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Exploring Moldavia's Painted Monasteries

Among the great delights Romania has to offer (for some the greatest) are the monastic churches in the Bucovina region of Moldavia. With exteriors and interiors almost entirely covered in vivid frescoes of biblical tales -- images rendering the word of God (and the clergy) accessible to the illiterate masses -- these are considered so unique that the best preserved have been accorded UNESCO World Heritage status. Bluntly put, these well-preserved examples are nothing short of miraculous, given that their painted exteriors have faced exposure to extreme conditions, including snow and blinding sun, for 400 to 500 years.

Located within fortified monastic complexes designed to stave off enemy attacks, the churches were erected to thank God for victories in battles against the Turkish invaders; the frescoes that adorn the churches thus also honor their founders and, ironically enough, pay tribute to the violent warrior-leaders and womanizers, like Stefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great), who fought to protect the land from marauding invaders. A cousin of Vlad the Impaler, Stefan cel Mare was responsible for commissioning many of the churches; canonized in 1992, he not only slaughtered countless Turks, but left a trail of illegitimate children born of his voracious appetite for women.

Five monastic complexes are reviewed below, but there are many more that might be explored during a longer visit to the region; if you don't want to join an organized tour you will need to hire a car and driver or an English-speaking guide. Note, too, that the five "monasteries" described here are actually inhabited by nuns rather than monks; nevertheless, they are all living religious monuments, and visitors should dress accordingly; don't show up with bare legs or shoulders (wraparound skirts are available for those ignorant of these strictly enforced rules). There's a small fee for photography (usually L6/$2.60/£1.60) within the monastic grounds, but cameras may not be used inside the churches. Opening times given here are for the summer; times may vary during colder periods, when monasteries close earlier.

Without too much of a rush, you can comfortably see all five monasteries reviewed below in 1 day. For a top-notch monastery tour, look no further than knowledgeable Ciprian Slenku (tel. 0744-292-588; monasterytour@yahoo.com), who will talk you through the history and cultural significance of each of the monuments you visit, tailoring an outing to match your schedule; he charges between 40€ and 100€ ($51-$127) per day, depending on your requirements. If he's not available, an equally rated guide is Monika (tel. 0723-782-328; www.classhostel.ro). Besides operating a hostel in Suceava, this bright-eyed entrepreneur is on good terms with many of the nuns, which makes the visits even more special. Monika is also the most careful driver in Romania, and charges just L100 ($43/£27) per person for a full-day tour (excluding admission to monasteries).

If you'd prefer to go through a professional company, trips to the monasteries can be arranged through Icar Tours, Str. Vasile Alecsandri 10 (tel. 0230/52-3553; www.icar.ro), an agency that's also useful for various other travel needs. DiscoveRomania includes the Moldavian churches on one of its itineraries, and tours organized with this outfit will ensure that you enjoy the finest local homestays available.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.