July 17. I awoke in a corn field, a cold wind blowing, and drove to Carei, the county seat of Satu Mare. It looked like a dingy conglomeration of crumbling soviet block apartments, like so many other towns that had been occupied by the Soviets. Apparently, Soviets had erected block apartments in occupied territories with great haste to provide quick housing for villagers who’d been moved to the cities for work and whose quaint homes in the villages had been seized. These blocks had been built to last a maximum of 50 years. But that was 70 years ago. So they were more than past their prime. In Kosice, Slovakia, they’d been given paint job to spruce them up. They looked like Trump with a comb over. In Berlin, city officials have decided to knock them down entirely or top them, leaving 2 or 3 stories rather than 15.
I wasn’t planning on stopping. There wasn’t anything that made me want to, till I noticed a stately manor surrounded by immense grounds. I parked and tried the gate with trepidation. I’ve found many stately houses locked and inaccessible to the public. I was in luck. The Károlyi family castle, as I was soon to learn, had been built as a fortress in the 14th century, and the family had converted it into a castle in 1794. I walked through the 30-acre tree park. Workers were busy planting red and white begonias and fixing the fountain. I imagined the queen of hearts appearing at any moment and shouting ‘off with their heads’ at the intent workers. Not sure if the castle was open, I walked in the front door and found no one. Like something out of a dracula movie, I entered a huge hall marked by a monumental stair with carved wooden spiral banisters. I had a policy of asking for forgiveness rather than permission, so I continued up the immense stairs to the first room. I joined a large group of 9 or 10 year olds led by a woman of Hungarian decent (as were most in this region) who was leading her children and their friends on a tour of the castle. She spoke in discouraging tones of the problems with Romania – the garbage, filth, lack of basic services. I’d noticed a distinct change for the worse in road conditions since crossing the border from Hungary, but had hoped it was isolated to the border. Apparently it was more widespread. I’d heard that Romania was a poor country. My dad’s oldest sister Marylka told me about her boat tour down the Danube in the 1960s. She almost cried remembering the poverty, and her desire to help the people. Perhaps not much had changed.
The castle was immense and featured several hunting rooms complete with African game animals (I was a bit nonplussed at the elephant head staring at me upon entering), game rooms complete with pool table and chess/checkers built-in tables, a stately dining room, an elegant bed room, and a lady’s boudoir. All furnished in 1700s period furniture. Outside, the shade of the stately trees was refreshing. I enjoyed the fountain, then headed across the street to an ice cream/cake shop. There I met a medical student studying in Timisoara, who grew up in Carei and came back to work for the summer. Apparently, the shop is only a week old, and her Hungarian boss brings cake from across border. She asked me why I was in Carei. She couldn’t see what would interest someone about the town. In retrospect, it was one of the more historic towns I’ve seen in Romania. And there were no tourists. Hungarians visit the Transylvania region, as it was historically part of Hungary until after WW I. But the rest of the country is relatively free of tourists. I like that.
Carei was full of churches. The first church, Greek catholic, had been built by the administrator for the Károlyi family estate, who was… you guessed it, Greek catholic. It had been shared by the catholics and protestants for some years, until fights broke out about sharing the facilities. The town also hosts a Greek orthodox, Romanian orthodox, catholic, and evangelical church, as well as a synagogue. The door of the Greek catholic church was open, which was unusual, as most churches are barred. A nice man, sensing my hesitation, gestured for me to enter. It turned out that he was the parish priest. He was overseeing repairs to the lovely interior, which had been conducted over the last 10 years. He gave me a personal tour of the entire building, leading me behind the iconostasis to the altar and into the bell tower, and encouraged me to take photos. This was a first. He gave me a thorough account of the church’s history, and said that the last things to be restored were the paintings above the iconostasis to the tune of 500 Euros per painting. During the Soviet era they had painted over the names of the apostles in gray paint. He said ‘it wasn’t important to them’. On the contrary, it was very important. Or rather dangerous. So much so that their identities needed to be erased. I’m not religious but it could be applied to any kind of propoganda aka Orwell’s Animal Farm. He asked me to sign the guest book. I was honored and included my email, saying that if I was able, I’d find donors for the restoration.
