A large swathe of land covering the easternmost portion of Romania, Moldavia used to be twice its present size, having at various times included Bessarabia (the land beyond the River Prut) and Northern Bucovina (on the edge of the Carpathians). Both territories were annexed by Stalin in 1940, severing cultural and family ties, though these have been revived since the fall of communism, especially between Moldavia and the former Bessarabia (now the sovereign Republic of Moldova).

Moldavia’s complex history is best understood in relation to the cities of Iaşi and Suceava, the former capitals of the region. The former is one of the country’s most appealing destinations, with numerous churches and monasteries retained from its heyday as the Moldavian capital, and a strong cultural scene. Suceava, meanwhile, is symptomatic of many towns and cities in Moldavia, a typical new-town development marred by hideous concrete apartment blocks and factories, though it does retain some significant historical associations. Suceava also acts as the main base for the jewels in the Moldavian crown, the painted monasteries ofsouthern Bucovina, secluded in lush valleys near the Ukrainian border. Their medieval frescoes of redemption and damnation blaze in polychromatic splendour – Voroneţ and Suceviţa boast peerless examples of the Last Judgement and the Ladder of Virtue, while Moldoviţa is famous for its fresco of the Siege of Constantinople. The unpainted Putna monastery, final resting place of Stephen the Great, draws visitors interested in Romanian history.

Elsewhere, the countryside looks fantastic, with picturesque villages dwarfed by the flanks of the Carpathians. Just over halfway to Suceava, Neamţ county’s principal towns are Piatra Neamţ and Târgu Neamţ which, though nothing special, serve as bases for Moldavia’s historic convents – Neamţ, Agapia and Văratec – the eclectic Neculai Popa Museum in Tărpeşti, and the weirdly shaped Ceahlău massif, whose magnificent views and bizarrely weathered outcrops make this one of Romania’s most dramatic hiking spots. Backwaters such as Ghimeş in the Magyar-speaking Csángó region are worth investigating if you’re interested in rural life, and there are also numerous local festivals.

Ceahlău National Park

The Ceahlău massif, now protected as the Ceahlău National Park, is aptly designated on local maps as a zona abrupt, rising above neighbouring ranges in eroded crags whose fantastic shapes were anthropomorphized in folk tales and inspired Eminescu’s poem, The Ghosts. The Dacians believed that Ceahlău was the abode of their supreme deity, Zamolxis, and that the gods transformed the daughter of Decebal into the Dochia peak. The massif is composed of Cretaceous sediments – especially conglomerates, which form pillar-like outcrops – and covered with stratified belts of beech, fir and spruce, with dwarf pine and juniper above 1700m. Its wildlife includes chamois, lynx, capercaillie, bears and boars, and the majestic Carpathian stag. Ceahlău’s isolation is emphasized by the huge, artificial Lake Bicaz (Lacul Izvoru Muntelei) that half-encircles its foothills. A hydroelectric dam, built in 1950, rises at the lake’s southern end, 3km beyond the small, systematized town of BICAZ, which has a small Muzeul de Istorie Bicaz (History Museum), just north of the centre at Str. Barajului 3, with a display on the building of the dam and a small art exhibit.

Iaşi

IAŞI (pronounced “yash”), in the northeast of Moldavia, is the region’s cultural capital and by far its most attractive city, the only one where you’re likely to want to stay a while. Its university, theatre and resident orchestra rival those of Bucharest – which was merely a crude market town when Iaşi became a princely seat – and give it an air of sophistication enhanced by a large contingent of foreign students. Cementing its place in the nation’s heart, Romanians associate Iaşi with the poet Eminescu, and Moldavians also esteem it as the burial place of St Paraschiva.

