" Mănăstirea Voroneţ, Suceava, România" by Gaspar Serrano via Flickr Creative Commons

From an architectural standpoint, it's rare for a modern church to be described as anything but modest. The insides are likely tastefully decorated, but for the most part, they're pretty forgettable. But it wasn't always like this. The bland nature of our houses of worship is perhaps part of what makes Romania’s painted monasteries so incredible. UNESCO World Heritage Sites built in the 15th and 16th centuries, thousands of tourists a year make the homage to marvel at their extravagance. If we could spend Sunday mornings in these locales, we'd never have to worry about falling asleep in church ever again.

"P8180559.jpg" by Burlan Marius via Flickr Creative Commons

The Churches

Although much of Romania is just as modern as the world you and I live in, there are pockets where people cling to the past. Tucked amidst these rustic villages are the painted monasteries of Bucovina. They also hearken back to a simple time.

On the walls of churches that have survived more than 500 winters, floor to ceiling frescoes depict stories from the Bible, scenes from the life of Jesus and details of important Christian figures. One of the best preserved monasteries, Voronet, features a blue paint so unique that its composition and replication remain a mystery even today. Just as Titian is indelibly associated with the color red, “Voronet” has become synonymous with blue. The fact that the artwork is still largely intact and able to be enjoyed by visitors today is impressive as the pieces are centuries old and have been subject to the region’s harsh winds and rain.

"Mănăstirea Voroneţ, Suceava, România" by Gaspar Serrano via Flickr Creative Commons

It's All About Communication

Interestingly enough, these masterpieces, some of the finest examples of Byzantine art the world has ever seen, were a product of people’s inability to read. For illiterate villagers, the art wasn’t about decoration. It was necessary in making the story of the Bible and the saints accessible to all.

Don’t be surprised if you hear a loud pounding noise as you step onto the grounds today. If you look around you might see a nun or monk beating a long beam with a mallet. They’re tapping out a traditional call to prayer. Centuries ago, when the Ottoman Empire took over the area, bells were outlawed so the religious community improvised and found different ways to communicate announce their intentions.

Photo Credit: Gaspar Serrano

How To Do It

The most well-preserved of the monasteries are located near Suceava. As the largest city in Bucovina, it’s a great springboard for day trips to some of Romania’s best cultural, historical and natural sites. Each monastery has its own distinct village and while using public transportation to see them is doable, it’s not convenient. Instead, rent a car or better yet, hire a private guide or tour operator to take you around. The churches are great pieces to look at, but your experience will be that much better if you go with someone who knows the in's and out's of the history. Sorin Fodor has been in the business for more than 15 years and comes highly recommended by experts in Romanian Tourism. Local operator Hello Bucovina also has a number of well-received tours of the area.