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Myths and mountains in Romania

Travel Writing

This article was first published in the Times Online, on September 29 2006

Sarah Anderson traverses the small towns and tall tales of Eastern Europe, to find a country of bears, frescoes and sad histories

After flying to Bucharest where the temperature was in the 90sF, we took a six-hour train ride to Suceava: “a little town which up to the end of the sixteenth century had been the capital of Moldavia” (The World Mine Oyster, Matila Ghyka) and stayed at the private Hotel Balada where everything was ‘off’ the menu except the rather good pike-perch that, by default, we ended up by eating.

Our next stop was the Casa Alex in rural Sadova, a few miles from Campalung Moldovenesc in Bucovina, which we made our base for the next six nights. This was an extremely lucky find, comfortable, quiet apart from the odd dog bark and cock crow, with friendly owners and home cooking that, although based mostly on pork, varied nightly and was imaginatively cooked using a variety of local herbs.


It is immediately obvious that Bucovina – “the name derives from the famous beeches of the Upper Country, Latin name, Silvae Faginales, buk in Slavonic, bucovine in the old Romanian chronicles “ (The Hooligan’s Return, Norman Manea) – still depends on its forestry for most of its income. Sawmills line the roads and little seems to have changed since Patrick Leigh Fermor’s stay in the 1930s: “Lumberjacks felled in the forests and enormous tree-trunks were continually arriving at sheds and sawmills along the valley; there, with the clang of circular saws and the rhythmic fall of planks, they were sliced up by spectres toiling in clouds of sawdust” (Between the Woods and the Water). There are few tractors and the ploughing is done by one man with a horse.

Almost as soon as we arrived the temperature dropped to around 50F and the rain started, so that after visiting the monasteries – “The first view … is among the most important revelations, of the whole Byzantine world” (Roumanian Journey, Sacheverell Sitwell) – we had many picnic lunches of home-smoked sausage and local cheese sitting in our minibus. “Moldavia’s painted churches, post-dating the fall of Constantinople by at least fifty years, have been described as ‘a posthumous child of Byzantine art.’ … The still-glowing colours are believed to have been derived from madder; ochre or unripe wheat ears; indigo plants or lapis lazuli; charcoal and soot; gold dust” (Transylvania and Beyond, Dervla Murphy).

Nicholas Crane, on his journey across the mountains of Europe described in his book Clear Waters Rising, writes, “Emerging from the forests (where ‘art’ had been an occasional iconostasis or the pattern on a flute barrel), the scale and spectacle of Sucevita’s painted walls hit me with the power that it must have had for the seventeenth-century foresters and shepherds. This carnival of the grotesque, the allegorical and the saintly, reaching as tall as the trees, was a full-colour, multi-dimensional virtual-reality Bible lesson”.

The frescoes at Arbore are filled with stories of the saints and there is a particularly evocative one of Salome with St John the Baptist’s head and another one with horses, reminiscent of Paolo Uccello’s painting in Florence. The paintings are both inside and outside the churches, the ones on the walls that catch the prevailing winds, being almost totally destroyed. Trees of Jesse abound and there are many depictions of the Last Judgement with the unsaved being pulled into rivers of fire by frightening-looking devils. Voronet, built in 1488, has a particularly fine Last Judgement with a brilliant ‘Voronet blue’ background and portraits of ancient philosophers including Aristotle and Plato: “My favourite figures were ferocious semi-mythical beasts in the process of regurgitating human bodies, very much in the manner of a cat who has hastily gulped too big a fish head” (Transylvania and Beyond, Dervla Murphy).

In our group of five we had a bird and plant expert.. This made our forest, stream and meadow walks infinitely more interesting. We had a redstart nesting on the hotel’s balcony, a friendly dipper on the nearby stream and among many other sightings saw a crested tit nesting in a gate-post. The meadows in late May must be at their most abundant, although it was slightly too early for poppies; on our walks we found: orchids, violets, daisies, marsh marigolds, auriculae, aquilegia, soldanella, pansies, gentians, wood anemones, comfrey and buttercups.

One day, in the rain, we walked up to Rarau: “The total height gain from Cimpulung to the top of Rarau was only 900 metres, but it might have been Everest. Every step up the steep footpath required a concentrated spasm of willpower. Eventually I emerged from the trees on to a saddle occupied by the Rarau Alpine Hotel, a ten-storey concrete block best known for being the place where the travel writer Dervla Murphy broke her ankle by skidding on vomit” (Clear Waters Rising, Nicholas Crane). Poor Crane was ill when he did that particular hike, nevertheless I was pleased to have done the same walk without feeling exhausted or indeed to have been injured; as a local said to Dervla Murphy: “Every year strange things happen – people die from silly accidents, or have misfortunes like you. They tell about a curse on Rarau” (Transylvania and Beyond).

We had also been warned about bears, although many of the locals had never seen one, they were definitely around. On her way up to Rarau, scene of her accident, Dervla Murphy writes: “Beneath those towering trees there was virtually no undergrowth and within half an hour I saw two bears … very much bigger than I had expected a Rumanian Bear to be: at least five feet long and sturdily built” (Transylvania and Beyond).

Post Ceausescu, Romania still has problems, but I hope that despite their recent difficulties “the Rumanian people will not lose the qualities which, on this borderland of the West, straddling Central Europe and the Balkans, give them a unique character of unshaken resilience and intellectual finesse … aptly expressed in the proud saying: ‘Romanul nu piere’ – ‘The Rumanian does not perish.’” (The World Mine Oyster, Matila Ghyka).