There’s a hardcore subset of people wandering around Southern Bucovina visiting all the monasteries by foot – backpacks piled high with camping gear, all-weather clothing, muesli and vampire bat spray. I’m not one of those people. I retired from carrying all my crap on my back in 1994 when a chronic back injury combined with a Dr. Seuss caliber over-stuffed backpack aged my spine about 50 years in four months.
I’m a wheelie bag guy now and proud of it. Some backpacker purists feel that wheelie bags are a cop out. These people are dough heads. Furthermore, at the end of the day of wheelie bagging I feel great and I smell divine. At the end of a day of backpacking, most people look like refugees in need of an industrial jet-wash with a mixture of bleach and tomato juice.
The only downside to wheelie bagging (well, some call it a ‘down side’, I call it ‘the best part’) is that you are limited to day trips, like the one I’m taking now: the ‘Prince Charles Walk’ from Putna Monastery to Sucevi?a Monastery.
Prince Charles went through a Romania phase several years ago. He visited, he jeered plans for a ‘Dracula Land’ amusement park (rightly so) and he ambled the 20km between these two monasteries, an act that compelled people to (unofficially) rename the trail after him, dropping its former title ‘That Super Muddy Logging Road Where We Go to Get the Big Mushrooms’.
The original impetus behind me doing this walk was from Monika in Suceava who wanted to go through repainting the trail’s blue cross markings on the trees which had reportedly not been all that robust in the first place and were now starting to fade. Well, Monika is a busy woman and had to acquiesce to last minute paying work rather than scampering around in the woods with a can of paint. So it came to pass that I took the sadistically slow train from Suceava to Putna with three other eager hostel guests to reconnoiter the status of the trail markings while having a good long hike.
After shaking off the spirit sapping, anesthetizing effects of the two and a half hour train ride, during which we never broke the elusive 25KPH barrier, our band of four crossed the humble village of Putna, stretching our legs and stopping to ogle the monastery. Though Putna doesn’t have trippy, fear-of-God exterior frescos like its more popular counterparts in Bucovina, it still pulls in the (mostly Romanian) visitors by the bus load as it’s the final resting place of Ştefan cel Mare (Stephan the Great; 1433-1504), the closest thing to a super hero that Moldavia has ever had. During his reign as prince of Moldavia, he handily repulsed forces from Poland and Hungary, though his heroic resistance against the Ottoman Empire was what made him venerated throughout Europe. When he wasn’t building a battle record of 34 and two (and fathering over 20 illegitimate children like the jungle-f*cking stallion that he was), he erected 44 churches and monasteries, several of which are now UNESCO World Heritage sites. The name ‘Ştefan’ is landscaped into the hillside just south of the Putna, which, legend has it, was permanently seared into the vegetation after Ştefan let fly with the rip-roaringiest, firehosiest, write-your-name-in-the-snow beer pee the world has ever known.
Realizing that time was getting away from us (Monika would be picking us up at Suceviţa at 5pm), we had to scurry from the monastery without entering the museum or checking out Daniel the Hermit’s Cave in the hills 2km south of Putna. Having not seen any signs indicating the start of the trail while crossing Putna, we beseeched the monastery’s guard for directions and thank Buddha we did. Without his rudimentary, but endearing hand drawn map we’d have never found the first blue cross marking nearly two kilometers into the walk and we’d probably still be out there, rationing a couple chocolate bars and two Altoids while discreetly sizing up which one of us would make the best bear bait.
Walking briskly, but uncertainly, we found the first blue cross with only minor hesitation. From there, though the markings were indeed thin, there was little question of how to proceed. The first hour of the hike was on a well-trodden dirt/rock/mud road, passing far flung homes, occasionally stepping around small-scale logging operations and unintentionally scaring the living ca-ca out of every cow we passed (those bovine can really move when they want to – probably outrun a cheetah for the first 20 meters I bet).
Just as we were wondering if the entire walk would continue along this pleasant, but tame road the trail unexpectedly veered left and plentiful blue crosses led us up a 50% grade hill that started sucky and proceeded to suck with a dash of mud until we hit the peak much later deep in the forest. We stopped to soak in the dead quiet surroundings. Not even the birds were singing. From here the trail started downhill on a (mostly) well-marked thin trail, winding through unspoiled forest. We occasionally skated down mud slicks with arms flailing and passed ‘rest and smoking’ stations. Not a single trail sign for the first two kilometers, but trail administrators found the energy to erect woodland smoking lounges? You gotta hand it to them, they know their demographic.
When the trail re-joined the logging road the mud worsened and so did our mellow of nature appreciation with the inevitable appearance of Romanian Garbage Cans (read: any flat surface by the side of the road). Though not nearly as bad as it was at the Bucegi Mountains, the sight of this carefree litter-athon nevertheless started the expletives rolling off my tongue.
More diminutive logging sites were passed and before long we were limping down the last 2km on a newly paved road that led right to the front door of Suceviţa. Like the first two kilometers, the last two kilometers were devoid of blue crosses and there was no signage around Suceviţa giving people the slightest impression which direction the walk began. For the record, when departing Putna, take the first right after exiting the monastery’s two gates, follow the somewhat clear ‘S’ curve around the edge of town (except for a few fleeting moments, you should be heading generally south), the road will cross a small stream and continues parallel to the stream for some time before you see the first blue cross on the side barrier of a small cement bridge. From Suceviţa, simply walk straight out of the monastery gate, cross the perpendicular road and continue down the new cement road for two kilometers (ignoring the confusing red stripe markings along the way that lead Buddha knows where). The road will eventually turn to dirt/mud and blue crosses should start appearing soon after.
What with me spending the better part of five months on my fanny, writing my hilarious little heart out, the 20km walk did not do my body any favors. My legs were killing me and my feet felt as if they’d been wailed on by an all star team of Romanian carpet whackers. Even my arms were a little stiff from the violent rowboat spasms I performed to keep from unwillingly sitting and luging down muddy hillsides on my ass, which would have been the height of sucktastically sucky, unless it happened to Prince Charles, in which case I would have wet my pants with delight.
Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-authored the current edition of Lonely Planet’s Romania and Moldova. Visit his personal blog, Killing Batteries, for more provoking of elitist backpackers and further speculation about what a freakin’ stud Stephan the Great was.