The majority of Iaşi’s sights are strung along a north–south axis through the city, with the anonymous main square, Piaţa Unirii, joining the two halves. To the north of the square, beyond the excellent Museum of the Union, lie the university district of Copou, home to the enlightening University Museum as well as parks and gardens, and the residential district of Ţicău, location for a couple of memorial houses. South of the square, Iaşi’s traditional interplay of civil and religious authority is symbolized by a parade of edifices along Bulevardul Ştefan cel Mare şi Sfânt, where florid public buildings face grandiose churches, not least the magnificent Church of the Three Hierarchs. This in turn leads down to the huge Palace of Culture, housing several museums, though these are currently closed as part of a long-term restoration programme. Beyond here is the Nicolina quarter, where you’ll find a trio of fabulous hilltop monasteries.

Brief history

Iaşi’s ascendancy dates from the sixteenth century, when the Moldavian princes (hospodars) gave up the practice of maintaining courts in several towns, and settled permanently in Iaşi. This coincided with Moldavia’s gradual decline into a Turkish satellite, ruled by despots who endowed Iaşi with churches and monasteries to trumpet their earthly glory and ensure their eternal salvation. Basil the Wolf (Vasile Lupu, 1634–53) promulgated a penal code whereby rapists were raped and arsonists burned alive; he also founded a printing press and school, which led to the flowering of Moldavian literature during the brief reign, from 1710–11, of the enlightened Dimitrie Cantemir.

After Cantemir’s death, Moldavia fell under the control of Greek Phanariots, originally from the Phanar district of Constantinople (Fener in modern Istanbul), who administered the region on behalf of the Ottoman Empire, chose and deposed the nominally ruling princes (of whom there were 36 between 1711 and 1821), and eventually usurped the throne for themselves. The boyars adopted Turkish dress and competed to win the favour of the Phanariots, the sole group that advised the sultan whom among the boyars he should promote.

As Ottoman power weakened, this dismal saga was interrupted by the surprise election of Prince Alexandru Ioan Cuza, who clinched the unification of Moldavia and Wallachia in 1859 with the diplomatic support of France. In the new Romania, Cuza founded universities at Iaşi and Bucharest, introduced compulsory schooling for both sexes, and secularized monastic property, which at the time accounted for one-fifth of Moldavia. Finally, his emancipation of the serfs so enraged landowners and military circles that in 1866 they overthrew Cuza and restored the status quo ante – but kept the union.

The latter half of the nineteenth century was a fertile time for intellectual life in Iaşi, where the Junimea literary circle attracted such talents as the poet Mihai Eminescu and the writer Ion Creangă, who, like the historian Nicolae Iorga, became national figures. This was also the heyday of Jewish culture in Iaşi (or Jassy, as it was called in Yiddish), and in 1876 local impresario Avrom Goldfadn staged the world’s first Yiddish theatre performance at the Pumul Verde (“Green Tree”) wine garden, facing the present National Theatre. The Junimea brand of nationalism was more romantic than chauvinist, but unwittingly paved the way for a deadlier version in the Greater Romania that was created to reward the Old Kingdom (Regat) for its sacrifices in World War I, when most of the country was occupied by the Germans, and the government was evacuated to Iaşi. With its borders enlarged to include Bessarabia and Bucovina, Moldavia inherited large minorities of Jews, Ukrainians and Gypsies, aggravating ethnic and class tensions in a region devastated by war.

During the 1920s, Iaşi became notorious for anti-Semitism, spearheaded by a professor whose League of Christian National Defence virtually closed the university to Jews, then over a third of the population, and later spawned the Iron Guard. Their chief scapegoat was Magda Lupescu, Carol II’s locally born Jewish mistress, widely hated for amassing a fortune by shady speculations; in 1940 she fled abroad with Carol in a train stuffed with loot.

Iaşi festivals

Iaşi’s big annual event is the St Paraschiva festival week (Sarbatorile Iaşului) starting on October 14, when people from all over Moldavia flood into town to pay homage to the saint buried in the Metropolitan Church. The Festival of the Three Hierarchs is celebrated on January 30, when literally a million pilgrims come to worship in the presence of the church’s relics. Musically and gastronomically, the city’s key event is the three-day Bulz & Blues Festival in May, featuring a great line-up of concerts and street food. Another fun event is Cucuteni 5000, a mammoth ceramics fair on the last weekend of June, when potters from all over the country come to display their wares.

