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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Trip Report of a ten day visit to Romania in May 2017 with Cox and Kings

Mention Romania to most people and they will immediately think of Dracula and Bram Stoker. Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Dracula) was a particularly nasty C15th ruler of Wallachia but has nothing to do with the Dracula myth.

There is a lot more to Romania than Dracula - either real of imaginary but unfortunately many itineraries to Romania concentrate on this, which I didn’t want. I wanted to see the painted monasteries and fortified churches. I eventually decided on an itinerary with Cox and Kings which would take me to the places I wanted to go. They also could book me on a feeder flight from Manchester to join the flight from Heathrow. The trip was run in conjunction with the Royal Academy of Arts, with a local guide and guest lecturer. I was expecting high things of the trip.

DAY 1
Flight from Manchester to Heathrow and then very busy drive to Bucharest. Overnight at JW Marriott Bucharest Grand Hotel and welcome dinner

DAY 2
A long drive across the Carpathian mountains to Sibiu with a stop for lunch at Caciulata. A guided tour of Sibiu with visits to the Lutheran and Orthodox Cathedrals and the Brukenthal Art Museum. Overnight at the Ramada Hotel.

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DAY 3
Drive to Biertan to visit the fortified church and then onto Sighisoara with lunch at Casa Vlad Dracula, his alleged birthplace. (It's impossible to avoid Dracula in Sighisoara. You can pay extra to visit the room where he was born, although the building was built well after that date...) Guided tour of Sighisoara including the History Museum in the Clock Tower, the Church on the Hill and the Dominican Church. Overnight at Hotel Binderbubi.

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DAY 4
Meeting with a representative of the Mihai Eminescu Trust to learn about their work in conserving villages and the Saxon heritage of Transylvania. Visit to Viscri which is their 'showcase' village with lunch in one of the village houses. Brief stop at Saschiz village on the way back to Sighisoara. Free time in Sighisoara. Overnight at Hotel Binderbubi again.

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DAY 5
A full day’s drive to Gura Humorului with a short stop at Targu Mures to visit the Palace of Culture. Lunch in Bistrita. A visit to the Museum of Painted Eggs on the outskirts of Gura Hunorului (brought forward from the following day). Overnight at Best Western Bucovina Club De Munte.

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DAY 6
A day spent visiting the painted monasteries of Moldovita, Sucevita and Voronet. Overnight at Best Western Bucovina Club De Munte again.

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DAY 7
Another full day drive to Brasov with a brief stop to visit Agapia Monastery. Lunch at Rosu Lacu and drive through Bicaz Gorge. Overnight at Hotel Aro Palace, Brasov.

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DAY 8
Morning visit to the fortified church at Prejmer followed by a visit to St Nicholas Cathedral and the First Romanian School in the Romanian quarter of Brasov. Walk back to Piata Sfatului and free time in Brasov. Overnight at Hotel Aro Palace, Brasov.

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DAY 9
Visit to the Black Church in Brasov before driving back through the Bucegi Mountains. Visit the George Enescu Memorial House followed by Peles Castle before driving back to Bucharest. Overnight at JW Marriott Bucharest Grand Hotel and farewell dinner.

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DAY 10
Walking tour round the old centre of Bucharest. A photostop for the Palace of Parliament and a guided tour of the Cotrocenti Palace. Drive back to the airport for the return flight to Heathrow and onto Manchester.

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THOUGHTS
The trip wasn’t cheap at £1895 plus £250 single supplement and although I enjoyed it, overall I felt that it had not lived up to expectation and could have been a lot better. I am not sure that I would book with Cox and Kings again. I did send detailed feedback to Cox and Kings covering points below.

Perhaps I should have checked driving times before booking as there was a lot of time spent sitting in the coach. Driving times quoted in the itinerary were very much an underestimate once coffee, toilet and lunch stops were added. The drive to Sibiu to just over six hours. We had just under three hours to explore one of the best Saxon towns in Romania before checking into the hotel. Hardly a good return on time.

