Places

A drive along the Somes river

We recently had the chance to explore a portion of the Maramures countryside that’s seldom seen by “civilized” eyes. While trying to find a new route, we stumbled onto a dirt road alongside the Somes River, which connects the village of Remeti pe Somes with Cheud, another village that sits on the Somes river. The dirt road starts here and ends here, but that’s not the part that’s important. What is important is what you’ll see as you travel on it.

We felt as if we’d stepped back in time. It was as if the road and the countryside were untouched by civilization altogether. We could hear the traffic in the distance, on the other side of the Somes, where the paved road was, yet where we were, it seemed as if progress had decided to take a nap.

Nature was quiet and majestic. The road twisted and turned with the river, winding its way through meadow and forest, over hill and over dale, over little brooks and springs that found their way into the Somes, adding to its already impressive size. We passed a gypsy dwelling with a few huts and small houses, hidden at the edge of a forest, miles and miles away from paved roads and civilization. Their kids, unwashed, dressed in rags and looking like medieval imps, pounced on our car, begging for change (their training begins early on in life).

Later on, we passed a pasture, replete with an idyllic herd of cows grazing peacefully on the abundant grass. And as we drove on, passing under large, thick trees, it occurred to us that this was an old road, a road that had likely been in use for hundreds, if not thousands of years, a companion to the river, now forgotten and abandoned in favor of the paved roads that cut through the landscape instead of working with it.

Ligia and I have seen our fair share of unpaved roads and beautiful scenery in Romania, but on this particular dirt road, on that particular segment of it, we felt more than at other times, that we’d stepped back in time a little, that we’d experienced a bit of what it was like to travel during the time of the dirt roads, at the speed of a horse’s trot. It felt odd to rejoin civilization afterward, our car fitting into the modern landscape yet covered in a thick layer of primeval dust — a reminder of our trip through time.

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Places

Downtown Baia Mare, still stuck in the 80s

We walked through downtown Baia Mare recently, where I took these photos. As I wrote before, I have a few gripes with the lack of urban planning and renovation going on in that area.

Look at the photos, try to imagine the foreign-made cars aren’t there, and you’ll have to admit to yourself that the sights you’re seeing are from a city still stuck under a communist regime. I felt like I was back under Ceausescu in the 80s when I walked there.

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Places

Castelul Grofului din Pribilesti (Boyar’s Castle)

In the village of Pribilesti, province of Maramures, in Romania, there’s a beautiful little castle called simply “Castelul Grofului”, or, roughly translated, The Boyar’s Castle (see definition of a boyar).

As the story goes, when the Austro-Hungarian empire invaded Romania and took over most of its lands, a ruler was set over that region. The Hungarian boyar built two castles, one in Pribilesti, and another, a larger one, in the mountains. At the time, his castle was the only structure around. He was surrounded by tens of square kilometers of open fields, which were tended by the peasants from the surrounding villages.

Nowadays, houses have sprung up around the castle, and the boyar’s land has been divided and subdivided, sold, and resold,  so much so that there’s no land around the castle anymore. It’s surrounded by the villagers’ houses, all around. It’s an odd sight — a castle with no land around it, but it is what it is.

During Romania’s Communist regime, the castle was taken over by the local farm cooperative, and it was used as a barn for animals. The upper floors were used as offices for the cooperative’s leaders — the members of the Communist Party. The castle’s extensive library was (naturally) burned, the paintings stolen, and everything else of value looted.

Don’t feel too bad for the boyar though. It turns out he was one mean s.o.b. He used to yoke the peasants like cattle and force them to till his land, because he thought they weren’t obedient enough.

After the Communist regime fell in 1989, the boyar’s family got the castle back, but the details are fuzzy. I spoke to a few villagers, and it sounds like either the family’s still got it, or some other foreigner’s got it, but they’re not doing anything with it, and they’re not putting money into renovating the place either. It’s falling apart. It has a new roof courtesy of the Romanian government, who paid for it. Hens and local urchin climb through it every day. Drunks pee on it and inside it. Nobody knows how much longer it’ll stand.

It’s a beautiful place, but what are you going to do? A castle with no land around it isn’t worth much these days. You’d have to sink at least 500,000 Euros into renovating the place, then a few hundred thousand more into buying back some of the land around it, so you’d have a bit of space to breathe.

I do hope someone renovates it. If I had that kind of money, I’d do it. It would be a pity to lose it.

I’ve got more photos from Castelul Grofului in my photo catalog.

