Bucovina

Tucked into the northeastern part of Romania, bumping up against Ukraine, sits Bucovina. It’s one of the smallest regions of the country, but don’t let that fool you. It has history and sites that aren’t found anywhere else in the world, including its legendary painted monasteries.

Bucovina is why the word “bucolic” was invented. Nestled between the Carpathian Mountains and the Prut River, the landscape is breathtaking. Beech tree groves fill the landscape; in fact, the region’s name comes from “beech tree.” It’s also authentic, with villages that still have slant-roof homes and where women still dress in colorful traditional clothing. It’s hard to believe that such an unspoiled place could still exist.

The people of Bucovina are warm and friendly. They consider it an honor to welcome you to their beautiful region of Romania. They also respect that you have chosen to visit their “home” and want you to leave with happy memories.

Come for the monasteries, stay for the food!

Everyone likes to enjoy local food when traveling. One of the best ways to understand a new place is through its food. The food of northern Romania is quite different from other regions of the country, so you’ll want to taste as many of the specialties as you can. Bucovinian cooks cherish their recipes and pass them down to their children and grandchildren.

The cuisine in Bucovina comes from its history and the influences of other countries over the centuries. The country of Romania was established in 1859. However, Bucovina didn’t become part of the country until after World War I. Its food is a wonderful combination of former Ukrania and Moldovia, along with Turkish and Austro-Hungarian contributions.

Bucovina is famous for its sheep and cow breeding, resulting in milk which makes outstanding cheese. Domestic poultry and pigs are bred for their taste. Crops include potatoes, cabbage, and fruit: apples, pears, plums, and cherries.

Traditional food is made with simple, natural ingredients. The cooks also claim that using wooden spoons makes everything taste better! Some of the most delicious dishes are:

  • mămăligă (corn polenta) served with fresh cheese and cream
  • sarmale (cabbage or vine leaves stuffed with meat and rice)
  • răcituri (jellied meat)
  • borş (soup soured with fermented husk of wheat)
  • brânză de burduf (sheep-milk cheese)
  • fresh yogurt, eggs, and produce
  • sausages and salami
  • grilled meats: pork, beef, and mutton

The food can seem heavy, but it’s washed down nicely with a glass of ţuica (plum brandy), sometimes shared by everyone at the table. Noroc!

Where to begin in Bucovina

Start your visit in Suceava, the main city of Bucovina. With a population of over 100,000, it’s a handy home base for your explorations. It also has some good historical attractions that will prepare you for your tours to the painted monasteries and other sites.

Suceava (pronounced “soo-cha v’ah”) was once an important trade stop between Istanbul and Lviv, Ukraine. It was the Medieval capital of Moldova from 1388 to 1565. Over the centuries—and shifts of political control—Bucovina was lost in the shuffle. This may have contributed to so many of its treasures and traditions remaining intact. When Stephen the Great’s () reign ended in 1504, Suceava had 40 churches.

When visiting Bucovina, it’s important to understand a bit about Ștefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great or Stephen III) and his significance to Romania. Born around 1433, he was a prince who became a ruler and warrior, defending his people against the constant attacks from the Turks and Hungarians. Whenever he won a battle, he built a monastery to express his gratitude. His reign and death occurred in 1504; he had fought in 42 battles and 40 churches had been constructed. Shortly after his funeral, he was already considered to be a saint, and miracles began to be attributed to him. The Romanian Orthodox Church canonized him in 1992. Ștefan cel Mare is considered to be “the greatest Romanian that ever lived.”

What to see in Suceava

 To help you get a feel for Bucovina, take a couple of days to see the city and learn the region’s history.

  • Royal Citadel: This 14th century fortress was never conquered, even by the fierce Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1475. Stephen the Great increased the height of the eight towers to 33 meters (108 feet) and added trenches around the fortress. Finally, the Ottomans blew the structure up in 1675. With modern touchscreens and interactive displays, visitors can re-create history.
  • Bucovina History Museum: From the Bronze Age to today, learn to understand the region. Ștefan cel Mare’s court is replicated. Displays of WW I, WWII, and the Communist Era are especially helpful in explaining what Romania has experienced.
  • Bucovinian Village Museum: See the relocated homes, with their traditional furnishings, to get you ready for your own visits to the countryside.
  • Monastery of Saint John the New: Built between 1514 and 1554, the Romanian Orthodox monastery is where the relics of the martyr are housed in a silver casket, within Saint George’s Church. One of the most venerated saints of Romania, Suceava holds an annual feast celebration on June 24.

The monastic life: Preparing for your visits to the monasteries

Monastic life has always been an important aspect of the Romanian Orthodox Church. The Golden Age for the monks and nuns who lived in the monasteries was from the 15th to 18th centuries. Not only in Bucovina, but all over Romania, monasteries were part of the local community where they were located. Schools were in the monasteries, and citizens went for protection during attacks by enemies.

Orthodox monks and nuns lead lives of celibacy, poverty, and obedience. They dedicate themselves to prayer and service of the Church. There aren’t orders, as in the Catholic Church, but communities, with specialized work. Most are laypeople, not ordained priests.

