Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Death Valley

When planning a longer trip, such as this one, it is impossible to draw up a detailed itinerary. You roughly know where you want to go and some major points to hit along the way, but there are so many variables, unknowns and things that could happen along the way that anything more is a waste of effort. One thing, however, that is important to take into account is climate. Travelling in the cold, especially when camping or hitchhiking, is not much fun, and so it is important to oscillate north and south depending on the seasons. So I went to Scandinavia in June and now I'm heading south to the Mediterranean as Autumn has well and truly displaced Summer and is being hounded by Winter to get a move on. I may, indeed, have tarried a bit too long on the way as the past few days camping out in the Carpathian foothills in northern Romania have seen temperatures plunge to freezing. (The silver lining to this cold cloud is that I have to wear more clothes and so my rucksack is getting lighter.) Furthermore, days are getting ever shorter, which means that my time to explore is getting more limited as I need to find a place to pitch my tent and sleep before it gets too dark. But things should hopefully get better soon as I've reached a turning point in my travels and it's (more or less) south from here. So where am I?

Suceavita monastery. Not just a piritual centre, but also an important defensive bastion, guarding one of the passes to northern Moldova.

Well, from Moldova I headed west and crossed the border into Moldova (which is what Romanians call their northeastern region that, along with the Republic of Moldova, once made up the erstwhile Princedom of Moldova - naturally confusion about what you're actually talking about reigns supreme). The town of Suceava, in the eastern foothills of the Carpathians used to be the capital of medieval Moldova, and although its a pretty unremarkable town for the most part, it's still home to the castle of Stephen the Great (Stefan cel Mare, who ruled Moldova for 47 years back in the 15th century, fought endlessly against the Turks, and is the national hero and saint, and after whom every main street, many schools and untold churches are named) and a couple of nice churches and monasteries. More importantly though, it's a great base for exploring the monasteries of Southern Bucovina (which, paradoxically, is the northernmost region of Romania - Northern Bucovina is across the border in Ukraine). I've been to a good number of monasteries throughout my travels, but these are truly worth making the detour. Each is located in a tucked-away valley in the Carpathians and surrounded by a defensive wall, giving an added air of remoteness and separation from the real world. But their main draw is their frescoes: each unique and vivid, with colours remarkably bright given their old age and lack of restoration to date. Several of them even have frescoes on their exterior walls, something that I've not seen anywhere else before, and the way they have resisted the elements is a real testament to the skill of those old painters. As fascinating is the subject of the paintings. Of course you have your standard Bible stories - Genesis, the Crucifixion and all that - but the artists were particularly fond of showing multitudes of martyred saints and their methods of martyrdom. Most common scenes display decapitations, either singly or en masse, but interspersed among these scenes are deliciously gruesome depictions of boiling, burning, crushing on wheels, impalings, drawings and even one instance of a head being sawn vertically in half. Obviously in those days there were no parental advisory warnings.

Sunset over the Carpathians from a mountain pass.

From Bucovina I crossed the Carpathians to the remote region of Maramures. This northern, border region is separated from the rest of Romania by high mountains and had little contact with Ukraine (and before the USSR) to the north. It therefore passed under the radar of the worst excesses of Communist collectivism and the planned economy and carried on through the 20th century much as it had for the previous hundreds of years. Here one can still see glimpses of rural life that have disappeared everywhere else in Europe: crops gathered by hand, grass laboriously cut by scythe. herders corralling a mere handful of cows from one small pasture to another, and carts transporting everything, lazily, from one village to the next. Of course Maramures's physical barriers could only hold back the tide of time for only so long and so wooden houses are being rapidly replaced by brick, cars speed along country lanes, and electricity cables string from house to house. Nevertheless, the old traditions and way of life are still very much alive and well here, and wandering from village to village, slowing down to their sedate pace of life is a walk back in time. I must have been a strange sight with my big rucksack and red jacket, but the villagers don't bat an eyelid at the outside interest and carry on oblivious: sturdy old women (personally I think they eat the thin ones) wearing florally bordered shawls, knee-length skirts, substantial stockings and sensible vests sit on benches lining the road, huddled together, chatting, munching on sunflower seeds and gossiping about passers-by; weathered men wear jackets of indeterminable material and age topped with hats several sizes too small and squint at you half in suspicion and half in welcome as you greet them with a buna ziva. There are no young people. They're all abroad sending back money to rebuild, extend and renovate the family houses which are in various stages of completion. The communities are conservative and religious and the focus of each village is its church. Many old, wooden churches, dating from as early as the 15th century, still survive (though generally new churches have now been built for everyday use), their slender spires visible from afar. These churches are often masterpieces of traditional folk-art showing an uncommon vibrancy, warmth and slightly macabre fascination with the afterlife. The most bizarre is the parish church in the small village of Poienile Izei, tucked away from the main road at the end of a side-valley. On the interior of this cute little church are scenes of Hell and the tortures that await people for their various sins, such as theft, adultery, usury and not going to church on Sunday. As you can see from the picture, they had a strange fixation with anal punishments.

Rural visions of Hell in Poienile Izei (my personal favourite is the devil in the middle on the left).

This fixation with death carries on further down the valley in the town of Sapanta, just across the Tisza river from Ukraine, which is famous for its cemetery. Here, however, the morbid is given a light and humourous twist in the so-called Happy Cemetery. The work of a single man (and now carried on by his apprentice) the blue, wooden grave crosses are decorated with traditional, colourful geometric motifs, but they differ from other funerary monuments in that in place of some mournful epitaph there is a bright depiction of the deceased, along with a cheery verse (told in the first person) recounting their life and passing. It's an uplifting and cheery place, and at the same time gives a good impression of village life as old ladies are often shown spinning yarn or milking cows, men tend their sheep and a few show doctors, lawyers and teachers in formal clothes, whereas newer crosses might show a farmer on his tractor or a young man with his favourite car. The people buried here may not be as famous or important as those in Pere Lachaise or Westminster, but these personal memorials make them live on far more vividly than the majestic stone tombs of the elite.

Jolly grave crosses at the Happy Cemetery.


Sarah said...

The Happy cemetary really impressed me. I absolutely enjoy the idea of having last resting places like this in any town, instead of those black or dark grey tombstones that look so mournful and anonymous. It is fantastic that you can read something about the lives of the people who rest there - so much more personal! It also seems to focus on the positive side: The happiness that was induced by the existance of the deceased - not the sorrow brought by their death. It probably also brings a change of mind of those who visit by underscoring that live and death strongly belong together. Thanks for sharing your impressions!

Erik said...

Indeed, I agree. A beautiful view of death, and very healthy too. I would love to have a personalised grave cross like that.

Anonymous said...

Did you notice the bit in the Poienile Izei fresco showing the punishment in hell of a priest's wife who ironed her husband's shirt on a Sunday ?