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Places

New town center, Baia Mare, Romania

We began our recent trip through Bucovina in the city of Baia Mare, the capital of the province of Maramures in Romania. A few interesting tidbits about the city:

  • It has a Mediterranean-like climate, which means it can support chestnut trees — a rarity given that it’s located in the northern part of Romania, which in itself is quite a ways north from the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Population is about 150,000 people
  • The region is rich in gold and silver
  • It was one of the few known shtetls in Romania, along with Radauti and Gura Humorului. (Shtetls are, or rather were, pre-WWII, small towns with large Jewish populations from Central and Eastern Europe.)
  • The new town center was built in the 70s and 80s and features modern architecture

We visited the very same new town center. The architecture is certainly modern, but is unfortunately not maintained. Almost all of the buildings show cracks, some of the exteriors have begun to peel off, some windows are broken, there’s graffiti on most of them, and all are covered in a nice, thick layer of muck. I guess some of that can’t be helped after 40 years, but still, some efforts ought to be put forth by the city to maintain the architecture, right?

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The image of the church above is a fairly good representation of the state of downtown Baia Mare and of Romanian cities in general. At first sight, it looks nice, but as you get closer, you begin to see glaring problems such as the state of the sidewalk (potholes among a mixture of pavement, mud, asphalt and stones), poor landscaping, poorly maintained buildings, etc. If you were to look closer, you’d see problems with the building as well. To some extent, this can be blamed on the past Communist regime, where the emphasis was placed on quantity, not quality. The construction issues have only become evident in recent years, as layers have started to come off apartment buildings and public buildings alike, peeling like onion skins, revealing the crumbling masonry work beneath.

This next photograph shows the building defects a little better.

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The buildings look much nicer from nice from afar, don’t they?

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I took most of the photos from a park in the new town center, as you can see for yourself if you look at the surroundings. All in all, in terms of planning, it’s good. The idea of a central park in a new downtown, and the allowance for plentiful vegetation among apartments and shops and hotels is great. But a great idea must also be executed in appropriate fashion in order for it to be fully appreciated. In this new town center, like in most town centers built during Communist times, proper execution just isn’t there.

Look, don’t think I’m bashing Baia Mare. It’s a wonderful city, and there are many cities in worse shape in Romania. All I’m saying is things could be a lot better than they are. The predecessors could have done a better job building the city, and their successors could be doing a better job maintaining and beautifying it.

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Places

A trip through Bucovina

As announced, we returned last week from a road trip that took me through northern Maramures, Bucovina, Moldova and northern Transilvania. (These are all provinces in Romania, by the way.) Ligia, my parents and I packed into our car and spent about 1 ½ weeks on the road, visiting various places, mostly in Bucovina. We visited several monasteries (the region has some of the most important in Romania and Eastern Europe), most of which we’d visited back in 1991, so it was interesting to see how they, the places around them, and the people living there changed over the years. Along the way, as we meandered through the Carpathian Mountain chain, we got to see amazing vistas like these ones.

Amazing sunset

A sunset in Bucovina

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Rising fog in the morning hours, on the road in Bucovina

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A sunset near Borsa

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At the edge of northern Maramures, about to cross into Bucovina

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In the hills outside the village of Vama, in Bucovina

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In Maramures. Do you notice the start of a rainbow in the lower right corner?

We started with a quick stop in Baia-Mare, in Maramures, where we walked in the newer, more (relatively) modern town center. The historic town center is a few kilometers away from where this photo was taken.

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Downtown Baia-Mare, Maramures

From Baia-Mare, we headed North, toward Sighetul Marmatiei, then West, into Bucovina, crossing over the Northern part of the Carpathian Mountains. While still in Maramures, we visited the tallest wooden church in the world, Biserica de Lemn “Sfintii Arhangheli Mihail si Gavriil”, in a village called Surdesti.

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Biserica de Lemn "Sfintii Arhangheli Mihail si Gavriil"

Night came upon us as we drove over Mt. Prislop, the main crossing point from Maramures into Bucovina. There was no lodging available in Borsa, a mountain resort (what economic crisis?!), so we drove on and found a cabin at the very top of the mountain. We stopped there, hoping for a memorable overnight stay. Unfortunately, the accommodations left a lot to be desired — the bathrooms in particular — so I spent most of the night mulling over my thoughts and taking photos, unable to sleep. This is one of the ones I made that night.

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About 2 am, right on the very peak of Mt. Prislop, in Bucovina

The next morning, we moved on and wound our way into the heart of Bucovina. The first stop was the resort town of Vatra Dornei, which is famous for its natural springs. Here’s one of them below.

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Vatra Dornei, Romania

The monastery at Moldovita was next on our itinerary.

Manastirea Moldovita, Bucovina, Romania.

Manastirea Moldovita, Bucovina, Romania

Manastirea Moldovita, Bucovina, Romania.

