Peaceful Weekend Getaways: Three Monasteries
Personally, I love visiting cathedrals. Integrated into the urban landscape and yet cutting out a section of it which is emotionally special, a bridge to the everlasting past, historic cathedrals, with their high vaults, allow your spirit to straighten up and rise like the sound of a flute towards the high ceiling - liberated for a while from the inconveniences of here and now. And should pipe organ music accompany the spiritual mini-tour, access to some sort of “higher level” feeling is guaranteed.
Monasteries, on the other hand, are slightly different. While cathedrals stand as firm mementos of a higher order, a celestial hierarchy implanted (perhaps aspirationally) in the middle of the bustling city, monasteries are clearly set apart like little worlds of their own. (In fact, the word itself comes from Greek monastērion < monazein, "to live alone". ) Typically located at some distance from cities, monasteries are autonomous religious settlements designed to be self-sufficient. Architecturally, an Orthodox monastery compound includes the main church (biserica), a smaller chapel (paraclis), the monks’/nuns’ cells (chilíi), the refectory, a kiosk where holy water is made available to visitors (aghiazmatar), and outbuildings like guest rooms, sheds or stables. In the past, monasteries were landowners with their own little economies based on some agricultural business or even wineries; indeed, today some still have little farms, orchards or fisheries they run in order to generate self-sustaining income. