Two Views of Romania

September 12, 2012

We are currently on a train to the capital city of Bucharest, Romania. There, we will change to another train and continue about two more hours south to the Danube River, which is the border between Romania and Bulgaria. This will complete our week’s stay in this country.

As we were admiring the Carpathian Mountain views out the window, just north of Bucharest, an elderly man tapped Sandy’s arm from across the train aisle. With a big smile on his face, he wanted to make sure that we were looking at the mountains and he motioned for us to be sure to take pictures. This interaction was typical of the time that we had in Romania.

Romania is a large European Union country, in terms of area (9th largest) and population (7th largest). We journeyed here to visit two different areas of the country that we wanted to experience before they become more popular in the future. Tourism is growing rapidly in Romania. In fact, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, Romania is the fourth fastest growing country in the world in terms of travel and tourism demand.

Our first stop in Romania was the Bukovina region, located in the northeastern corner of the country. To get there and back was a six hour train journey each way from the western Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca. When planning our trip though Romania, we debated several times whether spending so much time going to Bukovina and back would be worth the effort. Based on what we saw and experienced, we are glad that we did it.

Historically, Bukovina was a division of the Habsburg Monarchy and a portion of Austria-Hungary. It only became part of Romania after World War I. In 1940 the northern portion of the region was annexed to the Soviet Union and is now part of the Ukraine, with the southern part staying in Romania. We journeyed to Southern Bukovina to visit the painted monasteries.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, over 40 churches and monasteries were built as dedications for victories achieved against the Ottoman Turks. Within Southern Bukovina, eight of these monasteries are now UNESCO World Heritage-listed. What makes these churches unique are their internal and external frescoes.

We visited two of the best-preserved churches. Voronet Monastery has been called the “Sistine Chapel of the East” because its excellent external frescoes and the use of a dominant shade of blue, known as “Voronet blue”. One of the external walls features scenes depicting saints, with a Last Judgment fresco on the another wall and the story of Genesis on a third wall. The fourth wall does not have much detail, as time and weather have worn most of those paintings away. It was amazing to see how much was still so well-preserved on the other three external walls.

To reach Voronet, we walked about 2.8 miles (4.5 kilometers) each way, from our hotel in the small town of Gura Humorului, down a narrow village road that ran along the countryside and over a river. Along the way we saw several horses and buggies, women congregated at small marketplaces and even cows wandering along the road. Farms are small and are mainly growing vegetables. We also saw apple and plum trees.

The next day we visited Humor Monastery. It is located about 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) the other direction from Gura Humorului. In this case, we were able to use a shared taxi to take us there. The frescoes are similar to Voronet, but painted about 60 years later, so seemed to have more detail to them.

In addition to another Last Judgment fresco, another wall of exterior frescoes features the parable of the prodigal son. The interior frescoes are also quite numerous. The predominant color here (especially with the interior frescoes) is a reddish-brown. This monastery was less crowded and also had a large tower next to the church. We climbed up to the top of the tower, where there were nice views of the surrounding countryside.

Our second stop in Romania may sound a little more familiar. The Transylvania region is located in the central portion of the country and is associated with vampires and Dracula. This area is surrounded on the east and south by the Carpathian Mountains and is also known for its scenic beauty, as well as its medieval cities.

We skipped the Dracula tourist sites and based ourselves in the historical Saxon city of Brasov. German colonists developed several towns in this area, including Brasov, during the 11th and 12th centuries. Brasov features a series of medieval buildings, including two (known as the Black and White) towers and a church called the Black Church (it received its name after a fire in 1689 blackened the building). City walls and a large main square (Piata Sfatului) also comprise the old town area of Brasov and we spent one day exploring this part of the city, wandering down the narrow pedestrian streets and climbing up to the White Tower. Another day we took a cable car to the top of the Tampa Mountain (2,950 feet / 900 meters) that overlooks Brasov. We hiked a short distance through a forested path to a panoramic lookout over the city and surrounding valley.

We used trains to take us throughout Romania and treated ourselves to first class tickets since the price is analogous to second class tickets in other countries. On the train we traveled through the Carpathian Mountains and saw rolling green hills, dotted with conical haystacks, wooden farmhouses and occasional forests of pines. Some of the terrain reminded us of the foothills of the Alps. We met other Romanians and had the opportunity to talk with them as we traveled. English was widely spoken. Since Romanian is a Romance language, which is related to Italian, French and Spanish, we were also able to figure out what some of written words meant.

Romania is definitely changing fast and we expect that the two areas that we visited will become much more popular with tourists over the next few years. After our time Romania we are looking forward to continuing to Bulgaria and Serbia for a few days each, before reaching Croatia, where we will spend a week.

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