Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

The remote Bukovina area of north-east Romania boasts some of Europe's most beautifully painted churches. Not only are the interiors decorated, but also the outside walls. They blast out their spiritual messages in intensely coloured, almost psychedelic images of Heaven and Hell. Laurence Mitchell explores the painted monasteries of Suceava County.

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The various Orthodox Churches of Europe have always dazzled with the colourful iconography that embellishes their buildings and enhances their liturgies. Cross the portal of almost any Orthodox church in central or eastern Europe, or the Balkans, and your senses will be bombarded by stories told in lavish frescoes. There are tales of saints and benefactors, lessons from the Scriptures, glorious visions of Heaven and gruesome warnings of Hell.

All well and good, but travel to a quiet corner of north-east Romania and you will discover religious imagery not only within the church interior but also adorning the outside walls. Like a ranting, impatient preacher, the painted monasteries of southern Bukovina do not wait for visitors to cross the threshold but instead blast out their spiritual message in intensely coloured, almost psychedelic, images even as you approach from a distance. A handful of these exquisite churches inhabit the valleys of this pastoral region like exotic architectural birds of prey. Whatever your religious orientation, southern Bukovina’s painted monasteries have a magnetic appeal, somehow contriving to be both naive and sophisticated at the same time.


The industrial town of Suceava may not be the most prepossessing of places but it is a likely first stop in Romania for anyone entering the country from the Bukovina region of western Ukraine just to the north. The erstwhile political entity of Bukovina, meaning ‘beech-covered lands’, no longer exists other than in name, but it was once a historical kingdom within the Habsburg Monarchy, a part of the Principality of Moldavia annexed by the empire in 1774. The region’s painted monasteries, some of which are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites, date from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They were built when Stephen III of Moldavia (Stephen the Great) was on the throne and marauding Ottoman armies threatened the region. The decision to cover the walls with biblical scenes and Christian instruction was no doubt taken as a means of educating the region’s illiterate peasants and the soldiers of the popular armies that would frequently assemble within the monasteries’ defensive walls.

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Laurence Mitchell became a travel writer almost by default having squandered his youth travelling in North Africa and India. Following a stint teaching in Sudan, he went on to train as a geography teacher, which he pursued for a decade or so.

These days he concentrates on writing and photography and, while still drawn to transition zones and cultural frontiers like Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus region, is increasingly more content to explore closer to home. He loves ancient tracks, moss-covered ruins, graveyards and allotment gardens, and believes it is possible to find the extraordinary in even the most quotidian surroundings.

Despite a slight distrust of guidebooks, he has contributed several of his own to the world's literary stockpile – Bradt travel guides to Serbia and Kyrgyzstan, ‘slow’ guides to Norfolk and Suffolk (also Bradt), and walking guides to Norfolk and Suffolk for Cicerone. His travel memoir Westering, which describes a coast to coast walk across England and Wales that connects landscape, memory and spirit of place, will be published by Saraband in April 2021. Visit Laurence's blog.

This article was published in hidden europe 30.