Manastirea Moldovita, Bucovina, Romania

The second monastery we saw was Sucevita.

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Manastirea Sucevita, Bucovina, Romania

Manastirea Sucevita, Bucovina, Romania.

Manastirea Sucevita, Bucovina, Romania

After not sleeping very well the previous night, and given the lodging crisis, we decided to start looking for a room around 5 pm. To our disbelief, all lodging in the area of the monastery (about 2 hotels and 3 pensions) was taken. I have no idea what economic crisis they keep talking about on TV and in the newspapers, because when I go out in the world, I don’t see any difference. Lodging was either full or close to full at most every place we visited, even in remote locations. Mountain resorts like Borsa, Durau, Vatra Dornei and Borsec were all full.

Since no lodging was to be found in the area, we drove to Radauti, one of the main towns in the province of Bucovina, hoping to find something there. We were looking for a 4-star place, either a hotel or a pension, and we were about to leave town, disappointed, when we decided to ask a gas station attendant who pointed us to David House, a 4-star pension nearby. Let me just tell you that while 3 stars may cut it in the US, it’s not enough in Europe, not by US or my standards, anyway. Read through our experience with hotels in Italy for more details on this topic, and trust me when I say that you want to look for 4-star hotels or pensions in Romania, if you can afford it. I’ll write more about David House in a future post, but let me just tell you our lodging experience there was superior to all of the other places we stayed at in Romania, and the price was great for the quality of the accommodations.

While in Radauti, we walked on one of its streets. This is one of the scenes we saw. I love the character of this run-down traditional house and the cat perched on what used to be a windowsill.

On the streets of Radauti

On the streets of Radauti

The next day, we visited the cave of a famous hermit called Daniil Sihastrul, who figures prominently in the history of the provinces of Moldova and Bucovina. He was the spiritual advisor of Stefan cel Mare, one of Romania’s great rulers.

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Chilia lui Daniil Sihastrul

After that, we visited Manastirea Putna — an old and large monastery, built in the 15th century. It contains the grave of Stefan cel Mare inside its church.

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Manastirea Putna, Bucovina, Romania

Manastirea Putna, Bucovina, Romania

Manastirea Putna, Bucovina, Romania

Very near Manastirea Putna, you’ll find the oldest wooden church in Romania, called Biserica de Lemn “Dragos Voda”. It dates from the 14th century.

Manastirea Voronet was next. Historically speaking, it’s considered the most important example of medieval religious painting from the Moldova province. The exterior frescoes also distinguish themselves through a particular blue pigment that has withstood the passage of time particularly well.

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Manastirea Voronet, Bucovina, Romania.

Manastirea Voronet, Bucovina, Romania

Manastirea Voronet, Bucovina, Romania

The last monastery we saw that day was Manastirea Humorului, which Ligia and I both liked very much. Perhaps it had to do with the way the sun’s rays fell on the buildings and gave them a golden hue, perhaps it had to do with the air, which was cleaner than in other places. All I can say is that we liked it.

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Manastirea Humorul, Bucovina, Romania

Manastirea Humorul, Bucovina, Romania

Manastirea Humorul, Bucovina, Romania

In the market near the monastery, artisans sold traditional handmade linen shirts, called ii. Each shirt takes anywhere from 1 week to 1 month or more to make, by hand. Ligia, my parents and I all bought several ii for each of us. They’re incredibly beautiful, and perfect for summer wear. Linen is wonderful to wear when it’s warm, because it airs much better than any other material, allowing the body to stay cool.

Handmade linen shirts, Gura Humorului, Bucovina, Romania

Handmade linen shirts, Gura Humorului, Bucovina, Romania

We didn’t want to chance sleeping at another place that night, so we headed back to the David House pension in Radauti. The next day, we visited Manastirea Arbore, which is not currently used as a monastery, but as a church. It is also undergoing renovations to the interior, but its interior frescoes are incredibly beautiful, and unlike many I’ve seen, have a more real feel to them.

Manastirea Arbore, Bucovina, Romania

Manastirea Arbore, Bucovina, Romania

Manastirea Arbore, Bucovina, Romania

Manastirea Arbore, Bucovina, Romania

Near the village of Arbore, where the monastery resides, there’s a forest of tall conifers which begins as a sort of park on the main road but extends up the hillside and continues into a full-fledged forest beyond.

Walking in a conifer forest

Walking in a conifer forest

From there, we headed toward Suceava and the famous fortress where many rulers defended their country against foreign invasions. On the way, we stopped on a particularly scenic hilltop where a farmer’s family was harvesting hay. You can see them in the lower right corner of the photograph below.

