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My Bloody Romania: The Painted Monasteries of Southern Bucovina

Dateline: Suceava, Romania

First, a quick geography lesson. Don’t go looking for ‘Southern Bucovina’ in the south on your map of Romania. It is, in fact, in the north. Like many parts of Europe, land was grabbed and dealt during WWI and WWII without regard for historical ethnic and cultural boundaries. I’m writing this offline, so I can’t research and confirm, but relying on my perennially air-tight knowledge of world history, the region of Bucovina was split in half when Southern Bucovina was handed to Romania and Northern Bucovina was packed up and trucked up to Sweden as a part of the Helsinki Convention of 1492, brokered by Abraham Lincoln, Attila the Hun and Buddha.

Most of the Painted Monasteries in this region were erected by Stephan the Great and his son Petru Rare?? in the 15th and 16th centuries and are collectively honored with UNESCO World Heritage status. The story goes that armies gathering and waiting to do battle with the Turks would hunker down inside these fortified monasteries. Since most of the peasant soldiers were illiterate and unable to enter the churches (and bored senseless after their Gameboys died), biblical stories were painted cartoon-style on the exteriors to educate and entertain. Many of the two millimeter thick frescos have miraculously survived despite centuries of direct exposure to harsh weather, neglect and the efforts of medieval vandals – keep an eye out for the “Dave was here” and “Clapton is God” engraved graffiti with dates in the 18th and 19th centuries.


Tours of the Big Four monasteries (Humor, Voroneţ, Moldoviţa and Suceviţa) are the primary attraction in this region with most tours originating out of Suceava. I invited myself along on a monastery outing (my fourth visit to some of the monasteries) with the area’s Energizer Bunny of tour guides, Monika Zavoianu, owner and operator of High Class Hostel.

Our first stop was Humor (founded in 1530), whose primarily red exterior frescos, including a badly faded depiction of the 1453 siege of Constantinople, have not held up as well as the others, but its interior is splendid. Once you’ve gone blind squinting at the endless paintings of saints, you can squeeze up the three flights of steep, anorexic stairs to the striking photo op at the top of the brick and wood lookout tower – an endeavor that will test people who dread both small spaces and small lunches.

Next was Voroneţ Monastery, with exterior paintings dominated by a singular and vibrant shade of blue that has been coined as an internationally recognized color: ‘Voroneţ Blue’. The massive and detailed Last Judgment fresco here, covering the entire exterior western wall, is far and away the primary enticement and roundly hailed as Bucovina’s finest fresco. Equally, the profuse parking lot souvenir stands sell Bucovina’s finest Dracula ashtrays.

After a quick stop for lunch we pressed on to the predominantly yellow Moldoviţa Monastery (Monika’s favorite). While the painted church here is also in miraculously good condition, what’s equally striking is the otherworldly tranquil atmosphere within the fortifications. The beautifully tended grounds and stone buildings would undoubtedly make location scouts for a live-action remake of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” go to pieces.

Finally we careened over a winding mountain road with beautiful views (never mind the uninspired Communist sculpture sullying the peak) to the largest of the Bucovina monasteries, Suceviţa. The red-green dominated exterior fresco series is punctuated by the Virtuous Ladder covering most of the northern wall, which depicts the 30 steps from Hell to Paradise (I checked, no picture of Natalie Portman in Paradise, but maybe when Paradise II comes out…). There’s also a well here that has tasty water, in as much as water is tasty, that’s safe to drink.

I’m afraid space and Average Human Reading About Churches Fortitude has forced me to gloss over most of the arresting details of the Painted Monasteries – the tour, including lunch and a few other stopovers is a vigorous nine hours long. The splendid churches and fortifications notwithstanding, the sheer size and detail of the exterior frescos alone could fill years worth of observation and theological study. Monika has visited each of these monasteries hundreds of times and spent five years educating herself about the significance of the frescos and she still claims to see something new at each visit.