Days 5 and 7 were very long days sitting in the coach with little to show for it. A few more brief photostops on these days would have been appreciated. Not only was Day 7 a Sunday it was also an important Saint’s day. There was a service in Agapia monastery church and the museum and workshops were shut. We went for a walk around the village which was interesting but I did feel had been added to fill up the time.

It was very interesting to hear about the work of the Mihai Eminescu Trust and to visit Viscri. I understand there is accommodation in some of the village houses. It would have been fun to have spent a night there. Not only would this have supported the work of the Trust, it would also have given us chance to see the village when the cows went out to pasture first thing in the morning and returned at night. During the day there was little activity apart from a couple of ladies sitting knitting and the stalls selling handicrafts.

Saschiz is the base of the Fundatia Adept Trust which is working with a group of villages in the area to encourage and promote traditional methods of agriculture and to provide markets for the produce. I found out about this by accident when I picked up a booklet about their work in the small information centre in the village. It was a pity we weren’t also told about their work as it complements the work being done by the Mihai Eminescu Trust and gives an understanding of the agricultural year.

I felt many of the days were rushed and we didn’t have as much time as I'd have liked in many places. We visited Peles Castle on a Tuesday when the entrance for foreign visitors is not open. The queue for the Romanian visitor entrance was very long and we were standing for nearly 45 minutes before we could go in. It was rather a rushed visit and the scheduled private tour of the second floor quarters of the royal family didn’t take place. We also didn’t have time to enjoy the grounds.

We didn’t have time to visit the church at the Cotrocenti Palace or the gardens. I would also have appreciated a bit longer at the three painted monasteries. Twenty minutes is not long if you want to take pictures (or visit the toilets...)

I was also disappointed there wasn’t time in the itinerary to visit one of the Folk Museums of traditional buildings. There are ones in Bucharest and Sibiu. We admired the old houses from the outside but never had chance to see the inside. In comparison, Peles and Controceni Palaces, George Enescu Memorial House and Brukenthal Art Museum did begin to feel a bit like overkill.

All the hotels we stopped in were large international hotels. Although very comfortable, they could have been anywhere in the world. As there were only 19 originally booked on the holiday (which dropped to 17) it would have been nice if we could have been booked into smaller more typically Romanian accommodation at least some nights.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Some History

Romania as a country has only existed since the First World War. To understand Romania, you need to know a little about its history.

This part of eastern Europe was originally settled by nomadic tribes from Asia on their way to central Europe. Small family groups settled, moving from a nomadic existence to a more settled farming one. The country was divided into small areas ruled by a local chieftain.

The Romans arrived in 105AD and settled most of Transylvania, Wallachia and a small part of Moldovia. This was a period of prosperity and local culture integrated with the Latin one. The Romanian language is based on Latin. Although the Romans were only around for about 170 years and left very few remains, the Romanians are very proud of their Roman ancestry and the statue of Roman wolf is found in many towns.

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After the Romans left, the area was inhabited by nomadic tribes, the Goths, Huns, Slavs and Bulgars. Little is known about this period of history as there is no written record in Romanian until the C13th by which time, the area had been settled by Hungarians. Romania was divided into three main areas, Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania, each with their own ruler or prince.

The area was subjected to repeated attacks from the east by Mongols, Tatars and Turks. It functioned very much a buffer zone to the Hungarian Empire. By the C11th, King Stephen of Hungary invited the Teutonic knights to settle and help defend the eastern frontiers. In the C12th, King Geza II of Hungary invited Saxon Germans to settle the area of Transylvania. They were granted numerous rights including self governance, and benefits in exchange for their help in defending the lands from attack from the east. They established the seven Saxon towns of Sibiu, Sighisoara, Brasov. Bistrita, Cluj-Napoca. Medias and Sebes. These became important merchant cities with wealthy merchants and important guilds who were responsible for the upkeep of the walls and towers.

They fortified the towns by building walls around them and fortresses. In the villages, they fortified the churches with defensive walls. These were intended for defensive rather than attack. The villagers and their animals could retreat inside the church until the raiders had left.