Piatra Neamţ

Hemmed in by the Carpathian foothills, PIATRA NEAMŢ is one of Romania’s oldest settlements, once inhabited by a string of Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures, as well as the Dacians, whose citadel has been excavated on a nearby hilltop. The town was first recorded in Roman times as Petrodava, and in 1453 under the name of Piatra lui Craciun (Christmas Rock); its present title may refer to the German (“Neamţ”) merchants who once traded here, or may derive from the old Romanian word for an extended family or nation (“Neam”). As the county seat, the town is a lively place, and retains a surprisingly large number of important historical and religious sites, notably up on newly restored Piaţa Libertăţii (effectively the remains of the old town), which retains a fantastic ensemble of medieval-inspired architecture.

My heart belongs to Dada

The magazine Simbolul (“The Symbol”) was founded in 1912 by three Jewish schoolboys in Bucharest: Ion Vinea, Marcel Iancu and Samuel Rosenstock. All three were to play leading roles in the development of avant-garde art, but it was Rosenstock, calling himself Tristan Tzara (1896–1963), who was to achieve greatest fame. A poet and playwright, he was a central figure in the absurdist Dada movement, founded at Zürich’s Cabaret Voltaire in 1916; he moved to Paris in 1920 but broke with Dadaism in 1923 when its French leaders, such as André Breton and Louis Aragon, turned to Surrealism. Iancu, better known as Marcel Janco (1895–1984), also went to Zürich, returning in 1922 to Bucharest and, with Ion Vinea (1895–1964), founding the magazine Contimperanul (“The Contemporary”) which ran until 1932. Its manifesto (similar to that of the Dutch group De Stijl) was more Constructivist than Dadaist. Janco also became the leading architect of Cubist and International Style buildings in Bucharest; after World War II he emigrated to Israel, dying there in 1984.

A younger artist, and perhaps the most important, was Victor Brauner (1903–66) who was born in Piatra Neamţ and studied briefly at the Bucharest School of Fine Arts; he was involved with the Constructivists before leaving for Paris in 1930. André Breton saw him as “the quintessential magic artist”; a painter of premonitions, as well as a sculptor and print-maker, he was obsessed by blindness, painting figures without eyes, even in a self-portrait. Ironically, at a Surrealist party in 1938 a glass was thrown and smashed, putting out his left eye. He spent World War II in the French Alps, returning to Paris in 1945 and breaking from the Surrealists in 1948.

Prince Dragoş and the Aurochs

Throughout Moldavia, churches display the emblem of the medieval principality, often over the main gateway: an aurochs’ head and a sun, moon and star. This symbolizes the legend of Prince Dragoş, who is said to have hunted a giant aurochs (the zimbru or European bison) all the way across the mountains from Poland, until he cornered it by a river and slew the beast after a fight lasting from dawn to dusk – hence the inclusion of the Sun, Moon and Morning Star in the emblem. Dragoş’s favourite hunting dog, Molda, was killed in the fight, and the prince named the River Moldova in her honour, adopting the aurochs, the mightiest animal in the Carpathians, as his totem. The last wild aurochs in Romania was killed in 1852 near Borşa, although captive-breeding populations survive, notably at Vânători Neamţ, just west of Târgu Neamţ.

Southern Bucovina

The painted monasteries of Southern Bucovina, in the northwest corner of Moldavia, are rightfully acclaimed as masterpieces of art and architecture, steeped in history and perfectly in harmony with their surroundings. Founded in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they were citadels of orthodoxy in an era overshadowed by the threat of infidel invaders. Grigore Roşca, Metropolitan of Moldavia in the mid-fifteenth century, is credited with the idea of covering the churches’ outer walls with paintings of biblical events and apocrypha for the benefit of the illiterate faithful. These frescoes, billboards from the late medieval world, are essentially Byzantine, but infused with the vitality of the local folk art and mythology. Though little is known about the artists, their skills were such that the paintings are still fresh after 450 years of exposure. Remarkably, the layer of colour is only 0.25mm thick, in contrast to Italian frescoes, where the paint is absorbed deep into the plaster.

