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The History Fangirl Podcast

Nov 20, 2017

At this point, there aren’t too many “hidden gems” left in the world for savvy travelers and history geeks alike, but the Painted Churches of Moldavia may just be one of the last. My guest today is Ciprian Slemko, a guide with Hello Bucovina, which provides tours to the historical region that splits between the northern region of Romania, and the southern region of Ukraine. The eight churches that make up the core of the painted churches were all built in the late 15th century through the late 16th century, and provide a time capsule the rich history of the region, from the Middle Ages through communist rule all the way to today. And there’s no better tour for that trip, than Chip.

Stephen the Great’s great achievement

The Romanian king Stephen the Great first came up with the idea of building the gorgeous monasteries in his country in the 15th century. He built some 40 churches, but as Chip told me, he didn’t actually have the exterior paintings done because he was too busy warring with the Ottoman Empire every six months. It was actually his son, the Moldavian prince Petru Rares, who came up with the idea. After traveling to Florence, Italy Petru Rares wanted the churches his father built to have the same artistic grandeur. And it was this combination, the father’s devoutness, and the son’s appreciation for art, that combined to create the most impressive of all of the churches: Voronet.

Voronet: The Sistine Chapel of the East

The crown jewel of the painted monasteries is Voronet, often referred to as the Sistine Chapel of the East. Chip told me that people began calling the monastery that in the 18th century after its reputation traveled around Europe. It’s known for its deep, beautiful blue—actually called Voronet Blue—which was created using azurite and lapis lazuli rocks. An enormous fresco of the Last Judgment adorns the western exterior of the building, but there are paintings all around the church. Chip told me Petru Rares’s wanted to deepen the people’s understanding of the Bible in an age when few could read or write, so the paintings were designed to tell the stories of the Book. And each church got its own predominant color, making visiting these buildings a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Standing strong during turbulent times

What’s amazing about the buildings is that they’ve stood for more than 500 years, and you can still visit and appreciate their beauty. They’ve stood through the political shifts, with the land changing hands, and the many wars over the centuries. And they even stood was under communist rule. But as Chip told me, the people of Romania are survivors, and they resisted under the watch of the government, still attending church, and the Orthodox Church still held services. And it’s true that when I visited the region, not only were the people who lived there some of the nicest I’ve encountered, I could also get a sense of their devoutness. As Chip said, it’s truly a beautiful land with beautiful people.

How to See the Painted Churches of Moldavia

The eight painted churches of Moldavia are spread throughout a large region, almost a circle of 250 kilometers, and it would take a few days to see them all. But Chip has a better plan: He’s mapped out a route that will take you to see four of the most beautiful churches, including Voronet. And you can hear how to route that trip on this episode. Of course, you won’t just want to see the churches if you go to this beautiful part of the world, and Chip lays out all of the options for what else you can do, from rafting to skiing. If you’re interested in the history of the Eastern Orthodox religion, or in seeing some of the most beautiful architecture of the Middle Ages, you’ll want to listen to this episode.

Outline of This Episode

  • [2:34] Introduction to Bucovina
  • [5:34] Moldova v. Moldavia: What’s in a name?
  • [6:51] The eight churches of Moldavia
  • [10:32] Intro to Stephen the Great
  • [12:33] Why Voronet is the Sistine Chapel of the East
  • [18:45] The one-day tour
  • [26:10] What else to do in Bucovina

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