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At the beginning of the C14th Romanian herders who had previously lead a nomadic life began to settle in the upland areas only sparsely populated by the Hungarians. Unlike the Hungarians who were Roman Catholics, the Romanians were Orthodox Christians. They were very much regarded as second class citizens by the Saxons and not allowed to settle or enter the Saxon cities unless they paid a toll.

At the end of the C15th, Stephen the Great of Wallachia wanted to establish Moldavia as a strong independent principality was successful in many battles against the Ottoman Turks. He commemorated victory in battle by building a new monastery and to show his people he would never give up the fight against the infidels. These were painted during the reign of his illegitimate son, Petru Rares.

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In the C16th The Ottoman Empire had seized control of Hungary. Transylvania, Wallachia and Moldavia came under Ottoman suzerainty and had to pay tribute to the Ottomans to preserve the peace. They only gained their independence in 1881.

There was continuing unrest in Wallachia and Moldovia in the mid C19th. After the Crimea War, Wallachia and Moldovia formed a union in 1859 and were ruled by a single government with the capital in Bucharest. Peasants were given land. Educational reform made primary education compulsory and free, Universities were founded in Bucharest and Iasi.

Restriction on Romanians entering and living in the Saxon towns were eased at the end of the C19th. Many new Orthodox churches were built.

There were elections for a ruler and National Assembly. Alexandru Ioan Cuza was appointed ruler but only lasted six years. He began a series of reforms but found it difficult to make changes as he was thwarted by continuous power struggle. He abdicated in 1865. The European powers decided that a foreign prince should become king as he would be impartial and above local power struggles. Prince Karl of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen a cousin of the German Emperor, was crowned Carol I with his wife Elisabeth. In 1881, Wallachia and Moldavia gained their independence from the Ottoman Empire and proclaimed themselves as the Kingdom of Romania.

Carol was followed by his nephew Ferdinand in 1914, who he adopted as Carol and Elisabeth only had one child, a daughter who died aged three. Ferdinand was married to Marie, a grand daughter of Queen Victoria.

Romania remained neutral in the First World War until 1916 when France asked it to join the Allies in support of Romania’s territorial claims to parts of Transylvania. Romania declared war against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Fighting was fierce and the Romanian army suffered devastating losses during the war. After the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War, Transylvania along with Bucovina and Bessarabia joined Wallachia and Moldavia as part of a Greater Romania. There followed a period of modernisation and industrialisation. Romania was the fourth largest exporter of grain in the world and a major exporter of oil.

Romania was left isolated after the fall of France in 1940. Although they tried to remain neutral, the USSR reoccupied Bessarabia which they had owned before it became part of Greater Romania. The northern part of Bucovina was annexed by the Ukraine. Romania was forced to cede part of northern Transylvania to Hungary and part of the south east of the country to Bulgaria. This led to widespread demonstrations and Carol II was forced to abdicate in favour of his son Michael. German troops entered Romania in 1942, as they wanted to secure the Romania oil fields for Germany. Thousands of Jews and Roma were massacred. In 1944, the Soviet Red Army crossed the border into Romania, who then changed sides and fought with the Allies against Nazi Germany.

The Paris Treaty in 1947 returned northern Transylvania to Romania but not Bessarabia or the south western part lost to Bulgaria. King Michael was forced to abdicate in 1947 and into exile. His properties were seized and he was stripped of his Romanian citizenship. Romania was proclaimed a republic and remained under direct and military control of the USSR. After the negotiated retreat of the Soviet troops, Nicolae Ceauşescu took over as General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party and leader of the country from 1965 until his overthrow and execution in 1989.

He imposed a harsh rule of no freedom of speech or thought, no religion, arts or tradition. Ceauşescu wanted to turn Romania from an agricultural community to an industrial based one. The state seized ownership of the land and set up large communal farms. Factories were built on the outskirts of the towns. He encouraged to move from the country to the towns and had a black list of villages he thought unimportant. As part of a policy of egalitarianism, he began to demolish many houses and replaced them with large apartment blocks.

One sixth of Bucharest was demolished to build the Palace of Parliament as part of his megalomania to bring all the different government ministries under his direct control.

