Romania’s Prince Charles walk
SuceviÅ£a Monastery is one of the finest of the famous Painted Monasteries of Southern Bucovina. (Diana Mayfield/LPI)
Several years ago, Prince Charles developed a somewhat sudden preoccupation with Romania. During various visits, he has added a commanding voice of dissent to a proposed “Dracula Land” amusement park (rightly so) and has toured a variety of villages, commending their dedication to heritage and traditional lifestyles (never mind that much of this is based on inescapable poverty).
In May 2003 Prince Charles hiked the 20km between Romania’s Putna and Suceviţa Monasteries, leading the trail to be unofficially named “the Prince Charles walk” - or possibly renamed from its previous unofficial title “That Trail that Crosses Over the Muddy Logging Road With All the Mushrooms”.
This diversion was always a popular day-trip, long before Prince Charles anointed it. It harmoniously incorporates all of the elements that make this area of Romania a memorably eclectic detour out of well-worn Transylvania: a pair of important monasteries, an intimate look at village life, immersion into the postcard-caliber, bucolic Moldavian countryside and a mildly strenuous walk through the woods.
Prince Charles walked from Suceviţa to Putna, but those relying on public transport to reach the trailheads would probably do better to reverse that and start at Putna. It is accessible via an infrequent, crawling yet scenic, two-and-a-half hour train ride from Suceava, the nearest large city and prime staging area for visiting the area’s famous monasteries.
After shaking off the anesthetizing effects of the train ride, head straight to Putna Monastery. Built between 1466 and 1481, Putna does not receive many foreign tourists since it does not boast the trippy, fear-of-God exterior frescos found on other famous monasteries in the region. Instead, it attracts mostly Romanian visitors, as it is the final resting place of Ştefan cel Mare (Stephan the Great; 1433 to 1504) who is still considered a hero to Romanians.
During his reign as Prince of Moldavia, when Stephan was not handily repulsing forces from Poland and Hungary, he faced overwhelming odds while resisting the advance of the Ottoman Empire. This feat made him venerated throughout Europe. Pope Sixtus IV bestowed Stephan with the Atheta Christi (Champion of Christ) award and he was canonized by the Romanian Orthodox Church. He is also credited with founding many of the monasteries in the area that are still standing today, including Putna. Look for his name, prominently landscaped into the hillside just south of the village. The monastery’s museum holds several treasures, including the Holy Book that Stephan carried when he went to battle.
On the trail
The trail's blue cross markings, some of them quite faded, do not actually begin until almost 2km outside the village. When departing Putna, take the first right onto an unpaved road after exiting the monastery's gate and follow the “S” curve around the edge of the village. The road will cross a small stream and continue parallel to the stream for some time before the first blue cross appears on the side barrier of a small cement bridge.
The road meanders past farm houses, skittish livestock and intriguing snapshots of rural Romanian life, before it abruptly veers left and plentiful blue crosses lead up a steep hill and deep into the forest. The going eventually gets far less steep, but the uphill rise continues for several kilometres through the quiet, unspoiled forest before a mild downhill begins. Though markings are thin at times, the trail is fairly easy to follow until it joins with a logging road. This unpaved, intermittently muddy road eventually exits the forest, becomes a paved road (where the blue trail markings disappear all together) and scattered homes become increasingly plentiful before the road terminates at the front door of Suceviţa Monastery. The hike should take roughly five hours.
Making it to Suceviţa
Suceviţa Monastery is the largest and perhaps all-around finest of the famous painted monasteries of Southern Bucovina. Built between 1582 and 1601, the exterior of the church inside the fortified enclosure is almost completely covered with predominantly red and green frescoes (dating from around 1590), except the western wall which, legend has it, went unfinished after the artist died from a scaffolding fall. Other highly superstitious artists were too frightened to continue his work.
From here one can either hitchhike (a very common practice in the Romanian countryside) or flag down a passing minibus headed north toward Rădăuţi, from where hourly buses depart to take you back to your starting point of Suceava.