The Main Attraction: Magnificent Painted Monasteries

The highlight of your trip to Bucovina, you will never forget your visits to these monasteries! Spend at least one day with a good tour company to get the most from your time and to understand the fascinating story of each place.

The painted monasteries were awarded UNESCO heritage status in 1993 as “great monuments of the world.” Raids by the Ottomans over the centuries had destroyed daily life for citizens. The peasants were poor and illiterate. When the monasteries were built, they were meant to not only lift the spirits of the people, but also educate them about the Bible. The artists wanted to show both inspiration and hope for believers.

The fee for each monastery and its church is 5 lei for adults, 2 lei for children. This includes the church, gardens, and museum. For 10 lei, exterior photos may be taken. No interior photos are allowed at any time, in any monastery.

Please remember that these are religious places. Always follow these rules to be respectful:

  • Keep your voice low.
  • Dress properly. No shorts for men or women. Women should cover shoulders. Check the entry for cloaks or capes if your attire is not appropriate.
  • Children should remain with parents and speak quietly.
  • Do not take photos if they are prohibited.
  • Consider leaving a donation. The cost of heat and light is expensive.

The most famous are below, in alphabetical order:

  • Dragomina: Still supported by 60 nuns, this monastery was built between 1602 and 1609. It’s the tallest monastery, famous for its unique stone-carved details. Frescoes are near the alter and the nave. Within the monastery, visit the Museum of Medieval Arts, featuring cedar crosses mounted on silver filigree, embroidery, bookbindings, and manuscripts. The nuns sell their cheese products, as well as wood and glass icons.
  • Moldovita: This monastery is enclosed in a fortress-like enclosure, complete with a tower, gates, and well-tended lawns. Built in 1532, its frescoes date to 1537. Its famous fresco, The Siege of Constantinople, which occurred in AD 626, reminds worshippers that the Turks were gruesome enemies. On a more gentle note, The Story of Jesus’ Life, brings back the true purpose of faith.
  • Putna: When Ștefan cel Mare had a major victory, he celebrated by building a monastery. Putna was built between 1466 and 1481, following another defeat of the Turks. Today, 60 monks still live here. The frescoes aren’t the focus. Rather, this is where Ștefan cel Mare is buried. And behind the monastery is Putna Museum, housing one of the Eastern Europe’s Byzantine collections, including the Holy Book that Ștefan cel Mare carried into battle.
  • Sucevita: The last of the painted monasteries to be built (1582-1601), it’s the largest, and considered by many to be the finest. Lucky for photographers, The Ladder of Virtues fresco is on the exterior. Near the main entrance, it depicts 32 steps to Heaven and shows those who sin falling off. Interior frescoes include The Genealogy of Jesus and The Story of Moses’ Life. Interestingly, the west wall is bare. Local lore has it that the artist fell to his death while painting it, and other artists were too spooked to take over.
  • Voronet: Built in only three months and three weeks in 1488 by Ștefan cel Mare, this is the only church that has its own recognized color, “Voronet Blue.” Made from lapis lazuli, the vivid blue is seen throughout the interior. All the colors are vibrant and well-preserved. It is one of the most famous monasteries in the world, and the grandest in Romania. It has been named “The Sistine Chapel of the Orient.” It’s considered a pilgrimage site for the faithful.

At Voronet, The Last Judgment fresco is generally acclaimed as the best of all. It covers the entire west wall. Angels tumble from the top, with humans wait for judgment in the middle. Saint Paul leads the believers to Heaven, while Moses gathers the non-believers to head the other way. The fresco is so expansive, you’ll need time to sit and take it all in.

Don’t miss the Museum of Eggs!

One of the most treasured traditions in Romania is that of painted Easter eggs. They’re an important part of the religious celebration of Easter, found at every home during the Orthodox holiday.

Colorful and intricate, painting eggs is its own art form. Originally, only women did the painting. The eggs are hollowed out, then painted with tiny brushes and vivid colors to create designs that differ by region. Many feel that Bucovina does the finest job, because of its dedication to spirituality. You should buy at least one egg when you visit Bucovina.

Everything has significance when painting an egg. Colors have meaning: Red means love, black is eternity, and yellow signifies youth. Green represents nature and blue refers to health and clear skies. Even lines mean something: A vertical line symbolizes life, while a horizontal one means death. The designs go back hundreds of years, passed down by families.

The Museum of Eggs, in Vama, about displays over 7,000 painted and decorated Easter eggs, collected from international exhibitions. You’ll see eggs from 79 countries. It’s fascinating to view not only bird eggs of all sizes—from pigeon to emu–but also some from reptiles, turtles, crocodiles, and geckos.

Vama is about 57 km (35 miles) from Suceava.

Step inside the workshop and decorate your own egg, under the supervision of master artist Letitia Orsivschi. She’ll help you include the special symbols of Bucovina.

See how colors vary by region and culture. Explanations of the displays are given in English, German, and French.

Article written by travel blogger – Suzanne Ball

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