Me, I can’t tell you what color my last laptop was much less recall house-sized frescos in detail, which is why I have taken hundreds of pictures to jog my memory. Please excuse the absence of pictures from Suceviţa and Moldoviţa. They were lost in a tragic data transfer debacle.

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 creative world history riffs and plagiarizing from his chapters in the LP book.

My Bloody Romania: First stab at medical tourism

Being a homeless, shameless, godless freelance travel writer isn’t all glamour, Nike endorsement deals and Friday nights at the Viper Room canoodling with Natalie Portman. There are innumerable indignities associated with this lifestyle, including the startling, nay shocking, confession I am about to make: I have not seen a dentist in over four years.

Now rest assured that during this time I have been brushing and flossing with a ferocity only known to those who have no health insurance and little disposable income, who occasionally suffer the odd nightmare where his teeth crumble into shards while biting into an apple and Natalie Portman abruptly decides that she wants to see other people.

Even so, after four years, punctuated with occasional mysterious aches and an increased sensitivity to ice, I felt compelled to finally see a dentist. Romania may not be the first destination one thinks of when considering medical tourism (or even the 50th) and indeed, generally speaking, one shouldn’t. Pretty much all of the competent doctors leave here at the first opportunity for better pay and a lifestyle where a trip to the post office to pick up a package isn’t a half day ordeal. Even President B??sescu couldn’t find a doctor he trusted to repair a herniated disc last year, choosing to get the work done in Vienna. But dentists are another story. Since it’s not nearly as easy for them to find work abroad, even the Jedi Knights of Romanian dentistry are more or less stuck here (though EU membership may change all that).

So with a solid recommendation from friends, I brushed and flossed one last time and walk across town to my appointment.

If one chooses to fixate on aesthetics, they might become a tad nervous upon arrival at their Romanian dentist’s office. The ‘reception area’ did not have the soothing 50 gallon aquarium or three months of People magazine or even lights (there was a ceiling light, but it was turned off – natural light from the windows was sufficient as long as one wasn’t trying to read a book or scrutinize their bill). It was simply a tiny, bare storefront space, with two tired plants, four chairs and reading material that consisted of mail catalogues from the local superstore. There was no reception desk and, indeed, no receptionist. Just a frosted door from where the dentist herself occasionally emerged to call in the next patient.

The tiny room was filled with people, some walk-ins cupping their jaws and others with flimsy ‘appointments’ that were more wishful than abiding – I was invited in 45 minutes after my scheduled time. Inside, the office wasn’t much better. Again, no lights apart from the overhead lamp she used to illuminate my mouth. The walls were bare, the only decoration being two tiny, but encouraging pictures of the Resurrection of Jesus clipped to the x-ray light-board.

After truncated pleasantries (which she unexpectedly did in English), she went to work with the iron hook, gouging at my hard-to-reach places. After a quick spit, she fired up the tooth polisher for some nippy work ‘only where it was necessary’. Though her spoken chair-side-manner wasn’t winning any Florence Nightingale awards, she, like her busty American counterparts, was not shy about cradling my head, squished deep into her left breast. Better than any anesthetic.

Fourteen minutes was all she needed. Never cracking her deadpan disposition, she informed that I have no cavities [punches air] and that it would take about an hour for the underwire mark in my cheek to fade.

Total cost for cursory check-up and hasty teeth cleaning: RON30 (US$12.36). If one is less valiantly hygienic than I am, one might like to know that getting a tooth pulled will run an additional RON25 (US$10.30) and getting a tooth filled should be about the same. I wonder if dental care prices in America would be similar if they cut out the aquarium, People magazine, the team of receptionists and superfluous mood lighting?

So, my fellow budget travelers and destitute freelance writers, probably best to save your LASIK surgery for Thailand, but in the meantime you can get have a professional attend to minor-to-moderate dental issues in Romania with the same confidence you would at home. Like anywhere in the world, dentists’ offices (‘stomatologie‘) are on virtually every block, so just shop around until you see a door you like, or if possible, get a local to give you a referral. Be sure to crack a joke while you’re at it and take discreet note of their smile.

