratitude by the Romanian hero Stephen the Great and Saint. As with the other thirteen others in the area, the monastery is covered (both inside and outside) with beautiful iconographic paintings of scenes from the Orthodox Bible. Forget canvas and frames, all the paintings here at the monasteries are done directly on the walls! The brilliance of the paint is amazing, especially considering that it has been exposed to the elements for centuries. Scientists cannot entirely explain what substances were used to get such amazing colors, but it is said that the composition is better than the productions at Athos and Camposanto (Pisa, Italy), up to the Sistine Chapel in Rome! Writer Carola Giedion-Welcker called it "an open book wiith a biblical content." It really is a Sistine Chapel facing the world.
After an hour or so of passionately studying the great painted walls of the UNESCO World Heritage site, it was time to move on to the next monastery. Unlike other Eastern European countries I have been to, hitchhiking in Romania is as common as waiting for a bus or hailing a taxi. But this was generally practiced in the cities... not in the countryside. Nonetheless, we soon found a ride:: a forest ranger returning from the photo lab was happy to keep us entertained with his pictures of a recent hunting expedition as he drove us 10 miles to the next monastery. The huge wild boars lying proudly at the feet of the hunters made me glad it was too cold to camp. Being visited by a hungry California Black Bear is one thing (see story from August in YahooGroups archives) but I don't have a clue what I would do if a 200 pound wild boar decided to sniff around my tent in the middle of the night!
Monastery Moldovita was as impressive as Voronet. We were the only one's at the fortified monastery, but the Orthodox Nuns were happy to turn on interior lights (but only for a moment to save money) to show off the amazing interior paintings. The Crucifixion, Descending off the Cross, Jesus' Wailing, and The Last Supper were all amazing pieces of work - all considered to be the most valuable achievements in Bucovina - but my favorite is The Final Judgment on the exterior of the 60-foot tall building. It fills the whole southern facade. I don't know what was more fun: the visiting of the monasteries or the adventure of the journey to get to them. Because we were going higher into the mountains, the temperature was dropping lower and lower, making it a sport to stay warm while hitchhiking. Cristina, Marius and I thought of creative and fun ways to get the attention of passing motorists which helped us land seats in their cars. All the drivers were kind and talkative, but my favorite is when we landed a ride with a bus full of elementary school children. They arrived at Monastery Moldovita soon after we did and after Marius and Cristina politely begged, we scored a ride. I sat in the back alone as Marius and Cristina sat in the front near the driver (Marius gets motion sickness easily). Before long, I was the center of attention for most of the kids. They loved practicing their English in front of me. I helped them learn new words such as "America" (Romanians spell it "Amerika") and "U.S.A" (they spell it "S.U.A" because, according to Cristina, it is "grammatically correct") by writing them with my finger on the fogged windows of the school bus. It wasn't long before they were all writing the words on the windows of the bus.
Our final monastery for the day was Sucevita, which was my favorite because I explored it with the curious kids. It is always refreshing to see kid's faces light up in wonder when they see new things. The Sucuvita Monastery is said to have been built here in the unpopulated wooded forest thanks to a woman and her buffalo-driven cart. The legend says that for thirty years, she brought the stone needed for the current building.
Between 3:30p and 8:30p, we took one school bus, two Dachia's (Romanian cars), a taxi, and a semi-truck from the mountains of Northern Romania back to Iasi - a total of about 100 miles. We were going to stay the night and explore more of the wondrous monasteries, but Marius prevailed in convincing us to go home to watch the highly-anticipated Romania vs. Slovenia soccer game.
All in all, the monastery cannonball run was the greatest adventure of my trip so far. An exploration of the unknown with friends I have and friends I made along the way. I can't wait to show all of you the pictures when I get home.
Love to all,