The Bull Country

by vpundir | September 27th, 2008

The train arrives in Suceava after sundown. I walk out of the station right into a „non stop”. The lady selling me the bottle of water has no clue where Mihai Eminescu street is, or for that matter, where Nicolae Balcescu street is, but she asks a supposedly more knowledgeable customer to help. He doesn’t know either, but thankfully I have a printout of the High Class Hostel’s webpage, which includes a small sketch-map.

„Aaaa!”, he points to the McDonald’s on the sheet of paper I have proffered „Centru!”

I am a bit taken by the prominence that was seemingly just accorded to McDonald’s, but ask where I could get a bus to get to the town centre. The bus stop is right by the side of the shop, though he doesn’t know which bus goes to the centre. At the bus stop, it turns out that all roads lead to Rome, and as luck would have it, there is a bus currently parked and boarding. Excellent! But I am still a little lost – from where do I buy a ticket, I ask the folks in what looks like a transport office? It is given in the bus itself.

The girl selling the tickets is nice and promises to tell me when to get down. And she keeps her word even though I doze off in the admittedly very short trip. The map on the hostel webpage could be better, but it isn’t too hard to find the place.

My hostess Monica is perky and welcoming. She shows me around the neat and cozy little place. My bed is in the smaller room, which is otherwise empty. So essentially I have the whole room to myself. Finally, we go back down to the lobby to complete the formalities. Like Villa Helga Bucharest, the per night per bed charges are RON 50. Unlike Villa Helga Bucharest, here one pays at check-out, not at check-in.

Monica gets folks to write down the countries they are from, and it turns out that I am the first Indian here. Don’t get me wrong – it doesn’t have to mean that I am the first Indian to visit Suceava, only that I am the first Indian to stay at the hostel, which, in any case, has been in existence for only 8 years. Even so, it still feels good.

I detect a hint of Northern England in Monica’s vocabulary and accent and ask if she has ever lived there. She nods but doesn’t answer my follow-up: “Whereabouts?” and moves on to other things, among them being the availability of wireless Internet. Excellent!

Another visit to reveals why I got a nonsensical schedule showing very few trains from București to Suceava the last time around – the system is station-specific. If, for instance, one searches for trains departing from Gara de Nord, departures from other București stations are not included. Moreover, if one searches just for trains departing from București the default setting is to show trains departing from Gara Basarab.

Anyhow, I manage to find a late night route to Bicaz, which is to be my next destination as the nearest train station to Ceahlău trails. Though Explorish has emailed me advising that I keep aside 2 days to enjoy the painted monasteries of Bucovina, I would really like to climb the Ceahlău, and I would really like to be back in București by Sunday morning. So, the idea is to get up early, visit the monasteries in Sucevița, Moldovița, Voroneț and Putna, and take in the culture and art (specifically, black ceramics) of Marginea, all in a day.

Of course, for all my bravado, I ultimately wake up not too long before 10 when the sun is shining brightly through my room’s window. Oh, just as well! Monica told me that the shop that sells cameras doesn’t open before 9 anyway. So I rush through the chores and head out into the town.

Suceava is a strangely interesting town. For one, it would seem that McDonald’s is the centre of life here – it is the centre of the city anyway. Secondly, the large Alexandria bookshop encourages people to read by putting up huge banners of quotes from Confucius (Natura ne aseamănă. Educția ne deosebește), Leonardo da Vinci (The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding), Constantin Brâncuși (Trebuie să încerci ne contenit să urci foarte sus – dacă vrei să vezi foarte departe), Mahatma Gandhi (Live like you’ll die tomorrow. Learn like you’ll live forever), Eugène Ionescu (Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together), AND Donald Trump. No, your eyes didn’t fail you; you read it right the first time around: Donald Trump.

Anyhow, the Photo Shop (not my fault, that IS the name of the place) is right next door to the bookshop. They have 7 cameras in stock, 5 if you count out film cameras. They follow “What You See Is What You Get” to the T, as the display cameras are the ones that are sold – which is not surprising considering that it is a small shop in a small town.

