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Whistling in the Dark


President of the Nude Mountaineering Society...Hanks bum

Join this exclusive club: "I was drawn into the joys of trouserless peaking by the great George Mallory." HANK WANGFORD

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Hanks Trails


In the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, high up in the northeast corner of Romania, a clutch of spectacular painted monasteries nestle quietly in fertile valleys.  These are the magical highlands of Moldavia and their illuminated monasteries are covered inside and out with passionate luminous frescoes, Byzantine contemporaries of the Renaissance that more than hold a candle to the acknowledged masterpieces of Giotto or Michelangelo. These are serious works of genius, art treasures to make your hair stand on end.  The imaginative sweep of the vision and the force of the colours even after five hundred years is astonishing.
These monasteries are “a treasure” in UNESCO’s catalogue of Great Monuments of the World and that’s good enough for me. 

I have been going to Brasov in Transylvania for nine years, since the fall of Ceausescu.  When I haven’t been helping to set up contraceptive clinics for the women, I have explored the countryside.  As President of the Nude Mountaineering Society, I’ve walked dizzying limestone ridges in the Carpathian mountains.   I’ve followed the trail of Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, from his real birthplace to his virtual castle.  I’ve seen Saxon villages with fortified churches founded by the Teutonic Knights who swept through Transylvania in the 13th century. 

Today the Saxons still speak their ancient language with a separate dialect in each village, dialects so distinct that villages as little as three miles apart cannot understand each other without speaking modern German.  

Surprisingly these communities, Hungarian, Romanian, Saxon and Gypsy, coexist in relative harmony.  Although the Gypsies are universally persecuted, this patchwork of peoples in Transylvania has not unravelled as horrifically as elsewhere in the Balkans.  Maybe it is that there are no Infidels, only Catholic Hungarians, Orthodox Romanians and Evangelical Lutheran Saxons.  Perhaps it is that for all his insanity and attempts to raze some Hungarian villages, Ceausescu was never as genocidal a nationalist as Milosevic.   

Despite all the conspicuous timeworn beauty of Brasov, every time I go back people talk of Moldavia like a hidden jewel.  “You must see the monasteries,” they say proudly. “They are beautiful.”

They are.  I’ve seen them twice now and they are sensational.  Monasteries stretch right across Romania, part of the Orthodox Church which they share with the Serbs and Bulgarians.  Miraculously they survived the predations of Ceausescu.  Many are beautiful but the most spectacular collection of them is in Bucovina far up in the north of Moldavia near the Ukraine. 

The drive from Brasov to Bucovina takes the best part of a day.  Crossing Transylvania we drove into the rain with the sun behind us, a rainbow running across the plain.  When rain falls while the sun is shining, they say in Transylvania that the Devil – Dracul –  and his wife are quarreling. 

The Romanian countryside is timelessly rustic and agriculture is still labour-intensive. As we pushed further north into Moldavia fields were dotted with small round haystacks.  Out on their own plots, some farmers were using tractors and some long-handled hoes.  Some ploughed with horses or oxen.  Families threshed corn by hand at the roadside.  Horse-drawn wooden carts overloaded with hay trailing along the ground looked like Dougal from Magic Roundabout as they meandered along the road.  Many of the old collective farm buildings stood derelict.  There was a Coca Cola sign in every village. 

Storks had built their broad nests comfortably atop chimneys and telegraph poles, just like in the storybooks.  This is polenta country and the maize looked close to harvesting.  In the valleys people sat by the road selling cabbages, aubergines, cucumbers and tomatoes.  Driving through the forested hills that rose suddenly out of the flat Moldavian valleys, they offered up hazelnuts, blackberries and wild strawberries.  It was all recognisably European but a fairy-tale version.

Before we got to Bucovina we came across the plain white monastery at Agapia in the pouring mountain rain, lying serenely between mist-shrouded forest slopes.  Like all the Moldavian monasteries it was now run by stylishly accoutred nuns, sporting long black habits tight at the waist and black hoods topped with chic black pill-box hats tilted jauntily over the eyes.  The nuns have helped reopen, renovate and quietly cherish these wonderful monasteries over the last decade.  There is a peaceful feminine atmosphere about these places. 

Down a tunnel, outside the fortified walls was a cluster of wooden houses where Agapia’s community of five hundred nuns lived.  Windows and porches were studded and garlanded with begonias and geraniums.  Front gardens were stuffed with soaking wet blooms for the heavens had just opened and the deluge bounced off the shingle roofs and dripped off the porch eaves.  The air smelt wet and woody.  For all the hammering of the rain there was a delicate stillness. 

Six years ago travel through Romania – finding hotels, petrol stations and eating places was a lot more difficult.  One night we could only find bread, onion and slanina (smoked pig fat).  Mind you the onion and pig fat were delicious. 
Nowadays there is still nothing like a register of hotels, pensions or restaurants but they can be found on the road.  There are plenty of food stops but hotels are best booked before you go.  And best to book something in or near Suceava, the capital of Bucovina. 

Suceava was where Stephen the Great and Saint ruled.  It was Stephen who had many of the greatest monasteries built in the 15th century.  He was a religious, well, saintly man who thrashed the Turks and kept Islam at bay and Christianity pure.
The Pope called Stephen the Great “The Athlete of Christ”. 

First you see the roofs.  High and pointed like huge witches’ hats, they drape out wide-eaved over the walls, protecting those that are painted.  Then close up the walls jump out at you, illuminated cartoon bibles with all the great biblical stories in vibrantly coloured pictures like some giant consecrated comic book.  These walls were painted in the 16th century under Stephen’s successor. 

