Humor Monastery to the Merry Cemetery

Tuesday 31st May 2011, Fundu Moldovei, Moldavia
Today we have visited two more of the painted monasteries in the region. They are on the Unesco World Heritage list and are being visited by tourists in increasing numbers.

This morning we visited the monastery of Voroneţ. All the monasteries were built around the same time during the mid-16th century and there is a marked similarity in the way they are painted. Unlike Italian frescoes the paint is only a thin surface layer but where it has been protected by the eaves of the overhanging roof, the images have been very well preserved. Lower down the effects of the weather have taken their toll and over the centuries visitors have found it interesting to carve their names into the plaster! At Voroneţ the most impressive section was the west external wall depicting the last judgement. This was quite fascinating, vibrant with activity. Along the top were the signs of the zodiac. Below, saints were being raised up to Heaven where Christ sat in majesty while lost souls were weighed in the balance before being pushed down a shaft into Hell where the Devil sat waiting expectantly. It was curious to note that the good waiting in limbo wore gold halos while those heading downwards had turbans, reflecting the fear at that time of Turkish invasion. This later happened and the monastery was left abandoned in ruins.

Monastery of Voronets. Entrance tower

Monastery of Voronets. South wall

Monastery of Voronets. South wall, entrance

Monastery of Voronets. West wall, last judgment

Monastery of Voronets. West wall, detail of the last judgment

Monastery of Voronets. North wall

Monastery of Voronets. North wall

Monastery of Voronets. East end

Monastery of Voronets. South wall, St. Nicholas

Inside, the murals are in far better repair with saints and martyrs undergoing horrible forms of torture and death. I didn't enjoy looking at them at all - except for one of Elijah with his chariot of fire. This looked exactly like all the carts I've been carefully driving around on the Romanian roads! Half a millennium later and it looks completely contemporary.

Next we stopped at the logging town of Gura Humorului for lunch and to top up on money. We discovered a friendly self-service restaurant where we selected odd combinations in order to try as many different things as possible. We ended up with cabbage leaves stuffed with peppery mince, chicken fillet, vegetable rice, roast potatoes, pork casserole with peppers and a bowl of freshly shredded cabbage in vinegar. The only choice of drink was cola or home-made lemonade. Later Ian had a synthetic chocolate cake that was well up to his usual standard of horridness with an equally horrid milky coffee. The meal was not as enormous as it may sound but very nice and cost about £5 for both of us.

Meanwhile we has a little girl begging at our table and a deaf mute placing religious pictures and packets of sticking plaster in front of us as we ate with a message in Romanian presumably asking us to buy the items and give him some money for them. We remember from last time that there seem to be an awful lot of such people here. We ignored both beggars until they eventually gave up and went away but we were humbled to see that other Romanian diners were actually giving them money! We've been told that begging here is regarded as a profession, like any other, and people expect to be paid for doing it! I cannot quite get my head round that.

Typical intricate metal work used for roofing, Gura Humorului

Horse and cart taking the pig to market, Bucovinia

A few kilometres up a pleasant valley we found the final painted monastery on our itinerary, Humor monastery. There are others but rather inaccessible and I eventually persuaded Ian he didn't actually need to totally complete his I-Spy Romanian painted monasteries book. Three would suffice.

Local crafts for sale outside the monastery, Gate and tower, Humor monastery

Entrance gate, Humor monastery

Humor was quieter than the others had been and the paintings more weathered. As elsewhere there was a final judgement scene, a tree of Jesse and a parade of weathered saints - all with halos but not necessarily with heads. An enormous number of saintly corpses littered the walls with an equal number of what looked like gold dinner plates with heads on scattered nearby. Evil Turks and other infidel stood wielding bloody swords. The message was supposed to imply that saintly martyrdom was something to aspire to but personally I'd prefer to keep my head and be a heathen. Humor monastery seemed something of a misnomer!

South wall and east end, Humor monastery

Returning back along the valley to our campsite we stopped off for shopping and to explore the town of Câmpulung Moldovenesc. It too is a logging town. Trees are felled in the forests on the steep, inaccessible hillsides and horses are then used to pull the trunks out from between the trees - far more sensible and useful than the mechanical equipment we'd use in Britain. The trunks are loaded onto wooden carts and horses then pull them down into the town. There were several carts loaded with heavy trunks being pulled by a team of two horses with red tassels over their ears passing through the busy town centre amidst the cars, lorries and everyday bustle.

In the town we discovered the museum of wood. It was a disappointment in that we'd expected it to explain something of village architecture, but otherwise it was fascinating to realise the range of things wood has traditionally been used for. Products included beehives, butter churns, ploughs, hayforks, saddles, baskets, fishing traps, tools, musical instruments, mugs, plates and a large collection of spoons and ladles, some quite enormous! There were sledges, beds, furniture and doors. Many items were intricately carved and decorated. There were even carved sculptures of individuals and bags made from birch bark.

Decorative wooden tiles used on house walls, Museum of Wood, Câmpulung Moldovenesc

Wooden spoons, Museum of Wood, Câmpulung Moldovenesc

Loom, Museum of Wood, Câmpulung Moldovenesc

Curiously, we discovered in the museum what appeared to be a library of thousands of books in French. Closer investigation showed them to have been withdrawn from public libraries across France and given to the Romanian people as a gift through the French/Romanian cultural exchange. We asked staff if any of them spoke French, English or German but none did. So we could not have our curiosity satisfied as to why there were so many thousands of French novels lining the walls of the museum in a small logging town in the wilds of Moldavia where nobody seemed able to read them!

Wednesday 1st June 2011, Sapanta, Maramureş
It has been another exhausting day of driving along roads that beggar belief even after our earlier experiences. An Austrian couple told us of this present campsite which they assured us would be suitable for a night. They of course had a camping car with on board toilet and shower. We arrived here to discover the sanitary block was being decorated. The Romanian owners told us it would be ready with hot water in 30 minutes. An hour later, after hosing around and running across the yard with shovels full of hot embers they'd got a fire going and they triumphantly announced we could have showers. Bless them, the water in the tank was hot but there was no mains water to cool it or to flush the toilet, or indeed to wash up or get drinking water! So we are reduced to using the last of our purchased bottled water for washing dishes and we cannot flush the loo. There are three campervans here – Dutch, German and us. There are only two electricity sockets. Lateral thinking does not exist in Romania so the three of us got together and linked our supplies using our own gang sockets. So far we all have electricity. I had to ask the owner to chain up his Alsatian which was slobbering with eager anticipation on our doormat as I cooked our supper. It is now in a nearby shed howling with misery and two cats have taken its place on the doormat! Okay, moans over. On with the day.

We are now literally right on the border with the Ukraine with signs up warning us not to take photographs and there are border police in evidence at the crossing point in the nearby town. We itch to cross over but Modestine is not insured. British insurers are so rigid as to where we can travel. Vehicles insured in mainland Europe can travel so much more freely than the British.

Today we wanted to explore the wooden churches right up in the far north of Romania. To get here our route took us over the Prislop pass at 1416 metres high. This was a real Alpine landscape of steeply wooded hills, decorated chalets, mountain pastures and cattle. The hills were still holding large pockets of snow on their shaded sides though the sun was really hot.

We passed through little villages along the floor of the Bistritsa valley. Many were built from wood, most were artistically decorated. There was much building work going on and the properties were large and well maintained. We cannot help but wonder how the owners afford to live there. Everyone we passed seemed to be a peasant, either riding a bike, driving a cart, working in the potato fields or scything grass. Women in skirts, headscarves and socks or rubber boots carried rakes or mattocks over their shoulders as they returned from the fields where they had been turning the hay. They could never afford such charming homes. So who owns them and how do they make a living? Really, this is another world here and one we find impossible to relate to. We've even seen bullock carts along the way and chickens scratch along every village verge.

Traditional house, Bistritsa Valley

Traditional house, Bistritsa Valley

Wooden church, Bistritsa Valley

We drove 54 kilometres (about 30 miles) to the top of the pass. It took us two hours of gruelling weaving around potholes, fallen rocks and mudslides. The area is used by logging lorries. They have 12 wheels and haul huge logs up and over the pass. They are probably the chief cause of the road degradation, churning up mud and breaking the tarmac. No attempt has been made to repair the potholes and there are many thousands of them. I'd not drive that route again for any money. Furthermore it's marked as a major trunk road between Câmpulung Moldovenesc and Baia Mare. (Perhaps they mean tree trunk?) Along the way our route was littered with fallen timber and smaller logs that had not been properly secured to the lorries.