Perhaps the best of these are to be found at Voroneţ, whose Last Judgement surpasses any of the other examples of this subject, and Suceviţa, with its unique Ladder of Virtue and splendid Tree of Jesse. Moldoviţa has a better all-round collection, though, and Humor has the most tranquil atmosphere of them all. Nearby Putna monastery, though lacking the visual impact of the painted monasteries, is worth a visit for its rich historical associations.

The monasteries are scattered across a region divided by rolling hills – the obcine or “crests” which branch off the Carpathians – and by the legacy of history. Although settlers from Maramureş arrived here in the mid-fourteenth century, the area remained barely populated for two centuries until Huţul shepherds moved south from the Ukrainian mountains. They lived in scattered houses in the hills, and the region was a sort of free republic until the Habsburgs annexed northern Moldavia in 1774, calling it Bucovina, a Romanianized version of their description of this beech-covered land (Büchenwald). Soon the place was organized and the Huţuls moved into villages such as Argel, Raşca, Moldoviţa and Ciocâneşti, where they could better be taxed and drafted into the army. Bucovina remained under Habsburg rule until the end of World War I, when it was returned to Romania, only to be split in half in 1940 – the northern half being occupied by the Soviet Union and incorporated into Ukraine, where it remains today. Thus, Romanians speak of Southern Bucovina to describe what is actually the far north of Moldavia – implying that Bucovina might be reunited one day. Names aside, the scenery is wonderful, with misty valleys and rivers spilling down from rocky shoulders heaving up beneath a cloak of beech and fir. The woods are at their loveliest in May and autumn.

Mănăstirea Suceviţa

Mănăstirea Suceviţa (Suceviţa monastery) – the last and grandest of the monastic complexes to be built in Bucovina – is a monument to Ieremia Movilă, Prince of Moldavia, his brother and successor Simion, and his widow, Elisabeta, who poisoned Simion so that her own sons might inherit the throne. The family first founded the village church in 1581, followed by the monastery church in 1584, and its walls, towers and belfry in stages thereafter. The fortified church’s massive, whitewashed walls and steep grey roofs radiate an air of grandeur; its frescoes – painted in 1596 by two brothers – offset brilliant reds and blues with an undercoat of emerald green.

The church

Entering the monastery through the formidable gate tower, you’re confronted by a glorious Ladder of Virtue covering the northern wall, which has been largely protected from erosion by the building’s colossal eaves. Flights of angels assist the righteous to paradise, while sinners fall through the rungs into the arms of a grinning demon. The message is reiterated in the Last Judgement inside the unusual fully closed porch – reputedly left unfinished because the artist fell to his death from the scaffolding – where angels sound the last trumpet and smite heathens with swords, Turks and Jews can be seen lamenting, and the Devil gloats in the bottom right-hand corner. Outside the south porch, you’ll see the two-headed Beast of the Apocalypse, and angels pouring rivers of fire and treading the grapes of wrath. The iron ox-collar hanging by the north doorway is a toaca, beaten to summon the nuns to prayer.

The Tree of Jesse on the south wall symbolizes the continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament, being a literal depiction of the prophecy in Isaiah that the Messiah will spring “from the stem of Jesse”. This lush composition on a dark blue background amounts to a biblical Who’s Who, with an ancestral tree of prophets culminating in the Holy Family. The Veil represents Mary as a Byzantine empress, beneath a red veil held by angels, while the Hymn to the Virgin is illustrated with Italianate buildings and people in oriental dress. Along the bottom is a frieze of ancient philosophers clad in Byzantine cloaks – Plato bears a coffin and a pile of bones on his head, in tribute to his meditations on life and death. The paintings on the rounded east wall are no less impressive, depicting the Prayer of All Saints; cast over seven levels is a procession of angels, preachers and apostles, alongside – on the third level just above the window – the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus, and, above her, Jesus depicted as the Great Bishop and Judge.