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The houses and palaces of the rich along with their contents were seized. Many like Peles Castle were turned into state museums. Others like the Cotrocenti palace were put to other uses.

To help pay for his excesses, Ceauşescu, allowed nearly 50% of the Saxon Germans to return to Germany in return for a cash payment. Romanians and Roma moved into their houses.

After the fall of Ceauşescu and Communism in 1989, the economy was in free fall. Many factories and industry went bankrupt. Unemployment soared. Many Romanians left the country in search of work. State farms were broken up and the land returned to its former owners where known. Farm machinery was not maintained and became unusable when it broke down. Replacements could not be afforded. Many land holdings are small and barely sufficient to support a family. From being one of the richest agricultural countries in Europe at the start of the C20th and one of the largest grain exporters, Romania now has to import grain and much of the farming is at the level of semi-subsistence farming. Nearly 90% of the remaining Saxons left to go to Germany. Since then, emigration has continued and there are now very few Saxons families left in Romania.

There were frequent elections and change of government in the 1990s. Romania has gradually embraced democracy and increasing links with the rest of Europe by joining NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007. Foreign investment is gradually reopening some of the closed factories and improving farming, although life is still tough for many families.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Impressions of Romania - Mountains, villages and houses

Romania is a land of mountains, rolling countryside and flat plateau. The Carpathian mountains which form a semi-circle around Transylvania are serious mountains with peaks over 2400m. The tops are bare rock with snow in the gullies. The slopes are covered with forest which is home to wolves and bears as well as smaller mammals. They are cut through by deep river valleys.

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In May, false acacia with its long pendulous white flowers, was in full bloom along the roadside.

Romania is still very much a rural agriculture community. The farms are in the villages which straggle along the edge of the road with the church at the centre. Many have a police station, even if they don’t still have a shop.

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There are few isolated farms until the high mountains where there is some summer settlement

The economy is based on small family farms. It is very much semi-subsistence farming. Many families are still dependent on the horse and cart for transport. Hay, particularly on the steep upper slopes or around the villages is still cut by hand. Men are seen working in the fields.

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Traditionally houses were built of wood with a yard at the side, reached through large gates. Later, some of the houses were rendered with painted plaster. Traditionally blue paint was used as it was supposed to keep insects away.

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Some of the later houses, especially in Bucovina, have very elaborate painted stucco.

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The yards contain the farm buildings including the stable, sheds, hay barns and a kennel used by the dogs guarding the sheep. Many houses also have a summer kitchen. In winter the large wood burning stove in the house provides heat as well as being used for cooking. In the summer, it is too hot to use the stove in the house and all cooking is done in a separate building.

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Although nearly all houses have electricity from HEP, 40% of the houses still do not have running water and are dependent upon well water.

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Many of the houses have a bench outside, to sit and watch the world go by. Houses in the villages near Bucharest often have small stalls outside them selling home grown produce.

Storks are often found nesting on top of chimneys or telegraph poles. They are considered to bring good luck and many telegraph poles have wire baskets on the top to encourage the storks to nest.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Impressions of Romania - Farming

Farms are small family units using traditional farming methods that have hardly changed over the centuries.
This has preserved a landscape that is virtually unseen elsewhere in Europe, with extensive areas of flower and insect rich hay meadows and pasture. This way of life is increasingly coming under threat and their are a number of trusts being set up to preserve it and to provide markets for the farmers.

The houses are surrounded by small plots of land that are used for growing fruit and vegetables for family use. Many grow vines for shade as well as producing wine for family consumption.

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Hens, ducks and geese scratch around in the yard or along the road side verges.

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The fields surrounding the village are divided into long thin strips, growing food for sale in the local markets. There are no field boundaries and the landscape probably resembles the Medieval field system.

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The valley slopes are used for hay meadows and pasture. At the end of May, the hay meadows were yellow with buttercups. The low level hay meadows are cut twice a year by machine. The upper slopes are cut once a year by scythe. The hay is dried on wooden racks in the fields before being brought back to the village by horse and cart of tractor. Saxon farmers traditionally used a hay barn for storage, Romanian farmers store the hay in beehive shaped stacks outside.