Logging truck with insecure load, Prislop Pass

At the top of the pass an extravagantly decorated new church and bell tower was under construction. Why, when there are dozens standing empty in the villages because they've replaced their lovely old wooden ones with horrid modern ones? What they need are decent roads not more churches.

Church under construction, Prislop Pass

Up here we had snow, alpine pasture and pretty views. Just as we finished lunch the rain swept in, bringing with it sheet lightning and thunder. It accompanied us all the way down the far side of the pass and continued for most of the afternoon.

We now entered the Maramureş region where the village houses are predominantly built from wood. Many were old and abandoned but most were still used, with vegetable gardens and ornately decorated wooden entrance gates. Even in the heavy rain the streets were busy with villagers returning from the field carrying their rakes, hoes and scythes over their shoulders. In one village we found hailstones piled up in the grass verge and chickens scratching in the overgrown graveyard of the disused old wooden church.

Returning from the fields

There were several wooden churches of particular merit we wished to see. The first, at Bogdan Voda was built in 1718 and impressed us the most because it was the only one we found open, and that by chance as the priest was there and he lent us a powerful torch to see the decorated interior as there was no electricity. The paintings are directly onto the wooden walls and rounded ceiling. They are naive, rustic even, but full of charm, frequently the surrounds of the tableaux decorated with flower motifs or birds.

Wooden church, Bogdan Voda

Interior of the wooden church at Bogdan Voda

Wooden church at Bogdan Voda

From the outside the most impressive feature of all the churches is the sweeping lines of the tall roofs and spires, covered in small wooden tiles. They rather reminded us of the wooden stave churches we'd seen in Norway.

Later we visited the church at Ieud, on the Unesco world heritage list. Originally built in 1364 it was largely rebuilt in the 18th century. Unfortunately it was kept locked so we only saw it in its setting, surrounded by the wooden headstones of the rural cemetery. Often, the wooden villages we passed through to find the churches were of as much interest as the churches themselves. At Ieud we passed a rotund village lady (they nearly all are) wearing the traditional headscarf and socks with a distaff of flax which she was spinning into thread at her garden gate, while a couple of similarly dressed women sat on a wall in the main street spinning wool as they chatted together. We feel it is too intrusive to take photos as we drive past – it is after all, their way of life and they are not museum exhibits.

Wooden church, Ieud

The wooden monastery buildings at Barsana are so perfectly laid out in such pretty gardens that it does not seem real. There were several coach parties being shown around. We were mildly disappointed at the almost Disney-like atmosphere, though the church with its spire is supposed to be one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world and certainly everything was very beautiful.

Barsana Monastery, established 1993

Barsana Monastery, established 1993

Hay wain, Barsana

Thursday 2nd June 2011, Hajduszoboszlo, Hungary
This morning we left our very basic Romanian campsite in Sapanta. Down in the village we stopped to visit the Merry Cemetery. Unlike the Humor monastery, which was not at all funny, the Merry cemetery was a delight and definitely very jolly indeed!

Over a period of forty years Stan Ioan Pâtraş, a local woodcarver in the village dedicated his life to creating carved wooden headboards in the cemetery for villagers depicting scenes from their lives and sometimes illustrating their death if it were unusual. Thus at least two headboards depicted people being run over by trains while another showed somebody killed while working with the army. Most though depicted the lives of the individuals. Mothers were shown surrounded by their children as they cooked in the family kitchen. A barman was depicted surrounded by his bottles and a tailor shown cutting out a jacket. People gathered in the harvest, sheared sheep, guarded cattle, spun wool, chopped wood or sharpened their scythes. There was a school teacher, a nurse, a vet, a car mechanic and a tractor driver. Every village activity was illustrated on the 800+ painted headboards lined up in the cemetery surrounding the church. They were quite charming, beautifully carved and painted in bright colours on a blue ground. Each board also had a witty poem in the Romanian language carved below the picture. Although they were made to honour the dead, they also managed to make death seen a very natural progression through life and not something necessarily to mourn. Nowadays the cemetery is very much on the tourist trail and coaches were disgorging tourists every few minutes. They didn't stay long though, nor did they explore some of the hidden corners of the graveyard where we came across several surprises. One included a Romanian shepherd shot by a wicked Hungarian who then cut off his head.

