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Suceava (Romania)

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City: Suceava / Country: Romania / World Region: Europe

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      23.07.2008 23:10
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      Stark but surprising northern Romanian city

      I'll be the first to admit that we didn't make the best use of the short time we spent in Suceava. It's a useful base to explore the celebrated 'painted churches' of this part of Romania (Moldavia - not to be confused with Moldova, which is a country to the east of Romania); we, however, chose to view a very poor exhibition of waxworks at the old fortress and watch Roma teenagers in thrilling horse and cart races - alas I was throwing myself into a hedge to save my life so didn't manage to capture the latter on camera.

      Suceava - pronounced 'Soo-sharva' is situated in north east Romania, about 25 minutes south of the border with Ukraine. There are one or two older buildings but it's pretty clear that the city was extensively developed in the 1960s and 70s with Soviet-style squares and concrete megalith hotels. We visited in summer - which may have helped - but in spite of the large amounts of concrete there was a feeling of space with fountains and hanging baskets and colourful flower beds.

      We arrived there late morning and made our way to Hotel Suceava, primarily because we knew that as an -as yet - un-modernised hotel it would be cheap as well as wonderfully kitsch. We weren't disappointed; our twin room was decorated in a glorious symphony of oranges, mosses and burnt reds - imagine a kind of Dralon New England in the Fall scenario. Having risen early to catch a bus from Ukraine we decided to have a nap before lunch but no sooner had we settled down when a thunderous cacophony started up somewhere beneath us. Enquiries at reception revealed that a dinner-dance of what looked like the Romanian equivalent of the Rotary Club had just commenced. Eight hours later the stragglers were still propped up at the bar propositioning the waitresses.

      The city centre perhaps gave a false impression of the living standards and incomes of most Romanians. Mobile phone stores and shops selling cute Japanese t-shirts and satchels stood out the most and gave an air of prosperity but off the main street there were plenty of second hand clothes stores and these seemed much busier than those shops on the main street. A drive-through McDonalds was deserted but for a group of charmingly grubby Roma children swinging from the 'Golden Arches'. We found a modern Italian restaurant and ate the most authentic pizzas of our trip.

      After lunch we decided to follow some rather convoluted directions in our guidebook and visit the fortress. A short cut behind the church took us down a shady lane of pretty little houses most of which had been creatively extended using whatever materials the owners had to hand. Every garden had fruit trees, a vegetable plot, and lots of flowers. Every garden also had a dog that seemed to take great pleasure in scaring hapless British tourists half to death by barking and growling ferociously behind the gate.

      It was here that we took the most memorable wrong turn of our trip. We came to a small settlement of hand-built mud or clay houses (I'm not sure which), each one occupied by a Roma family. One was still under construction with one of the walls still unbuilt. Inside you could see that the earth or clay was a deep brick red colour, while the exteriors had been painted a vivid turquoise. The houses were small, obviously just somewhere under cover to sleep. All the families had washing gear outside the houses and a rustic cheminee for cooking. We smiled and nodded as we passed and I was longing to be invited in to see the houses but I didn't want to intrude. Unfortunately I wasn't able to find anyone in town who could tell me more about this little community so I regret not having tried to find out more at the time.

      Just past the houses we decided we must have gone the wrong way so we turned back to retrace our steps to a point where the path had forked. As we were walking we heard the pounding of hooves and then shouting and from behind a line of trees two horses appeared, each pulling a small gig. The horses were dark and muscular, both dressed with scarlet plumes in their halters. Driving the gigs were two handsome Roma lads; they were laughing as they drove and geeing up their horses, unaware of us cowering in the bushes as they cantered past.

      After this dramatic diversion our route took us through a flowery meadow, up some old stone steps and then the outer walls of the fourteenth century castle appeared ahead. The fortress - in Romanian 'Cetatea de Scaun' - has clearly been restored and made safe in places. Signs here and there named the various parts of any such fortress but didn't offer much specific to this particular fortress. Having strolled round the moat and clambered over or squeezed through anything that could be clambered over or squeezed through there was nothing more to do than look at the exhibition of waxwork figures in a small marquee next to the castle.

      Inside we joined a Romanian family who were finding the whole experience much more exciting than we were. The middle-aged father became very animated when he caught sight of the effigy of Stalin and insisted his wife take his photograph standing next to it; there was an uncanny and quite disturbing (to us anyway) resemblance which created much mirth amongst their party

      Moving on, the ladies were thrilled to come face to face with a rather ill-looking David Beckham, dressed in the cheapest suit and most plastic loafers available in all of Romania. The colour of the wispy hair was somewhere between putty and bandage on the Dulux colour chart. Like Beckham, Brad Pitt, the next in line, was identifiable only by the name card in front of the effigy: even the uber-compassionate Angelina Jolie wouldn't have given this ragbag a second look with his uncharacteristic long ginger locks and collection of clothes rejected by Oxfam.

      Returning to town late afternoon we stopped to sit in the square and enjoy the sunshine while eating delicious Romanian ice cream. The sun had brought everyone out for a stroll, including lots of Roma kids who besieged us trying to swap tattered pictures of icons for hard currency. I tried to be tough but their sad brown eyes and their persistence won the battle; I gave them all my change but politely declined the mangled Madonna and Child. They'd probably need it again.

      That night we ate traditional Romanian food in a little cellar bar that we would never have found ourselves (another Hurrah for lonely Planet). I had the 'tochitura' - a local dish consisting of mamaliga ( a kind of cornmeal mush - think polenta),with fried pork and a fried egg. Himself tried some rich and spicy goulash. Neither were very 'summery' meals but we were pleased we'd had some comfort food when we went back outside and found ourselves in the middle of a Romanian monsoon. It was Friday night and Suceava's movers and shakers were sheltering under awnings and trees, their glad-rags stuck to them and spattered with mud.

      We said goodbye to Suceava the following morning after a surreal breakfast ordeal where I managed to alienate the hotel waitresses by asking for some milk for my coffee; the milk appeared twenty minutes later as were leaving the table and it came in a jug the size of a small milk churn. It slopped out over the table and my shorts as the waitress banged it on the table. Proof that we had indeed picked the right hotel!

      Suceava is a lively and attractive city that is quite a useful stop off for backpackers although I wouldn't recommend making a special trip. It would be a useful base for exploring the painted monasteries though it might be nicer to stay at a bed and breakfast in the countryside rather than in town. It made a fun and interesting twenty-four hour diversion but doesn't have much to make you linger long.

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    • Product Details

      Located in northeast Romania. Suceava was formerly the capital of Moldova.