The establishment is “manned” by three ladies – the bored middle-aged one looks like the proprietor and the two enthusiastic young ones are probably the apprentices. None of the cameras are to my liking, but the gushing shop attendants manage to sell me a crummy Kodak C743 for RON 389, which is more than I should be paying, but the proprietor has made it clear that no negotiations are possible and I don’t have much choice. I also buy for fair measure a 2GB SD card for RON 89.

Back at the hostel, Monica offers me some tea. We get talking about food, and she apparently loves Indian food. Almost 8 years ago, she used to work in București for an expensive Indian restaurant owned by a Briton of part-Indian descent. Well, that explains the slight suggestion of Northern English in her.

She is a „certified” tour guide, and takes groups on trips to the monateries and Marginea. There is no fixed schedule; she is up for it whenever there is a willing group of 3 or more people. It is a 200km roundtrip and she charges RON 100 for it (she drives the group to all these places in her car). I think it’s a good deal. She suggests I look around the town today and take the monasteries tour tomorrow. It is a great idea, but tomorrow I intend to be climbing Ceahlău, no matter what.

Leaving my bag with her, I head out for my „sightseeing”. The first stop is Biserica Sfântului Nicolai, which is just around the corner. The church is dark inside but the glimmer of the blue and gold paint still comes through.

Just a short way down from the Piața 22 Decembrie, also known as town centre, is Biserica Domnițelor (Church of Principality), which looks pretty interesting. It is white and has a small garden. As the name suggests, it was the church of the principals of the town, and the royal babies used to be baptized here. The inside of the church is pretty small, dark and austere.

I think I should grab a bite before starting my exploration. Pub Chagall is closed for some reason, so I stop by the Melibeea Pastry shop. They have a few meat-topped pizzas, but no vegetariana, so I must be content with a couple of croissants. As I pay for them, the shop attendant asks me if I am Italian. A year ago I would have laughed at that, but by now I have been called everything from a Peruvian to (most incredibly) an Irishman, and besides she is only a teenager, so I politely tell her that no, I’m not Italian.

A path by the McDonalds goes through the woods and leads to Ceteatea de Scaun (literally Fortress of *the* Chair). It is an easy walk, with a few stairs, and a sizeable wet patch, and you are at the statue of Ștefan cel Mare (built in 1977), with Moldova’s symbol – the head of a bull – carved on the plinth, before you know it. The area around the statue and the path leading up to it seem to be a favorite haunt of young folks bucking school.

The road is flatter hereafter, and goes past a large cemetery. Soon after the cemetery one suddenly finds oneself on a paved tarmac. A left turn takes directly to the citadel, which, incidentally, is not visible from the junction as it is at a lower altitude. It is said that Petru Musat built the citadel between 1375 and 1391 to protect Suceava, the then capital of Moldova, from Turkish invasions. In late 15th century, Ștefan cel Mare added 8 bastions, raised the walls to 33m high, and widened the moat. The Turkish army under Muhammad II nearly blew it off in 1675, but it is said the citadel remained unvanquished. Later it was also victim to a strong earthquake.

As a result, only ruins remain of what must have been a source of might and pride for the Moldovans. Unconquered islands in an empire become potent symbols and an eyesore for the ruling overlord. One can only imagine the battles that were fought here.

Well, anyway, the walls must have been much higher for sure. There is a definite martial disadvantage to building a citadel at a point lower than its surroundings. If the relief of this area was in the 14th century as it is today, the walls must have been very, very high. Unfortunately, they aren’t here to be seen anymore. But what we do see, and what impresses me most about the citadel, is the moat. It is deep and wide, and in my mind I imagine it being filled with water and alligators or worse.

The building itself is angular and square with black-tiled inclined roofs. From some angles they look like a human face with a black hat. Several points in the Cetatea de Scaun afford nice views of the city, and I am sure Sf. Ștefan enjoys them as he stands alone above the chapel day and night.

