In the north east of the country, wedged up against the borders with Ukraine and Moldova, Southern Bucovina is a place of forested hills, enduring traditions, history and folklore, and home to a number of famous painted monasteries and churches – artistic monuments that are collectively designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Across the steep-sided, rolling hills and deep-cut valleys, there is a sense that time moves more slowly here; that the ancient rhythms of the countryside still play out here, despite the intervention of cars and TV and mobile phones. Small-holdings dot the hillside and shepherds tend the livestock, just as they have done for centuries, and although rural life may seem hard, they are hardships that are understood and accepted.
We only spent a couple of days here, based in Vatra Moldoviţei, and although the cloud was low and rain frequent, it certainly added to the ambience of the place. We visited the incredible painted monasteries of Moldoviţa and Suceviţa, looked round the fascinating ethnographic museum in Gura Humorului, checked out some local crafts and even took a short journey on a restored narrow gauge railway.
But despite the weather, it was still the walking and countryside that captivated. On day one, we took a short walk over the hills between Argel and Vatra Moldoviţei, wreathed in low cloud, absorbing the quiet scenes of rural life and the lie of the land with jackets zipped against the rain.
On day two, we visited the Moldoviţa monastery before embarking on a 5-and-a-half-hour walk along a series of interconnecting ridges to reach the pass at Ciumârna. It was another moody day, but once again the low cloud and wet weather brought our focus close at hand, creating an intimacy with our surroundings not possible in better conditions.
From Vatra Moldoviţei, we gained the ridge, exchanged greetings with a shepherd and his dogs, and followed the trail across hillside and through woods. And then, on the track before us …… wolf prints!
Sometime in the past few hours, a scene as old as time had played out in these woods, with hunter and hunted entwined in a delicate balance between life and death. The prints followed the track for 50 metres or more, clearly showing three or four wolves on the trail of a single deer, a few moments of time captured fleetingly in the mud that will remain with us forever.
These hills and valleys and villages may not have the altitude of the Făgăraş or the drama of the Piatra Craiului, nor the reputation of Transylvania or Dracula’s Castle to catapult them to international stardom. But what they lack in profile, they more than make up for in timeless tradition and allure, cloaked in mystery as they are wreathed in cloud.
Like the painted monasteries, more is revealed from a close-up examination than from distant viewing. There is a sense that what goes on here today has gone on in much the same way day after day, season after season, year after year, for centuries. It is a privilege to walk in these hills, even for a short while, and glimpse the culture and traditions that are woven into the landscape and the lives of the people who inhabit them.