There is a great deal of God and the Devil, the carrot but mostly the stick, for hell and its torments waits for all us sinners.  In one classic and recurring picture, several venerable men are walking up the Ladder of Virtue, clambering up to Heaven’s Door, canonisation a mere formality.  They have serried rows of gilt-haloed angels on one side encouraging their progress but to the other horned black devils are nipping at their feet and dragging them off the ladder into the many toothed maw of the cetacean Hellbeast below.

As a warning against complacency a saintly looking old man is hanging desperately by his knees from the penultimate rung of the ladder.  Right at the golden gates a devil had grabbed him and pulled him down while the man behind reached over him and hung on to St Peter’s heavenly handshake.  So near and yet so far, this picture of the hapless man, close but no celestial cigar, recurs on many of the monastery walls. 

So too does a great deal of gilded beheading, saints decapitated by Infidel scimitars.  Other recurrent themes are the Tree of Jesse like a surreal oriental rug, Jesus and his forebears intertwined with extraterrestrial seed pods, and historically dubious anti-Saracen propaganda with the siege of Constantinople.  

The Day of Judgement is a unifying feature everywhere.  The version of this last at Voronets, probably the finest, covers a whole wall and is as lavish as the Sistine Chapel.  It shows angels high above pulling away the shrouds of Time above God, Jesus, Mary and the Apostles and a whole gold rimmed heavenly host, all looking fairly pleased with themselves.  From them a burning river of fire cascades down to Hell and its beasts and torments, passing grotesque images from the Book of Revelations. 

The background at Voronets on this and other walls is a luminous dark blue, Voronets blue, as unique as Titian red or Veronese green.  The other illuminated monasteries, each with their own special colour, are Sucevitsa (green-red), Moldovitsa (yellow), Humor (red) and Arbore (green).

Humor is my personal favorite and not just for its name.  Its setting is especially rustic, small and friendly with no surrounding fortifications.  The first time I visited, a cow was grazing in its grounds and last time the cock was crowing in the farmyard next door.

The nearest town is ironically misnamed in something of a Romanian tradition (Tirgu Frumos – “Beautiful Market” – was an unlovely conurbation of uncompromising socialist blocks).  It is Gura Humorului – “Mouth of Humour” – and was gratifyingly filled with dour unsmiling people.

Arbore is another rustic monastery like Humor sitting unenclosed by the roadside.  Its painter, who chose an overwhelming green for his backgrounds, had travelled and studied in Italy.  A nun in her smart gear and natty pillbox was keen to show us the Italian influence in the rounder less Byzantine faces and the use of cheese in the paint mix to paint relief images. 

Putna is the furthest north, four kilometres from the Ukrainian border.  Showing at the village cinema at the nuns’ special request was “Men In Black”.  The resting place of Stephen the Great and Saint, Putna was grand and majestic, where Humor was homely.  Stark and simple on the outside, rich and dark inside, its collection of illuminated manuscripts and fifteenth century embroideries is staggering. 

The monasteries’ approach to religion was dark and mysterious, like their tenebrous interiors.  The serious and secret business of worship went on behind the iconostasis which dripped with gold and silver icons.  The frescoes and dazzling icons were glimmers of hope in these sombre shadows. 

The luminous frescoes and the magical architecture of these gems were in perfect harmony with their setting in the rolling hills.  There are so many more – Dragomirna, Bogdana, Slatina, Rasca, Balinesti, Varatec – that monastery-hopping could become obsessional.  But the Moldavian landscape itself was entrancing.  Farmhouses in make-believe villages had embellished their doors and porches with ornate Byzantine onions and cupolas.  They had exuberantly decorated farm gates with filigree arches.  Folks sat and watched the world go by on wooden benches by the gates. The houses’ trimmings were so fanciful they became addictive and it hurt to leave them. 

The sun dipped low and caught the red tassels on the horses’ ears as families made the slow journey home in their narrow wooden carts.  The shadows were lengthening as we reached Moldovitsa, the last of the painted monasteries.  Mother Tatiana was a talkative nun in her late forties who was a French speaking tour guide.  She had on her black designer habit and snappy pillbox hat.  Enthusiastically she rushed us round the monastery and showed us the frescoes in the failing light.  She urged us to take communion.  “Have a blessing” she said “Come on.  It’s great.”
“Women are more important.  They are the centre of the family, wife, mother, cook,” she said.  “Women are flowers.” 

“What am I, a man?” I asked.

“Oh, just the leaf.  Or the stalk on a good day.  But woman is the real flower.”
I had first seen this Byzantine wall painting of heaven and hell in the faraway Rila monastery deep in the southern Bulgarian mountains ten years before.  Though not as extraordinary as Moldavia, I saw the undimmed power of the smug angels and the grasping devils. 

I wandered off the beaten track and into a dark room.  As my eyes adapted to the gloom, I saw a group of black bearded monks at the other end. 

An old monk got to his feet and tottered towards me.  I backed away excusing myself and beating on my chest. 

“Anglisky, izvinite, Anglisky.”  I didn’t have the Bulgarian to discuss theology.
The old monk kept coming, his eyes fixed unwaveringly on me and raised an accusing finger.  My heart was pounding and I was ready to be chastised. 
Then in a deep dark rumble he spoke as only a holy man could.

He’d got it in one. 

There is a God and He is All Knowing.  

© Hank Wangford  14th May 1999


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