I left in search of the synagogue, but couldn’t find it. Instead, I was chased by a young gypsy girl who wanted more than the 1 leu (about 25 cents) that I’d given her. I walked back to the manor, then crossed to the imposing Romanian orthodox church, where I took a discrete photo in the church entry. Other than the historic row of stately mansions and homes across from the castle, the town was filled with block apartments. A great fire in May 1887 burned 250 houses. The rebuilding was done according to the town planning regulations adopted by the town’s council. Sadly, like Debrecen, 95 percent (or more) of the town was dominated by buildings that looked like fallout shelters. I left Carei and headed to Săpânța in Maramureş county to look at its famous cemetery. The two-lane road drove me crazy. I got stuck behind trucks, finally passed, and didn’t want to have to pass them again.
The Merry Cemetery of Săpânța is famous for its colorful wooden painted tombstones describing, in an original and poetic manner, scenes from the owner’s life. It reminded me of La Calavera Catrina and other graphic depictions of the dead popular in late 1800s and early 1900s Mexico. Apparently, the cheerful images and tongue-in-cheek poems (all in Romanian) reflect the beliefs of the local Dacians, who believed that the soul was immortal and that death was a moment filled with joy and anticipation for a better life. The Dacians were an Indo-European people related to the Thracians, who inhabited the area of the Carpathian Mountains west of the Black Sea in present day Romania and Moldova, as well as parts of Ukraine, Eastern Serbia, Northern Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary and Southern Poland. They spoke the Dacian language, believed to have been closely related to Thracian, and were culturally influenced by the neighbouring Scythians and by the Celtic invaders of the 4th century BC.
I wish I’d stayed longer, but was stressed about driving and where I’d stay for the night. I headed to Borša, and then the ruined road that ran between two national parks, Rodnei Mountains and Maramures Mountains National Park. I wish I could have stopped. I was surrounded by the beautiful mountains of the Eastern Carpathians, part of a 932 mile mountain range across Central and Eastern Europe. The Carpathians are the second-longest mountain range in Europe, after the 1,056 mile long Scandinavian Mountains. I found out later that they provide the habitat for the largest European populations of brown bears, wolves, chamois and lynxes, with the highest concentration found in Romania, as well as over one third of all European plant species. Romania is also home to the second largest surface of virgin forests in Europe after Russia, totaling 617763 acres (65%), most of them in the Carpathians, with the Southern Carpathians constituting Europe’s largest unfragmented forested area.
There was one pension in this wild place, and I considered stopping. In retrospect, I wish I had. The road was in horrible shape. There were one-way sections where cars had to stop at lights to allow single file access. Unfortunately, many drivers violated the light, and would come blasting along at top speed head on. Luckily these drivers had good reflexes, and deftly swerved out of the way in the nick of time. But it was harrowing, and I finally stopped in Botoș, where I got out to admire a simply-built orthodox church on a grassy hillside. I was in a quaint valley dotted with wooden huts on the upper hills where shepherds probably lived and milked their flocks in the summer. I considered camping, but the dark clouds convinced me that it was worth spending 20 Euros to stay in a small cabin at a German-speaking pension. It wasn’t much more than a comfortable bed, but that was what I needed. I met a Polish couple who were camping there. They shared some travel stories with me, and recommended some places to visit, including the Transfăgărășan, also known as Ceaușescu’s Folly, a paved mountain road crossing the southern section of the Carpathian Mountains of Romania. I collapsed into bed at 10:30pm, tired and dirty.