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 amateur medical solutions and reminiscing about his innumerable relationships with movie stars, even if they all deny ever having known him, while deep down still longing for his red hot smokin’ body, aren’t you Natalie?

My Bloody Romania: The hitchhiker’s guide to Romania

One of the things that I love about Romania is that there’s still a sweet naivety in many aspects of life. The largest peasant society in Europe still thrives in the northern Maramure?? region (though EU membership seems destined to squash it), even the die-hardiest urban resident has a close relative in the countryside who routinely provides them with eggs, cream, milk, cheese, onions or potatoes and access to a lightning-fast, wide open file sharing network (where one can freely download software, games, music, TV series and movies, sometimes within hours after they hit the theaters in the US) still comes standard with all internet service. Is this country cute or what?

Among these facets is the enduring, widespread practice of worry-free hitchhiking. Virtually every Romanian has done it, including little old ladies and even children on the way to/from school in the next village. With dirt-cheap and surprisingly reliable trains, buses and maxitaxis crisscrossing the country, in truth, there’s usually little need to bother hitchhiking, but some truly arresting areas remain inaccessible by public transport and if you’d prefer not to expose yourself to the ass-tightening milieu that is driving in Romania, there may come a time during your visit which calls for polishing up your thumb.

Actually, posing Fonzie-style by the side of the road will do nothing except cause drivers to wonder why the crazy foreigner is pointing at the sky with their SMSing finger. If you want to hitch a ride in Romania, you need to do a pat-the-dog-like gesture, arm extended, about waist high. Furthermore, hitchhiking in these parts isn’t like traditional, goodwill hitchhiking. Drivers expect that you will spot them a few lei (Romania’s currency) for the ride, usually the equivalent of bus fare for the same distance. Other times, particularly in the deep rural areas where you’re more likely to get a ride on the back of a horse cart, proffering a few cigarettes is vastly more appreciated. If you, the wealthy foreigner, are the driver, you may only get a nice thank you (and maybe have your car blessed), as it’s assumed that anyone who can afford to travel for fun must be stinking rich and therefore doesn’t need a few piddly lei.

I’ve mostly had good experiences picking up hitchhikers in Romania, with a few notable exceptions. Apart from breaking up the interminable monotony of long, slow drives, taking on passengers affords all kinds of wacky opportunities for getting a singular Romania experience, like rigorous training on all the curse words that Romanian drivers use on each other. And let me tell you, when a foreigner cuts loose with those words, Romanians can’t believe their ears (followed closely by them getting super pissed off).

My one and only truly scary experience with picking up hitchhikers was the time that one almost leaped from my moving car. But first a bit of back-story…

There’s a regrettable past in much of the former Eastern Bloc with girls being kidnapped and sold into sex slavery. Not long ago, northeast Romania was one of the hottest zones, as such TV and radio ads warning girls about this possibility still air today. Typically, the kidnappers are foreign men that lure the girls into leaving home with the promise of a lucrative job abroad, before shoving them on a flight to Amsterdam or a bus to Tiraspol. These ads have opted to err on the side of caution and paint a picture that no male foreigners are to be trusted under any circumstances (which probably explains why Italian guys stick to the south and Black Sea coast when they roll into Romania looking to hook up).

I can attest that these ads are quite effective. Women were wary of me the entire time I lived in Iaşi. The girls that served me pizza five days a week never warmed to me even after months and months of seeing my face. Whenever I tried to push the conversation beyond “how are you?”, they would noticeably stiffen and excuse themselves. Seeing as how my breath is delicious, I was assured by friends that this behavior was a result of the ongoing ad campaign.