Entrance cross, monument to Pâtraş and headboard from the Merry cemetery, Sapanta

Headboards from the Merry cemetery, Sapanta

Headboards from the Merry cemetery, Sapanta

Headboards from the Merry cemetery, Sapanta

Headboards from the Merry cemetery, Sapanta

Headboards from the Merry cemetery, Sapanta

Headboards from the Merry cemetery, Sapanta

Headboards from the Merry cemetery, Sapanta

Headboards from the Merry cemetery, Sapanta

Headboards from the Merry cemetery, Sapanta

Headboards from the Merry cemetery, Sapanta

From inside the church came the sound of a religious service with villagers chanting and singing hymns. Eventually a procession came out from the church carrying banners and proceeded to walk through the village. It was followed by the village women in flowery skirts and matching headscarves, and then by older ladies dressed entirely in black, with smart stockings and shoes rather than the usual socks and rubber boots.

Church procession, Sapanta

Villagers in the church procession, Sapanta

Villagers in the church procession, Sapanta

Somebody jumped onto the scaffolding beside the church from which three large bells were suspended. He soon had them ringing out, sending out a peel to encourage villagers to join in the procession. We peeped inside the church once the procession had moved off and were taken aback to find a couple of dozen women dressed in deepest black kneeling facing the walls deep in prayer. Such religious activities are obviously a fundamental part of their lives.

Ringing the church bells, Sapanta

Just beside the entrance to the church is the grave of the woodcarver who died in 1977. His headboard was carved and painted by his apprentice who continues his work today. Nearby we found his family home, now a monument to him, and a museum of woodcarving.

Home of the former cemetery woodcarver, Sapanta

In the village bar we bought cold drinks and what can best be described as freshly made hot doughnuts without sugar and filled not with jam but with hot curd cheese. They were very nice and sustained us for the rest of the day.

Then we were back to coping with the dreadful Romanian roads as we made our way westwards eventually passing through Satu Mare after which the roads gradually improved. Some of the villages we passed through had huge, elaborate houses in various stages of construction, completely out of keeping with the ordinary peasant people we passed beside the road. This evening we have been talking with a young Romanian lorry driver on holiday here in Hungary and he explained the properties were being built by wealthy Romanians working abroad and, like the gypsy palaces, construction work continues spasmodically whenever they could afford to add to it. He told us that the buildings are never finished as, once they are, the taxes owed to the government are exorbitant. He also explained that there is no middle class in Romania, just very wealthy and very, very poor. He even said people are regretting the demise of Ceauşescu because in his day at least factories were working and goods being produced. Now the country has nothing to sell and wages are being cut. He had a very pessimistic view of Romania and the present financial crisis it faces. His friend explained that he has been a policeman for seven years and is still on exactly the same salary he received when he started. He told us police salaries are now being cut by up to 41%. A discontented policemen is not an honest one and he told us the only way for traffic police to increase their salary is to stop drivers and threaten to fine them for very minor offences unless they hand over a bribe! They seemed really nice young men, very politically aware with excellent English but they were in despair about Romania which they say is politically corrupt. They dream of moving to Essex and setting up a fish and chip shop! In their book the Queen is a wonderful person representing everything that is stable and balanced about Britain. They recently went to England where they bought a second hand car for £2,200. When they returned to Romania the government here charged them a further 2,000 euros to register it! Taxes, they claim, are what is wrong with Romania. If they pay them the people will starve so they are becoming very clever at avoiding them. They also told us that their health service is rubbish and if a patient cannot pay they are simply left to die, which is what happens to most of the peasants in the rural villages. From my own experience in Bulgaria I can believe it.

Related links:
Stave Churches of Norway