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Many families still have a cow and a few sheep as well as hens, ducks, and geese. The animals are kept inside during the winter months and are fed on hay. In the summer, a local shepherd is paid to look after the village sheep. Flocks of sheep and sometimes goats can be seen grazing the hillsides with the shepherd and his dogs. At night the sheep are gathered into a sheep fold, safe from bears and wolves.

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Cattle graze on communal pastures round the village during the day in the care of a cowherd and return each night to be milked. This is either used by the family or collected from the village to go to the local milk processing factory. The sale of milk is one of the main sources of income.

In Moldavia, many farmers take their animals to the high pastures for the summer months. There are hay barns in the fields.

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The woodlands are an important source of wood for fuel as well as building. Villagers forage for fungi, fruit and nuts in the autumn and pigs roam in search of acorns.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Fortified Churches

The fortified churches are very typical of Transylvania. The Hungarian kings invited Saxons from Germany to settle in the C12th to help defend the area against increasing attacks by Tatars, Turks, Mongols, Cossacks and Moldavians.

The churches were fortified with a big wall to act as a place of refuge and safety in case of attack. The villagers would bring their animals and belongings into the church only returning to their homes when the threat was over.

There were originally over 300 fortified churches but now less than half are left.

The churches were built on the highest point of the village

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The smaller churches just had a single wall round them. simplest had a single wall around them.

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Biertan church had three defensive walls along with towers, with the church at the centre.

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The towers were used for storage but also as lookouts as they gave good views of the surrounding countryside.

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There was a large gateway through the walls for carts with a smaller pedestrian gateway as can be seen at Viscri.

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Prejmer is one of the best fortified churches in Romania with a defensive barbican

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Being the furthest east it was at the forefront of attack. Although the village was destroyed over fifty times. the Church was only captured once when the inhabitants ran out of drinking water. It was last used in 1783.

It is unusual as there are over 300 rooms in the walls of the inner courtyard which were accessed by wooden steps and balconies.

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Each room was numbered and allocated to a family in the village to be used in time of attack. They were responsible for the upkeep of the room, furnish it and provide enough food to last for several months.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

In the Middle Ages, Moldavia which included Bucovina, was a buffer zone for the Hungarian Empire against attacks by the Tatars. In the mid C14th Stephen the Great secured the throne of Moldavia with help from Prince Vlad (the Impaler) of Transylvania, with the intention of establishing Moldova as a strong and independent principality. Although his kingdom was subjected to many attacks by the Ottomans, Turks and others, he secured the frontiers of his country by building fortresses and strengthening central power. He commemorated victory in battle by building a new monastery, reinforcing the dominance of the Orthodox faith.

He was succeeded by his illegitimate son, Petru Rares who was responsible for the exterior decoration of the monasteries.

The monasteries were surrounded by walls with towers and were built isolated places. Gradually villages grew up around them attracted by the protection they offered in unsettled times as well as their relative prosperity. The monastery became and integral part of the community. They provided schools and infirmaries. Many were also important centres of learning and also had workshops for embroidery, calligraphy, manuscript illumination, icon painting as well as gold and silverwork.

Anyone could become a monk or nun. They started by becoming a novice for three to five years depending on their level of dedication. They were then appointed as a brother or sister for another ten years before finally becoming a monk or nun, when they were assigned a specific role in the community.

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Monasteries were self supporting communities with the monks and nuns growing all their food, foraging for nuts, berries and fungi, tending animals and cutting wood for heating and cooking. Their life was also controlled by the times of religious services with the day starting at vespers in the evening.

The church was at the heart of the monastic community and was surrounded by a tall protective wall with towers. Inside were domestic buildings needed for the smooth running of the community. These included the abbot’s house, cells for monks or nuns, refectory, kitchens and store houses. Outside the walls were the servants quarters, stabling for horses and hay barns as well as the cemetery.

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The churches were all built to the same triconch pattern with tall walls and a dome.

