Once the easternmost province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bucovina (“land of beech trees”) today straddles the border between Romania and Ukraine: northern Bucovina was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and the region’s historic capital, Chernivtsi (Czernowitz in German and Cernauti in Romanian) lies just 30 kilometers, or about 18 miles, north of the frontier.
The southern part, on the Romanian side, is a world of rolling farmland and steep forested hills, where antique villages and peasant culture coexist with new industry and modern construction. Horses and carts (and the occasional herd of cows) share the roads with SUVs, and intricately carved wood and other ornamentation still decorate many village homes and farmsteads.
Exceptional examples of a rich religious heritage form an important part of the mix.
Here are Romania’s famous painted monasteries, built in the 15th and 16th centuries when the region, a stronghold of Orthodox Christianity, was threatened by Ottoman invaders.
The vividly colored frescoes on their exterior walls, masterpieces of Byzantine painting, tell the tales of saints and heroes, and portray in epic imagery the cataclysmic struggle between good and evil at the end of days.
The monasteries are among Romania’s most celebrated cultural treasures. Listed on Unesco’s roster of world heritage sites, they draw large numbers of visitors throughout the year.
Here, too, however, are religious sites far less known and rarely visited that also form important components of the region’s deeply rooted spiritual patrimony. These are the centuries-old Jewish cemeteries, whose weathered tombstones bear extraordinary carvings that meld folk motifs and religious iconography into evocative examples of faith expressed through art.
Bucovina was once home to a large and thriving Jewish community. Today, however, as throughout much of Eastern Europe, only a few dozen Jewish families live there.
Most of the cemeteries are neglected, but several are fairly well maintained and easy to visit.
Though there are many organized tours to the painted monasteries, a car is needed to see the full range of sites. The roads and overall infrastructure in Bucovina have been upgraded significantly since Romania joined the European Union in 2007.