July 18. I awoke and said goodbye to the Polish couple. All the Poles I’ve met have been big adventurers, traveling off the beaten path and usually very rugged. Maybe that’s where I got my mountain climbing tendencies. I spent a while cleaning my car and taking a shower, then headed down the road. First I explored a logging road and had a nice walk through the woods. I decided not to continue up the steep dirt road to risk playing chicken with a van barreling down the hill. I returned to the small Romanian orthodox monastery on the hill that had captured my imagination the night before, then headed down the road to Ciocănești, the next town, where I found a pisanki museum and ethnographic presentation. I love pisanki, a Polish word derived from ‘pisać’ (which in contemporary Polish means exclusively ‘to write’ yet in old Polish meant also ‘to paint’.) Originating as a pagan tradition symbolizing the rebirth inherent in spring, pisanki were co-opted by Christianity to represent an Easter egg. I loved the huge assortment of eggs. I’ve found pisanki in Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and now Romania. I bought a few eggs which had been locally done using beeswax to create a patterned relief. The woman running the museum then showed me the ethnographic house, and the interesting painted patterns on the houses. She said this house painting pattern was unique to her village. I haven’t seen it since. Apparently, bus loads of Germans and French invade the village daily. It must have been a slow day, as I didn’t see anyone. I took photos of the houses, then inquired about trout at the local pension. Apparently trout was a culinary specialty in this region. Unfortunately I had no money, and they didn’t accept a credit card. So with heavy heart, I drove on to the small city of Câmpulung Moldovenesc and bought some vegetables in the indoor market. I found out later that much of the fighting in WW I in Romania occurred in the mountains in and around this small city. It had been devastated by the war. Maybe that’s why it was full of block buildings.
Here I turned north to explore historic region of Bukovina (northwestern Moldvia) and Suceava. I drove narrow winding roads through beautiful forested mountains until I reached the fortified monastery in Sucevița. I’d been told to see the fortified Romanian orthodox monasteries, and the Polish couple had recommended this convent in particular. I arrived as a fresh bout of rain was washing the pavement clean. I donned my rain jacket and braved the pounding drops. The man was closing the front door of the fortification, and I was afraid it was closing. I rushed in, and entered the main church, amazed at the beauty of the fresco-covered walls. Photos are prohibited, so I could only sneak a few when no one else was in the room. It was a shame, because the frescoes were like nothing I’d ever seen. The closest I’d come were the frescoes in the tiny family chapels that peppered the hills of the Mani peninsula on the Peloponnese. The convent was built in 1585 by Ieremia Movilă, Gheorghe Movilă and Simion Movilă.
The architecture of the church contains both Byzantine and Gothic elements, and some elements typical to other painted churches of northern Moldavia. Both interior and exterior walls are covered by mural paintings, which are of great artistic value and depict biblical episodes from the Old and New Testament. The paintings date from around 1601, which makes Sucevița one of the last monasteries to be decorated in the famous Moldavian style of exterior paintings.
The interior court of the monastic ensemble, 100 by 104 meters, is surrounded by 6 m high, 3 m wide walls. There are several other defensive structures within the ensemble, including four towers (one in each corner). Sucevița was a princely residence as well as a fortified monastery. The thick walls today shelter a museum that presents an outstanding collection of historical and art objects. The tomb covers of Ieremia and Simion Movilă – rich portraits embroidered in silver thread – together with ecclesiastical silverware, books and illuminated manuscripts, offer eloquent testimony to Sucevița’s importance first as a manuscript workshop, then as a printing center.
It was with regret that I left this magical place, and headed to Suceava. I had planned to drive on to the small village of Ceahlău on Lake Bicaz, but it was getting dark, and I really didn’t want to drive at night in Romania. Something told me to go to Mănăstirea Neamț, so I turned down the small road and drove several miles until I reached the gates of an immense fortified complex. Several monks were sitting near the entrance, laughing and talking. I assumed it was one of the few times during the day when they could let their hair down, so to speak. It was dusk and devout pilgrims had left for the day. I walked around the monastery’s exterior in the fading light, then looked for a place to camp. Finding one was a challenge, between the barking dogs of the nearby village and the far-reaching lands of the monastery. I finally settled on a field outside the monastery walls. It turns out that there was a logging road that ran on the other side of the monastery, but the drive through the village had proved sketchy, and after being chased by an aggressive dog, I decided not to try my luck. I set up my tent and didn’t sleep well, as I was worried about a car that had driven near the road I’d taken.