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The church was traditionally divided into three parts; the PRONAOS which was used by the local community, and now has a small stall selling candles. The NAOS (or nave) was used by he monks and nuns and had small apses off the north and south walls with the dome above. The CHANCEL at the east end was only entered by the most important priests. This contained the high altar with two sacristies off it. That on the south was for storing Holy vessels. The north was during the preparation for the Eucharist. This was separated from the Naos by the ICONOSTASIS. This had three doors and only the priest could use the central door. Less important clergy used the side doors.

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The icons are arranged in a strict order. On either side of the doors are the ‘Imperial Icons’ which include the Virgin, Christ and the patron saint of the church. Above these are icons depicting religious feast days. The middle one is usually the Last Supper. Above these are the apostles and prophets. At the top is a crucifix with the Virgin and John the Baptist.

Later an EXONARTHEX or porch was added to the west end. This was either open or closed. Sometimes and additional chamber was added between the pronaos and naos. This was described as the Burial Chamber where the founder of the church and his family were buried, princes or important noblemen.

The inside of the churches are covered with paintings. The chancel walls are covered with scenes from the life of Christ. The dome above the naos represents heaven with the nine orders of angels with Christ at the centre of the dome.

The noas displays Christ’s Passion. The burial chamber and pronaos have the Menology which is the calendar of festivals celebrated throughout the year in honour of the different saints and martyrs. The exonarthex represents the transition from the lay world and the sacred space of the church with the theme of the salvation of the righteous and the damnation of sinners and infidels with a gruesome selection of martyrdoms.

The Painted monasteries are nearly all found only in Bucovina. When they were first buit by Stephen the Great the external walls were left plain apart from small paintings above doors and gateways. The main period of painting was during the reign of Petru Rares between 1530-50. The paintings were intended to tell the Bible stories to an illiterate population.

The paintings were applied directly onto wet lime rendering which was spread across the walls Only a limited area could be painted each day. The artist first sketched the outline before filling in the background, Azurite blue was used for the sky and malachite green for the ground. The landscape and buildings were painted on next using different hues of clay earth pigments, like red and yellow ochre. The figures were the last to be painted. As the rendering dried, it bound the pigments to form a durable layer. Large overhanging eaves were designed to throw rain and snow away from the walls.

The paintings follow the same principles. On the apse at the east end is the ‘Prayer of the Saints’ with rows of angels, prophets, apostles, saints and martyrs on either side of the central figures of God, the Virgin and Christ.

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On the south facade is the Tree of Jesse which shows the descent of Christ from King David. The different figures are the ancestors of Christ. Below this are the ‘Pagan Philosophers’ including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pythagorus, Thucydides, Homer and Sibyl. In their writings, the Church found allusions and prophecies to the coming of Christ.

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Along the top is ‘Akathistos Hymn’ which is a devotional poem singing the praises of the Virgin Mary and is sung in all Orthodox Churches on the five Fridays in Lent. The poem contains twenty four stanzas. The first twelve stanzas and pictures have images from the life of the Virgin from the annunciation to the presentation of Jesus in the temple. The last twelve sing praises to the glory of the Virgin.

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Some churches also have Moses and the Burning Bush, or the Vision of Moses, which is often considered part of the Akathistos Hymn. This tells how the Virgin appeared to Moses in a Burning Bush, symbolising her perpetual virginity that cannot be consumed by fire. The Bush is often represented by a big rock crowned with flowers from which rise the figures of the Virgin and Christ.

Often depicted at the bottom west corner is the Siege of Constantinople in 626AD. The fortress is being attacked from the land and sea by Turks, Inside the walls, the citizens are carrying icons with images of the Virgin and Christ. Their prayers cause God to send thunder and rain and the sea drowning the attackers.

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The west facade has the Last Judgement, with saints, holy people and churchmen among the saved and infidels among the damned. The red river of Hell engulfs the figures of the damned. It is designed to concentrate the minds of those entering the church on the fate awaiting those who stray from the way of righteousness and the rewards of the righteous.

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There is a small charge to take photographs of the outside of the monasteries, but photography is not allowed inside the buildings.
 

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