So back to the Romania/Moldova border, which, incidentally, was often the first leg of many ill-fated girls’ unspeakable journeys. I’d just cleared Romanian immigration (guards still laughing and pointing at the stupid American that bought a Dacia 1310) when I was flagged down by two college girls. They jumped in, said they were heading for Iaşi, and off we went. A few moments into our casual conversation they realized I was a foreigner. They looked at each other in a panic and my ass tightened to walnut-crushing tautness as one girl made to open the door and presumably jump out of the moving car. Fortunately for everyone, getting the doors open on that effing car was no easy task and with an extra few seconds to consider the situation she thought better of her flight impulse. Not making the connection between their behavior and the probable cause – a friend patiently explained the situation to me later – I cautiously asked what the problem was, but the two had settled into a state of quiet terror, refusing to look at or speak to me as we drove the mercifully quick 15 minutes into town.

Once at the center, I dropped them off at the first piaţa before anyone could hatch a new suicidal extraction strategy. They quickly climbed out of the car, closed the door and, once safe, reached in through the window to hand me a few lei.

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 tips on how to instantly repel women around the world.

My Bloody Romania: Bucegi Mountains (of garbage)

Dateline: Bucegi Mountains, Romania

If you’re a regular reader over at my laugh-riot, almost-award-winning blog, Killing Batteries (and if not, why exactly?), you’ll know that I do my share of complaining. It’s my way. I must complain to vent pent up rage or I’d have gone ape$hit on some deserving cop/hostel clerk/bus driver/post office employee by now and I’d be blogging about the food and internet cutouts at Sing Sing rather than various locations around Europe.

Well, I’ve held my tongue long enough. I’m about to open up a can of ‘Leif-Flavored Foot Up Your Ass’ on the entire Romanian population for their alarming, baffling and idiotic penchant for wanton littering.

I’ve already commented in this travelogue about trash lining the sides of most roads and collecting in the immediate orbit of any tourist sight, but my ability to overlook this finally snapped when the Little Vampire and I took a day hike at the Bucegi Mountains.


Certainly, in any urban area trash can be a bit of a problem due to the sheer number of people producing it. But if people even half-heartedly dispose of their trash in a civilized manner, the tide can be controlled. Unfortunately, Romanians have yet to realize this particular wrinkle of modern society. Garbage is discarded at whim, usually wherever one happens to be standing at the time when one has finished their beer/ice cream/potato chips, regardless of the proximity of a proper waste receptacle. And it’s not like these lazy asshats are being asked to move all that much to find a bin. Most cities are veritably ‘littered’ with garbage cans. In central Iaşi, there’s a tiny, green garbage can hanging from every second post. Yet garbage rolls down the streets, gathering in small drifts in corners. Fortunately, most cities have armies of street sweepers attending to the problem, so the trash never gets more than ankle deep.

On a side note, I give Romanian street sweepers the highest regard for their dedication to what is plainly an awful job. Not only do they somehow hold their own in the epic struggle to keep Romania’s streets relatively clear of garbage, but they cope admirably with what I assume is an inundation of turd piles left by thousands of stray dogs (and domestic dogs owned by indolent bastards). Meanwhile in places like Paris and all of Spain, only a fool would look away from the pavement for fear of sampling the all-you-can-eat Dog $hit Buffet they maintain on their sidewalks.

Romania’s countryside is another story. Trash seemingly only gets collected seasonally or, in some cases, never. Roadside picnic areas are the worst. Sometimes these places have been supplied with a single well-intentioned trash can or dumpster by some local entity, forgetting that they didn’t install the Magically-Emptying model and so someone has to stop by on occasion to deal with their contents. Since no one does, they fill in a few weeks, then overflow, then the growing trash pile around the base starts to even bury the receptacle itself. But that’s assuming that most people actually get off their asses, waddle over and add to the localized trash pile. Sadly, most just chose to throw their garbage just a few feet away or, with supreme effort, into the nearby woods which they also freely use as open air $hit houses, complete with used toilet paper flapping in the trees.

