My Bloody Romania: One serving of Suceava – hold the syndrome

Dateline: Suceava, Romania

Suceava gets a bad rap, primarily from elitist dorks lacking an appreciation for the delicate art of Cement Feng Shui.

OK, there’s no exoticizing it, Suceava is largely a butt-fugly series of gray streets, buildings and plazas. The city was one of the many victims of Ceau??escu’s systemization initiative in the 1980s and short of bulldozing the entire city (again) and rebuilding to 18th century specifications, Suceava is never going to suffer an excess of aesthetic superlatives.

It would be so easy for Suceava to sit back and succumb to its mind-bending visual tedium, taking out its discontent on a super-sized Ceau??escu bazooka target in the main square, but they haven’t given up the fight. Well, they haven’t given up the feeble effort, at any rate. Being the closest thing to a major metropolitan area that Southern Bucovina has to offer, Suceava serves as the primary staging area for a number of regional day-trips with, by my estimation, the best tourism infrastructure in Romania outside of Transylvania. The civic weight of these minor accolades has seemingly instilled Suceava with a rising feistiness which is currently asserting itself in a variety of modest ways. Most recently, an agreeable landscaping project, consisting mainly of a sea of flowers, has unfolded on their main street (??tefan cel Mare) to beat back what was otherwise an interminable concrete buffet. However, at the moment the flowers are being overshadowed, literally, by the nationwide movement to replace all water mains with new EU-approved components. In their short-sighted glee to move the project forward, multiple streets have been simultaneously jack-hammered into dust creating, among other things, twisting debris storms every time the wind kicks up.

Despite the ancillary dust spittle epidemic, this temporary blow to the air quality is still a huge improvement on recent history. Just a decade ago, the city of over 110,000 had its very own, honest-to-Buddha syndrome (‘Suceava Syndrome’), a respiratory and nervous disorder caused by the byproducts of the toxic pulp and paper works on the edge of town (and in exactly what industrial application is ‘toxic pulp’ used anyway?). In the aftermath of the Ceauşescu regime, where silly things like mass sickness and needless human suffering were an afterthought at best, the realization belatedly crystallized that having the word ‘syndrome’ affixed to the city name was probably not helping P.R. or morale. Eventually the factory (still in operation) was fitted with filters that have greatly reduced pollution. Suceava still maintains a few air quality digital displays though, which usually (and gratifyingly) read ‘normal’.

As far as actual in-town sights, Suceava is admittedly a little weak, but a couple worthwhile items will nicely fill a half day of strolling while you wait for or recover from a marathon monastery tour.

Though virtually every two-donkey village in Romania has an ethnographic museum, Suceava’s has the added novelty of being housed in an atmospheric 16th-century guesthouse with much of the main floor decorated and equipped as if the place were still in business. The second floor is a veritable Peasant Saks Fifth Avenue, filled with racks of colorful folk costumes.

Also in town are St Dimitru’s Church (1535) and the Monastery of St John the New (1522), both of which are quite impressive, but should be seen before touring the Big Four monasteries or they may fall flat thrill-wise.

For the city’s principal mental and physical pulse-quickening, there’s the ruins of Suceava’s Citadel (1388). After a brisk walk through Şipote Park on the east side of town, including a slog up 241 steps, the panoramic view of the rectangular structure’s remains is arguably the highlight of the city’s offerings (and popular opinion is that the long-view greatly surpasses the crowded, unphotographical scene inside).

I’m sorry to report that the once decent food offerings in town have been dealt a nasty blow by new EU kitchen regulations that have caused a few of the better places to shut down. Still open is Latino, which serves passable Italian food and pizza in a subdued, but comparatively classy atmosphere (comparative to the other gruel-slinging options in the neighborhood). Something to avoid is the ‘Mexican’ food at Tacoloco, one of the many establishments in Romania to confuse ‘salsa’ with ketchup, which they provide in charitable, vast, perilous amounts. This is a palette-smashing love affair with ketchup the likes of which I have never seen. Best to stick with the pizza. Or just a beer. Or a second meal at Latino.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-authored the current edition of Lonely Planet’s Romania and Moldova. Visit his personal blog, Killing Batteries, to pick the metaphors and smell the sarcasm.