During the second Millennium, Romanian history was defined by its geographical juxtaposition to expansionist states. Resistance to foreign domination from the 14th to the 16th centuries led to the gradual establishment of independent principalities – Wallachia (c.1310), Moldavia (1359) and Transylvania (1541).
Four years after the fall of Constantinople (1453), Stefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great) became Prince of Moldavia and for the next fifty years led a spirited defence against constant Turkish invasions, safeguarding much of Western Europe in the process. It was against this backdrop that Stefan and his son, Petru Rares, established almost thirty fortified monasteries and churches deep in the foothills of the Eastern Carpathians, the north-eastern region of present-day Romania.
Peasant armies would gather for battle inside the monasteries’ walls, and to educate and entertain the illiterate soldiers and camp-followers the exteriors of the churches were adorned with paintings of biblical stories and other Christian themes, including a number of anti-Ottoman messages. Byzantine in style as befits their Orthodox congregation, the frescoes have remarkable finesse of draughtsmanship and chromatic refinement.
Although the north-facing walls have been damaged by centuries of rain and wind, the images on the other walls have astonishingly retained their original vivacity, including the remarkable intensity of colour - from the greens of Suceviţa, to the pinks of Humor and the famous blue at Voronet.
Across the Carpathians, in the former Principality of Transylvania, there remain many Saxon villages which date from the 12th century when north Europeans, predominantly from the Luxembourg region, were recruited to migrate to Europe’s borderlands to farm, build, mine and trade. In due course, they also became bulwarks against incursions from the East. Hence the extraordinary fortifications around their village churches, constructed as citadels to protect the whole village, permanently stocked in expectation of a sudden siege.
The landscapes of the Bucovina (as the northern part of old Moldavia is known) and Transylvania are those of gently rolling hills, dense woods, broad rivers and villages with pastel painted houses and riotous flower beds. Horses are still to be found in harness, ploughing the fields and transporting produce to markets. The towns are marvellous survivals, emerging from decades of neglect to reveal cityscapes as lovely and architecturally interesting as anywhere in the former Austro-Hungarian empire. The welcome you will receive in Romania is sure to be warm and the hospitality generous.
Bucharest. Fly at c. 2.50pm from London Heathrow to Bucharest (Tarom Airlines). Overnight Bucharest.
Bucharest, Gura Humorului. Visit the National Art Museum with its comprehensive collection of 14th- to 20th-century Romanian art; Cotroceni Palace, the former home of Queen Marie and now the official residence of the Romanian Head of State, and the Village Museum with its outdoor collection of traditonal peasant houses. Internal flight from Bucharest to Suceava. Drive to Gura Humorului. First of three nights in Gura Humorului.
Humor, Râșca, Voroneț. The interior frescoes at the church at Humor (1530) are unsurpassed. Râșca (1540), located in a remote valley, is a charming working monastery and boasts a Ladder of St John on its South wall. Voroneț Monastery (1488), considered by many to be the most splendid in Bucovina, offers a magnificent Last Judgement. Overnight Gura Humorului.
Arbore, Suceviţa, Moldovița. Arbore’s (1501) superbly executed frescoes on the western wall, with a notably green cast, contain scenes from the Lives of St Nicholas, St George and St Paraskeva. In bucolic surroundings, Suceviţa (1595) with its beautifully preserved frescoes is the last of the great painted monasteries in Bucovina. Moldovița’s (1532) remote position and fortifications have protected its frescoes from invaders and marauders alike. Overnight Gura Humorului.
Târgu Mureș, Sighișoara. Cross the Carpathians into Transylvania. Târgu Mureș is endowed with an array of buildings in a Hungarian version of Arts & Crafts and Secessionist styles. The 1913 Palace of Culture – concert hall, art gallery, ceremonial halls - is as fine as any comparable building in Central Europe. Located on top of a hill, natural defensiveness supplemented by impressive military engineering, Sighișoara is a highly picturesque little town. Buildings range from the 13th to the 19th centuries with a fine 15th-century church with good furnishings and a superb altarpiece of 1490. First of two nights in Sighișoara.
Criș, Mălâncrav, Biertan, Richiș, Alma Vii, Mediaș. Located in an exceptionally lovely valley, hillsides striated with terraces for (now vanished) vines, the splendid Gothic church of Biertan soars above its formidable fortifications and the charmingly modest village below. The village church at Mălâncrav is celebrated for the remarkably well-preserved murals of 1421. Overnight in Sighișoara.
Prejmer, Brașov, Sinaia. On the way to Brașov, stop at Prejmer for one more fortified church. The inner face of the 12-metre curtain wall is spectacularly encased with emergency accommodation and storage chambers. With a wonderful jumble of facades from, principally, the 18th to the early 20th centuries, Brașov is as handsome a provincial city as anywhere in eastern Europe. The Black Church is the largest Gothic church in Romania, and the interior is enlivened with nearly 100 oriental carpets. Much of the day is free to enjoy the streetscape, the cafes and the museums. Outside the walls, there is a cable car to the top of an adjacent hill. The road south passes through the Transylvanian Alps and the royal summer resort of Sinaia. First of two nights in Sinaia.
Sinaia. Here visit the summer retreat of the Romanian royal family, Peleș and Pelișor Castles, built, extended and embellished 1875–1914. The sequence of sumptuous interiors, with astonishingly richly carved woodwork, is as fine as any of its sort in Europe, and the original contents are intact. Overnight in Sinaia.
Sinaia, Bucharest. Descend to the Wallachian plain and fly from Bucharest, returning to Heathrow c. 2.05pm.
Travel writer and historian. His travel books include Fortresses of Faith: The Kirchenburgen of Transylvania, Revelations of Byzantium: The Monasteries & Painted Churches of N.E. Moldavia and Moons & Aurochs: Romanian journeys. He has written four histories of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) covering Eastern Europe, Italy, Greece and the Far East and has travelled extensively in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,480 or £2,250 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,680 or £2,450 without flights.
Air travel (economy class) on a Tarom Airways flight (Airbus A318) and scheduled domestic Tarom Airlines flight (Airbus 318); travel by private coach throughout; accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 5 lunches and 7 dinners with wine, water and coffee; all admissions to museums, churches and sites; all tips for waiters, drivers and guides; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Athenee Palace Hilton, Bucharest: centrally located 5-star hotel with excellent service and facilities. Best Western Bucovina, Gura Humorului: modern 3-star hotel 37km south-west of Suceava, ideally located for exploring the surrounding area Bathrooms have showers, not baths. The standards of comfort, equipment and service are quite acceptable and commensurate with its category. Central Park Hotel, Sighișoara: an elegant 4-star hotel, located close to the city centre. International Hotel, Sinaia: a modern 4-star conference hotel situated in the foothills of the Bucegi Mountains. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
Participants must be reasonably fit as you will be on your feet for long periods. The tour would not be suitable for anyone who has difficulties with everyday walking and stairclimbing. Some long coach journeys and one internal flight. Average distance by coach per day: 74 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.fco.gov.uk.