Click here to check out my pictures from Suceava of 26 Sept 2008.

Back in town, I ask around how I could get to Voroneț, which is at the top of my list of the Bucovina’s famous painted monasteries. There are no trains that go there, but I should be able to find a bus at the autogara. The information officer at the autogara tells me that I should get to Gura Humorolui and find my way from there. He also points me to a „minibuz” ready to leave for there.

To confirm this information, I ask the driver if the bus goes „spre Gura Humorolui” and whether he could drop me at the right spot for Voroneț monastery. He replies in affirmative to both and tells me the ticket price of RON 6, in English. After purchasing the ticket, I contently retire to the back of the bus.

As a backup, I ask the young guy in the next seat if he’d let me know when we arrive at Gura Humorolui, and he tells me that that’s where he is going so I can get down where he does. Great!

At this gent’s stop, I ask the driver if I should get down for Voroneț, and he tells me it’s a little further ahead and that he’d let me know. So I stay there, standing by the door waiting for my stop. After a while, he suddenly turns around with an „Oh, shoot!” look on his face, and tells me that we passed my stop about 2km ago. Considering my options, I tell him to drop me off at the next stop, which he does.

There’s just one other person at the spot – a young, suited gentleman who appears to be waiting for his friends rather than a bus. There are no signs indicating that it is a bus stop – no seats, no shelter, so trash cans, no signboards. So I ask the gentleman if this was the bus-stop for buses going towards Gura Humorolui. He hasn’t a clue.

Luckily, we are standing in front of a hardware store, and I am able to find the proprietor who confirms that I’ve been dropped at the right spot. Another interesting thing that has happened in my transit from cosmopolitan Muntenian city of Bucharest to this rural location in Moldova is that the greeting has transformed from „Salut” to „Sănătate”.

A minibus going towards Gura Humorolui arrives pretty soon and I board it telling the driver where I want to go. When I ask him how much the ticket costs, he tells me that though the ticket costs RON 2, I don’t need to pay anything. I try to pay nevertheless, but he doesn’t accept. I suspect my original driver must have met him on the way and told him to pick me up and drop me at the right spot, which arrives soon enough. I am told that the monastery is 4km down the side-road of this T-junction.

A peasant is herding his 2 cows, sitting on his tiny horse-cart, going in that direction. The road itself if tree-lined. The wheat(?) in the fields is golden and ripe for harvesting. In the distance, a bird is chirping. The trees are changing colors and look positively beautiful. One can see, in the hills, forests of beech, from whom the region Bucovina gets its name („buk” refers to the beech tree in Ukrainian – the Romanian name of the region was apparently „țară de jos” or upper country). These forests remind one of the lush green forests in Shi Mian Mai Fu, which was shot in Ukraine.

Soon I pass over a bridge over the nice Voroneț river with a campsite on its bank. Also nearby is a paintball arena, of all things! I have walked about 3km, consistently trying to thumb down the occasional car going in that direction, when a Portuguese girl gives me a lift. She doesn’t speak any English but speaks Romanian fluently as she has been living here for over 4 years.

The first encounter with the monastery is the high, strong surrounding stone-wall, which makes you wonder why a monastery would need to be thus fortified till you realize that the monasteries of Bucovina had to defend against Turkish invaders, and sheltered large armies inside their compounds.

Mănăstirea Voroneț was built by Ștefan cel Mare in 1487 to commemorate his victory over the Turks at the Battle of Vaslui to fulfil his pledge to hermit Daniil, who inspired him to take on the Turks. But, if my understanding is correct, the feature for which the monastery is known – the spectacular frescos – were actually made on the order of Ștefan cel Mare’s descendant Petru Rareș in 1547.

The blue-painted monastery is quite a sight: magnificent and austere at the same time. The colors are bright, and yet have a humanlike warmth to them. Depending on where you look, you can see either lines of saints and martyrs, or Biblical scenes painted on the walls. Local and periodic references are everywhere. The archangels blow the bucium and the blessed souls wear Moldovan towels while the condemned souls wear Turkish turbans.