Inside the narthex, the lives of the saints end in burning, boiling, spit-roasting, dismemberment or decapitation – a gory catalogue relieved somewhat by paintings of rams, suns and other zodiacal symbols. Ieremia and Simion are buried in the small tomb chamber (camera mormintelor) between narthex and naos, in marble tombs carved with floral motifs. The frescoes in the tomb chamber are blackened by candle smoke, but those in the nave have mostly been restored and you can clearly see a votive picture of Elisabeta and her children on the wall to the right. Ironically, her ambitions for them came to naught as she died in a Sultan’s harem – “by God’s will”, a chronicler noted sanctimoniously.

Suceava

Crossing the industrial sprawl between the stations and the city centre, it’s difficult to imagine SUCEAVA, 150km northwest of Iaşi, as an old princely capital. The city’s heyday more or less coincided with the reign of Stephen the Great (1457–1504), who warred ceaselessly against Moldavia’s invaders – principally the Turks – and won all but two of the 36 battles he fought. This record prompted Pope Sixtus IV to dub him the “Athlete of Christ” – a rare accolade for a non-Catholic, which wasn’t extended to Stephen’s cousin Vlad the Impaler, even though he massacred 45,000 Turks during one year alone.

While Stephen’s successors, Bogdan the One-Eyed and Petru Rareş, maintained the tradition of building a new church or monastery after every victory, they proved less successful against the Turks and Tatars, who ravaged Suceava several times. Eclipsed when Iaşi became the Moldavian capital in 1565, Suceava missed its last chance of glory in 1600, when Michael the Brave (Mihai Viteazul) completed his campaign to unite Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania by marching unopposed into Suceava’s Princely Citadel. In terms of national pride, Suceava’s nadir was the long period from 1775 to 1918, when the Habsburgs ruled northern Moldavia from Czernowitz (Cernăuţi), although Suceava was able to prosper as a trading centre between the highland and lowland areas. Under communism, this role was deemed backward and remedied by hasty industrialization – the consequences of which long blighted the town.

Save for the lovely ethnographic museum and a clutch of churches, there are few real sights in town itself; instead, Suceava’s principal attractions are a good twenty minutes’ walk from the centre, namely the superb Village Museum to the east, and the Zamca monastery to the west. For visitors though, Suceava is primarily a base for excursions to the painted monasteries.

Festivals in Ilişeşti

Many villages in northern Moldavia, including Ilişeşti, 15km along the main road west from Suceava, still hold winter festivities that mingle pagan and Christian rites. Preparations for Christmas begin in earnest on St Nicholas’s Day (December 6), when people butcher pigs for the feast beside the roads – not a sight for the squeamish. Women get to work baking pies and the special turte pastries, which symbolize Christ’s swaddling clothes, while the men rehearse songs and dances. On Christmas Eve (Ajun), boys go from house to house, singing carols that combine felicitations with risqué innuendo, accompanied by an instrument that mimics the bellowing of a bull. After days of feasting and dancing, the climax comes on the day of New Year’s Eve, when a dancer, garbed in black and red, dons a goat’s-head mask with wooden jaws, which he clacks to the music of drums and flutes, and whips another dancer, dressed as a bear, through the streets. It’s a rather bizarre twist on the new year driving out the old, apparently. Ilişeşti also hosts the From the Rarău Mountain Folklore Festival (De sub montele Rarău), on the second Sunday of July. Ensembles from three counties – Bacău, Neamţ and Maramureş – participate, and it’s a chance to experience a round dance (horă), shepherds’ dances, fiddles, flutes and alpine horns, plus a panoply of costumes. Ilişeşti is easily reached from Suceava by buses and maxitaxis towards Gura Humorului.

