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New Europe

Day Fifty-five: North to Maramures

The painted church at Moldoviņa 
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One of the jewels of north Romania, the painted church at Moldoviņa dates back nearly five hundred years.
Michael Palin - New EuropeIf Bulgaria is a big country grown smaller (they lost their Macedonian territories at the time of the First World War), Romania is a small country grown bigger. Wisely taking the winning side in that same war, they were rewarded with a slice of the dismembered Austro-Hungarian empire, which doubled their size overnight, making this, apart from Turkey, by far the biggest European country we've been through so far.

Unfortunately it has one of Europe's worst road systems, and with barely a hundred miles of motorway in the entire country, our ride up to the mountainous north is a long haul.

The region of Romania we're travelling through is the old kingdom of Moldavia, which, as it borders Moldova, makes the geography a bit confusing. But the further north we go the less it resembles Moldova's undulating lowlands. Beyond the heavily industrialised town of Suceava we're into the foothills of the Carpathians, the greatest mountain range of Central and Eastern Europe, extending in a 900-mile arc from here to the Czech Republic. We climb steeply, following a series of hairpin bends through beech and spruce forest. There's a scattering of snow on the green verges and at the pass we're 3,600 feet above sea level. The air is biting but the view is grand, a receding perspective of forested ridges and alpine meadows studded with conical hayricks and intricately carved and decorated wooden houses.

Outside the village of Moldovita is a serenely located Orthodox monastery, built in the early sixteenth century by a man called Petru Rares, the bastard son of the great church builder, Stefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great) of Moldavia. When the Turks invaded Moldavia they allowed the monastery to stay open and ironically it was fellow Christians, the Catholics of the Austro-Hapsburg empire, who let it close, and from 1785 to 1935 the place was deserted. It's open again now and run by an order of Orthodox nuns.

At the head of the arch on the conical gatehouse of the monastery is carved a reminder of the days before Ottomans or Habsburgs came this way. It's an aurochs, a European bison, not seen in the wild since the 1850s, with three stars above it, the emblem of the medieval principality of Moldavia. Inside the high stone walls of the monastery, like a pearl at the heart of an oyster, is a sensational surprise: a gloriously painted church, one of seven in the country, all unique to Romania, and all of them acknowledged gems.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Fifty-five: North to Maramures
  • Country/sea: Romania
  • Place: Moldoviţa
  • Book page no: 133

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