A fresco of The Last Judgement takes up one whole wall. Kings, popes, and most importantly Turks and Tartans strive to get out of the fire of hell, while to the right and left demons quarrel for ownership of the condemned. Beasts tear apart human torsos while the deer stands alone, watching.

Another wall depics genealogy of Jesus, and interestingly includes some European philosophers like Plato.

The characteristic vivid blue color is often referred to as Voroneț blue within Romania, and the composition of the color, drawn entirely from natural sources, remains shrowded in mystery.

Such is the artistic influence and historical significance of this monastery that it is sometimes referred to as the „Sistine chapel of the East”, and it is easy to see why.

According to the Smithsonian, creation of the frescos required expertise, stability and swiftness. Teams of painters would first even out the church’s rough stone walls with a thick layer of mortar, then smooth it out with a thin layer of lime plaster mixed with natural fibers such as finely chopped straw. After that, the artists had only a few hours to complete the paintings before plaster dried. Artists had to be chemists too, mixing pigments from rare clays, semiprecious stones and common minerals: Azurite and malachite for blues and greens, heated clay for reds, yellows and browns, etc. Since no organic binders (like egg white) were used, the colors have proven to be unusually durable.

Towards the back of the church are the characteristic fixture of Romanian Orthodox churches: stalls to light candles for Vii (the living) and Morți (the dead) respectively.

The inside is as vividly illustrated as outside, and though the lighting is dim one can only marvel at how well the colors have been preserved through the centuries.

As seems customery for Romanian monasteries, there are large murals of The Nativity and The Last Supper signifying, I guess, the cycle of life. Also true to the style of the other Romanian Orthodox churches that I have visited, the church here doesn’t have any pews either. Metal sheets, whether covering ornate wooden carvings or just engraved by themselves, seem to a favorite style at least in the region.

Interestingly, there are a couple of mosaics that seem very similar to the Hindu Yantras. I wonder if they are an artistic coincidence or a matter of some lost tradition.

The Romanian Tourism website says that a portrait of the donor family presenting a miniature model of the church usually appears to the right of the door in the nave of each of the painted monasteries of Bucovina, though I do not see one here at Voroneț.

Next stop – Marginea. This comuna is supposed to be still very traditional, and is known for producing characteristic black ceramic pottery. Outside the monastery’s compound, a family is taking down their make-shift curio stall. I ask them how I could get to Marginea village, and find that it is about 40km from here and there is no way I can reach there before nightfall.

Oh, well, maybe I’ll just check out the Humor monastery near Gura Humorolui (the town name literally means „The mouth of Humor”). While it is probably the smallest of Bucovina’s painted monasteries, it is unique in at least 3 ways: For one, it was built by the boyar (the local landlord), not the ruler. Secondly, it is surrounded by a wooden stockade instead of the standard stone rampart. Finally, and most importantly, it is one of the world’s select few houses of worship from the age that depict the devil as a woman.

On the way back I have barely walked 1.5 km when a middle-aged man in a beat-up sedan gives me a lift. He drops me off at the T-junction where the minibus had dropped me earlier as he is going left from there. I don’t see any bus-stop markers around and inquiries with the locals reveal that there is, in fact, no bus stop right here, but that I need to walk down further towards Gura Humorolui.

On my way to Gura Humorolui, I try to thumb down the few cars and several trucks going my way, but in vain, which is understandable as it is past dusk.

At one point I decide to cross the road to the other side. To do so, I must step over a concrete slab before landing on the tarmac and finally reaching the other side. I take the leap, and as my foot touches down, it starts sinking in the concrete – evidently they made the slabs recently, the concrete is wet and the cement hasn’t set yet. Thankfully my other foot lands squarely on the tarmac, and I walk on. A few slabs down, I see a slab with 4-5 foot imprints in it. So, if you are ever in the area, check out the slab with a singular foot impression in a concrete slab on the right side of the road while going from Voroneț to Gura Humorolui, and if you hit the one with several feet imprinted in it, you know you have gone too far. So much for leaving an impression!