As hateful as these sights are, at least one usually only sees them as they zoom by at 120KPH. What’s going on around the quickly spoiling mountain trails is another story. Which brings us back to the Bucegi visit.

The day started in now familiar fashion with unseasonable cold and rain, with a gusting, hat-snatching wind that, we learned belatedly, closed down the cable cars from Buşteni for the day. With our cable car-assisted climb to Babele Peak ruled out, we were forced to chose from a number of hikes leading from the edge of town. In a moment of temporary insanity, we briefly considered hiking the entire distance to Babele, a four and a half hour march, which might have been realistic if not for the late hour (it was already noon by this point) and the flimsy clothing we had on. We resolved that the Babele hike was folly and thank goodness. The next day we saw news reports of 14 tourists needing to be rescued from Babele later that same day after being trapped at the top by dangerous weather.

So it was that we opted for the very low-impact, 30 minute hike to a small waterfall. Not even 10 meters after the ‘no littering sign’, 50 meters after the last trash can, the piles, and I mean piles, of garbage started. Plastic bottles, chip bags, tins of tuna, candy wrappers, beer cans, beer cans, beer cans… The reason for this was obvious. Little sheds selling snacks and drinks start at the parking area and continue right to the foot of the mountain. Weekend Warrior jackasses intending to ‘enjoy the outdoors’ load up on Cheetos, ice cream sandwiches and tall cans of Ursus as they set off and not a single one of them is carrying their waste when the emerge from the woods a few hours later. It’s been deposited in the precious outdoors they’ve driven so far to experience.

I really don’t like the way I look or sound when I start spouting off about these things in public, it smacks a bit of the Ugly Tourist waltzing into town and telling the natives how to behave, but the Little Vampire was in total concurrence, so with this encouragement I moaned incessantly as we stepped around garbage all the way to the waterfall.

After a while, I actually started to admire how far the trail of trash persisted. It seemed as if some of these people had been carry six-packs of beer and catered lunches for them to have carried the wrappings so far before discarding them. Minutes later at the waterfall, I discovered the last piece of the puzzle. A pair of f*ckwits had set up two tiny food stands barely out of photography range of the falls. They had just about everything a hungry hiker might need after a grueling 30 minute walk, except one crucial item: a garbage can. Not only were people merrily invoking the ‘Once I Drop It, It’s Not My Problem’ approach to Romanian waste disposal, but some people were taking it to the next level and throwing their trash into the falls, like contest to see who could get their garbage caught in the highest branches. It made me sick.

I realize that there are dough heads in every city on earth who are capable of this level of gleeful vandalism and natural destruction, but the ubiquitous distain that Romanians seem to have for their surroundings is deplorable. I cannot in good faith promote nature tours in Romania until these people wake up, make tougher littering laws, enforce them, and send out the tens of thousands of people that it’s going to take to clean up the staggering mess they’ve made in what was once a beautiful country.

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 condemning of entire populations and guidelines on when it’s OK to be an Ugly Tourist.

My Bloody Romania: Bra

Dateline: Bra??ov, Romania

Why is it that the top two tourist destinations in Romania have virtually no signage to assist the, you know, tourists? Seriously, this mystery has kept me up at night and driving in maddening circles during the day, cursing the mothers of city officials who are apparently still diverting their sign budgets to keep apartments for their mistresses by the Black Sea.

Let’s start with Bucharest. First off, this hellhole is one of Europe’s worst capital cities, so anyone coming here for a pleasure stay is either vastly ill-informed or they’re giving it a pity visit, because their plane landed here and they had no other choice. Bucharest has minimal satisfying activities, it’s expensive (by Romanian standards) and there’s an army of thieves and pickpockets freely roaming the streets including the armada of illegal taxis that still bafflingly operate with impunity, despite repeated declarations by officials (via live-feed from their Black Sea villas) to crack down.