Gathering hay in Bucovina

Gathering hay in Bucovina

Ligia picks wildflowers

Ligia picks wildflowers

The official name of the fortress in Suceava is Cetatea de Scaun, translated roughly as the Castle of the Ruler. It is named so because Moldavian voevods considered it their capital, so to speak. They had other castles where they lived and ruled, but returned to Suceava for the important periods of their rule.

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Cetatea de Scaun la Suceava

Cetatea de Scaun la Suceava

Cetatea de Scaun la Suceava

Cetatea de Scaun la Suceava

The last stop that day was at Manastirea Dragomirna and a nearby hermitage. Dragomirna’s architecture is wonderful, and the monastery’s renovation efforts really show. The place looks great, and is being actively used by nuns.

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Manastirea Dragomirna

Manastirea Dragomirna

Manastirea Dragomirna

That night, we were unfortunately unable to find suitable lodging. Every place we found was 3 stars or below, and out of sheer desperation, around 11 pm, stopped at a pension on the outskirts of Tg. Neamt. It was a decision we regretted as soon as we began to unpack our bags, but the deed was done. The next morning, we went on our way with bleary eyes to visit Cetatea Neamt, a famous historical fortress located in that city. Here, recent renovation efforts (completed in January 2009) had also paid off handsomely. The place looked great, and it was a real treat to be able to visit many of the castle’s rooms — something that was impossible at Cetatea Suceava, which was in tatters, with all its upper floors destroyed by the passage of time.

Cetatea Neamt

Cetatea Neamt

Cetatea Neamt

Cetatea Neamt

Cetatea Neamt

Cetatea Neamt

Manastirea Agapia was next. It’s run by nuns, and it’s got an interesting setup. The cells of the nuns are spread through the village surrounding the monastery instead of being concentrated within. The monastery itself is famous for its interior frescoes, done by the famous Romanian painter Nicolae Grigorescu. The monastery is also infamous in more recent times for the renovation work done to the cells of the nuns by Diekat, a Greek construction company. They used green, untreated wood, which through their shoddy workmanship, was exposed to the elements over the winter and developed a fungus that caused several nuns to fall seriously ill. They charged 2 million Euro for the work, never finished the job, and were never held accountable by anyone for their crimes. [source] May God punish them to the fullest for what they’ve done.

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Manastirea Agapia

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Manastirea Agapia

Manastirea Varatec, nearby, is also a nice place to visit. It’s of more recent origins than Agapia and others we visited.

Manastirea Varatec

Manastirea Varatec

Manastirea Varatec

Manastirea Varatec

Manastirea Varatec

Manastirea Varatec

After lunch in town, we moved on to Manastirea Neamt, which is the ruling body for all monasteries in the provinces of Bucovina and Moldova.

Manastirea Neamt

Manastirea Neamt

Manastirea Neamt

Manastirea Neamt

The monastery has a somewhat unusual feature: an ossuary where certain of the bones of the more notable monks are kept. Their skulls are inscribed with their names, a detail or two about their lives, and their year of death. This is one of them.

Manastirea Neamt

Manastirea Neamt

While on the road to Manastirea Secu and Sihastria, we found a nature preserve for aurochs, also known as European bison. These are the ancestors of our domesticated cattle, or so the story goes. I wanted to get some up-close photos, but the aurochs (known as zimbri in Romanian) weren’t cooperative. They insisted on resting on a muddy cliff well removed from me and my camera, as it was a hot afternoon.

Rezervatia de Zimbri si Fauna Carpatina "Dragos Voda"

Rezervatia de Zimbri si Fauna Carpatina "Dragos Voda"

The last two monasteries were a daze for me. We’d all seen a few too many for such a short time, but since we’d planned to go, we went, by golly…

Manastirea Secu

Manastirea Secu

Manastirea Secu

Manastirea Secu

Manastirea Sihastria

Manastirea Sihastria

Manastirea Sihastria

Manastirea Sihastria

We were incredibly exhausted after this short and intense trip, and rushed to find lodging for the night. Again, everything was booked, so we kept driving on, hoping against hope to find some 4-star pension or hotel before nightfall. Finally, we did. It was a place called Vila Ecotour, in the village of Ceahlau, near Durau, on the shores of Lacul Bicaz. The pension was perched on the slope of a tall hill and had amazing views of the village, the lake and the adjoining mountains. What a wonderful location!

On a slope overlooking Lacul Bicaz, in Ceahlau

Dawn on Lake Bicaz

Dawn on Lake Bicaz

The last day was spent making our way back to Baia-Mare, still tired, sick of driving, but richer for having seen and experienced such natural and man-made beauty.

I plan to post more photos from each place we visited in separate articles, so stay tuned for that.

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