It is almost pitch-dark by the time I reach the town, so it isn’t a good idea anymore to visit Humor monastery. As I look around for the bus station, I find the first Roman-Catholic church I have seen in Romania so far. It seems fairly new and relatively straight-lined.

At the autogara, which is unlit except for one little corner, when I ask the older man, who seems to be giving directions to the other two, whether there are any buses going to Suceava, he sneers at me, „La asta ora?” (it is past 8pm). Nothing till tomorrow morning.

Well, I have to catch the train to Piatra Neamț from Suceava tonight, and I’ll get there one way or the other. So thinking, I keep walking down the road that leads to Suceava. Soon, I see 3-4 people who are apparently waiting for transportation. I ask them if it is a bus stop, and they point me to a point about 15m further down. They themselves are trying to hitch a ride in a lorry.

At the bus-stop, the woman, the only person at the stop, confirms that this is indeed a bus stop for minibuses going towards Suceava. While waiting for my bus, I keep trying to thumb a ride in vain. Soon a minibus arrives, and the people from 15m up the road and the lady board it. This minibus is not going to Suceava, however, and I need to wait a bit more. I do walk into the little grocery store close-by and confirm with the proprietor that even at this hour I can get a minibus to Suceava.

Finally a minibus going to Suceava arrives, and I board it. There aren’t too many people inside, and I take the navigator’s seat – one of my favorite spots in a bus, the other one being the last seat where I can stretch my legs, lie down, and sleep.

The driver is a young boy, and we chat a little bit even while the bus’s radio keeps piping music, mostly English. And then, I hear something that seems out of place and ask the driver to increase the volume. Sure enough, Impact FM is playing „Shikdum Shikdum” from the 2004 Bollywood hit Dhoom, which, by the way, I panned unequivocally.

Click on the image above, and then click on play button once it becomes available.

Interestingly though, the song being played isn’t what I believe to be the original Hindi version, but sounds more like Telugu, though I can’t be sure as I don’t know any Telugu and didn’t even know there were any other language versions of the song.

I have barely gotten over the excitement of “Shikdum” when suddenly, out of nowhere appears a Luna-like moped, wavering all over the road. It is manned by a haggard-looking guy who doesn’t quite seem to have noticed the minibus in spite of being bathed in its headlights.

„HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONNNNNKKKKKKK,” blares the horn of the minibus and the the moped finally moves out of the way.

„Prost!” I exclaim „Sau beat.” („Idiot! Or drunk.”)

„Prost și beat (Drunken idiot),” the driver responds.

Upon reaching Suceava, I pick up my bag from the hostel and take the bus from town-centre to Burdujeni (the rail station). My train is scheduled to leave Suceava at 11:11pm and to arrive at Bacău 1:28am. For the next leg of the journey I hope to get on the train to Piatra Neamț at 4:15am. If I succeed in doing that, I should be in Piatra Neamț by 6am. After buying the ticket, I plug in my laptop and, sitting on the marble-grain floor, transfer the day’s pictures and charge my phone before walking down to the platform.

While I wait for the train, Explorish calls. He is probably even more excited that I am about my visit to the remote parts of the country. When I tell him my plan, he warns me that it would be hard to catch a good night’s sleep AND be able to catch the right connection, but I arrogantly boast about all my numerous train journeys in India, and brush off the concern.

Our conversation moves on to more interesting topics. In the meantime, the train arrives and I board it. Explorish is telling me about a funny mix-up with my phone number, the train starts moving, and the connection is lost. At first I think I’ve lost cellphone signal, but as it turns my phone has resorted to its by now extremely annoying habit of rebooting in middle of conversations and losing all battery-life. Can’t do much now, except settling down on a seat by the window.

Click here to check out my pictures from Voroneț of 26 Sept 2008.

One Response to “The Bull Country”

  1. Suceava is actually “tara de sus”. 🙂

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