The twelfth-century Mănăstirea Neamţ (Neamţ monastery) is the oldest in Moldavia and is the region’s chief centre of Orthodox culture; it is also the largest men’s monastery in Romania, with seventy monks and dozens of seminary students. It was founded as a hermitage, expanded into a monastery in the late fourteenth century by Petru I Muşat, and then rebuilt in the early fifteenth century by Alexander the Good, with fortifications that protected Neamţ from the Turks. It also had a printing house that spread its influence throughout Moldavia. The new church, founded by Stephen the Great in 1497 to celebrate a victory over the Poles, became a prototype for Moldavian churches throughout the next century, and its school of miniaturists and illuminators led the field.
Outwardly, Neamţ resembles a fortress, with high stone walls and its one remaining octagonal corner tower (there used to be four). On the inside of the gate tower, a painted Eye of the Saviour sternly regards the monks’ cells with their verandas wreathed in red and green ivy, and the seminary students in black tunics milling around the garden. The sweeping roof of Stephen’s church overhangs blind arches inset with glazed bricks, on a long and otherwise bare facade. Its trefoil windows barely illuminate the interior, where pilgrims kneel amid the smell of mothballs and candlewax. At the back of the compound is a smaller church dating from 1826, containing frescoes of the Nativity and the Resurrection. Outside the monastery stands a large, onion-domed pavilion for Aghiastmatar, the “blessing of the water”, to be taken home in bottles to cure illness.