Suceava festivals

Suceava’s principal annual event is the Stephen the Great Medieval Festival, in mid-August, a three-day jamboree of theatre, music, dance and, naturally enough, medieval games, all held within the suitably appropriate surrounds of Suceava Fortress; just a week or two later, in the same venue, is the Bucovina Rock Castle Festival, a three-day gathering of mostly Romanian, and occasionally international, bands.

Târgu Neamţ

TÂRGU NEAMŢ, with its systematized concrete centre, is far smaller and duller than Piatra, and therefore a less attractive stopover. However, it does possess Moldavia’s finest ruined castle, Cetatea Neamțului, as well as a couple of worthy memorial houses.

Mănăstirea Agapia

An easy, and very lovely, 7km walk from Văratec, Mănăstirea Agapia (Agapia monastery) actually consists of two convents a few kilometres apart; most visitors are content to visit only the main complex of Agapia din Vale (“Agapia in the valley”), at the end of a village with houses with covered steps. The walls and gate tower aim to conceal rather than to protect; inside is a whitewashed enclosure around a cheerful garden. At prayer times a nun beats an insistent rhythm on a wooden toaca while another plays the panpipes; this is followed by a medley of bells, some deep and slow, others high and fast. The convent church – much smaller than the one at Văratec – was built in 1644–47 by Prince Basil the Wolf’s brother, Gavril Coci. Its helmet-shaped cupola, covered in green shingles, mimics that of the gate tower. After restoration, the interior was repainted between 1858 and 1861 by Nicolae Grigorescu, the country’s foremost painter at the time; he returned to stay at Agapia from 1901 to 1902.

Grigorescu’s close attachment to the convent can also be seen in the museum, which stars an entire room of the painter’s Renaissance-style work – the most celebrated of which is a large canvas entitled The Laying of Christ’s Body in the Tomb – as well as portraits of the Vlahuţă family. Icons, vestments and embroidery from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries complete a sizeable collection. An enticing variety of breads, jams and syrups, all harvested by the nuns, is available from the kiosk outside the convent entrance.

Mănăstirea Neamţ

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.

Mănăstirea Văratec

Hedgerows, alive with sparrows and wagtails, line the narrow road winding through Văratec to the pretty nuns’ village and Mănăstirea Văratec (Văratec monastery), its whitewashed walls and balconies enclosing a lovely garden shaded by cedars. The novices inhabit two-storey buildings named after saints, while the older nuns live in cottages. Văratec was founded in the eighteenth century, around a church that no longer exists; the site of its altar is marked by a pond with a statue of an angel. The present church, built in 1808, is plain and simple, culminating in two bell-shaped domes. To cope with the harsh winters, the nuns have sensibly installed stoves by the columns dividing the narthex from the nave, so that both chambers are heated. The gilt pulpit and the gallery over the entrance to the narthex are unusual, but the interior painting is not great. There’s a museum of icons to the south, and an embroidery school established by Queen Marie in 1934. It’s an odd but not unfitting site for the grave of Veronica Micle, the poet loved by Eminescu, who couldn’t afford to marry her after the death of her despised husband; she killed herself two months after Eminescu’s death.

Walks from Văratec

In fine weather, it’s an agreeable walk through the woods from Văratec monastery to Agapia; the 7km trail takes about an hour and a half, starting by house no. 219, back down the road from Văratec Convent. It’s also possible to walk along the road connecting the two convents (from Văratec, walk about 1km back towards the main road, then turn left; from Agapia take the asphalt road across the bridge at the end of the nunnery village). Picnic tables are provided, but camping is not allowed. Another beech-tree-lined trail from Văratec, marked by blue dots, leads west to Sihla hermitage (2hr), built into the cliffs near the cave of St Teodora, and hidden by strange outcrops. A back road turns off the main road from Târgu Neamţ to the Ceahlău massif, 2km west of the turn-off for Neamţ monastery, and passes the Sihastria and Secu hermitages en route to Sihla – an easy 10km hike. The Sihastria hermitage was founded in 1655 and subsequently built over with a new stone church in 1734; the Secu hermitage dates from 1602 and has Renaissance-style paintings inside as well as the grave of Bishop Varlaam, who in 1634 printed Canzania (“Romania’s teaching book”), the first book written in Romanian.