Bucharest has exactly zero signs directing people to such vital locations like important plazas, the train station or the airport (until you’re just 2km short of the bloody thing and planes are roaring overhead, where they’ve posted a no-brainer sign pointing straight on – nice effort jackasses). On the contrary, if you, say, want a Big Mac, there’s thousands of signs blanketing the city clearly pointing the way to the nearest McDonald’s, with distances and GPS coordinates just for good measure. Say what you want about McDonald’s, at least they understand the simple concept of ‘If You Point to It, They Will Come – Faster’, while Romanians still largely adhere to the perennial ‘Find It On Your Own, I Don’t Care If It Takes You All Day. Do You Have A Cigarette?’.


Braşov, hands down Romania’s primary tourist city (without the advantage of an airport, I might add), is only slightly better. Once you’ve penetrated through the industrial and commercial zones, a few signs have been nailed to posts in randomly selected intersections pointing the way to the center, but getting this far takes a significant amount of luck and trial and error since there are no signs directing people from the E68 highway. I know this as indisputable fact, as the Little Vampire and I just drove the entire length of Braşov’s outskirts three times searching in vain for signs, speculating on what kind of BMW the mayor bought with his sign funds.

Well, future Braşov visitors, here’s a hard-earned tip for getting to the center of town: when approaching the outskirts, look up toward the south (better yet, have your co-pilot do this, as taking your eyes off traffic in Romania for even a second is guaranteed to lead to disaster) and locate the tacky Hollywood-style ‘Braşov’ sign propped above the city on Mount Tâmpa. All you have to do is home in on that thing until ‘Centru‘ signs start appearing.

Once in central Braşov however, it’s all gravy. This is tourist ground zero for a reason. Easily the most scenic urban area in the country, Braşov also happens to be an excellent staging area for castle tours, day hikes, and increasingly ill-fated ‘bear-watching tours’. I’ve lost count, but I think at least three tourists have been killed by bear attacks in the Braşov area this summer, with several more injured. Meanwhile, these outings – usually consisting of a ride to the local trash heap to watch scavenging bears feed – are creating the illusion (for the bears) that humans = food. I don’t know about you guys, but when I go somewhere expecting food and find nothing (say, a flight from DC to San Francisco), I get a hankering to disembowel somebody. Obviously, I’m of the opinion that bear tours should be avoided. If you wanna see giant, hairy, dangerous animals rooting for scraps, tour the US Senate during appropriations season.

I’d been to Braşov before, wandering the pedestrian-friendly center, slowly circling the massive Black Church and, as I did on this visit, enjoying some of Romania’s best non-Romanian cuisine.

I’m not normally the kind of jackhole that travels 10,000 miles just to eat at the local Hard Rock Café. I love Romanian food, but seriously, after weeks/months of the same stuff every single day, sometimes you just want a hamburger. Or in this case Mexican. I haven’t found anywhere else in all of Europe that does Mexican as well as Bella Musica in central Braşov. Chips with salsa, prepared the way that Buddha intended, and a shot of ear-smoking ţuică arrive after you order and it just gets better from there. Fajitas, burritos and excellent cuts of beef are available at reasonable prices. And, yes, they do Romanian food and they do it well. There’s a ‘ciorba de pui a la Grec‘ (countryside chicken soup, Greek style) on the menu that aroused me more than the first time I saw Michelle Hunziker topless.

I’m gonna be frank, with limited in-town time and yet more foul weather, I didn’t spend much time roaming Braşov on this particular stopover, but even quickly driving through town served to remind me that Braşov is well worth its notoriety. Even better, there’s a somewhat competitive budget accommodations industry here, making this one of the few cities in Romania where a decent hostel stay is attainable. We stayed at Rolling Stone Hostel this time around after a grimy, malodorous stay at another hostel during my last visit, which, despite the already-dated review in the current LP, has free internet/WiFi and reasonably priced castle tours.

Like most popular cities, it’s probably best to avoid Braşov in July and August, otherwise, this remains a must-visit city on any Romanian tour

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 further amateur food reviews and more references to Michelle Hunziker’s killer bod.