Muzeul Neculai Popa

About 10km southeast of Târgu Neamţ, the ramshackle village of TĂRPEŞTI is the location for the delightful Muzeul Neculai Popa (Neculai Popa Museum), the family home of the eponymous folk artist (1919–2010).

Set in Popa’s own yard, the museum’s diverse works (all collected by Popa himself) are displayed with care and wit. The main building is devoted to Popa’s folk art collections, including paintings by Romanian artists – starring some delightful Naïve paintings – an unusually good set of icons and old Moldavian handicrafts such as thick leather belts and painted trousseaux. The colourful masks and folk costumes on display in the second building, made by both Popa and his wife, Elena, are occasionally used in children’s pageants recounting legends such as that of Iancu Jianu, an eighteenth-century forest bandit known as the Robin Hood of Wallachia. Popa’s son, Damian, now runs the museum, and is only too happy to show visitors around (his English is excellent); there is also a gallery where folk art and icons are sold. His life-size wooden sculptures in the garden are of various family members, including a wonderful one of Popa himself, with tools in hand.

The Csángó region

The name “Csángó” is thought to derive from the Hungarian for “wanderer”, referring to those Székely who fled here from religious persecution in Transylvania during the fifteenth century, to be joined by others escaping military conscription in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There is evidence that Hungarians have been present in this area for even longer than that, however; the true origin of the Csángó remains a subject of contentious debate. Once, there were some forty Csángó villages in Moldavia, a few as far east as present-day Ukraine, but today their community has contracted into a core of about five thousand people living between Adjud and Bacău, and in Ghimeş at the upper end of the Trotuş (Tatros) valley; this is the largest and most rewarding of the Csángó settlements, and the only one that can be visited with any ease.

Most rural Csángó are fervently religious and fiercely conservative, retaining a distinctive folk costume and dialect; their music is harsher and sadder than that of their Magyar kinsfolk in Transylvania, although their dances are almost indistinguishable from those of their Romanian neighbours. Mutual suspicions and memories of earlier injustices and uprisings made this a sensitive area in communist times. While allowing them to farm and raise sheep outside the collectives, the Party tried to dilute the Csángó and stifle their culture by settling Romanians in new industrial towns like Oneşti. Things are a lot freer now, and the idyllic upper valley of the Csángó region is frequently visited during the summer by tour groups from Budapest, as well as a few independent travellers. The tourist infrastructure in these parts, however, remains fairly poor, so bring what supplies and money you’re going to need with you.

Ghimeş

Nearly all of the residents of GHIMEŞ (Ghimeş-Făget or Gyimesbükk) are Hungarian, though there is a small Gypsy population, which, unusually, is well integrated into village life. This helps to account for the strong musical tradition, most in evidence at the winter fair held annually on January 20–21. Ghimeş’ appeal lies in its tranquil setting, but the town does have a few modest sights. The village itself, divided in two by the Trotuş River, is also an inviting place to take a walk – its houses are neat and colourful, with many boasting intricately carved eaves and flower gardens, and its streets are enlivened by the various farm animals wandering about. Ghimeş’s handful of commercial establishments are all in the centre of town, opposite the vast train station, built in the nineteenth century to handle customs and immigration formalities.

Otherwise, the area’s remoteness makes it ideal for hiking, and a series of little-used trails, including several longer routes into Transylvania, is delineated on the 1:60,000 DIMAP map of the area, sold at the Deáky Panzió pension.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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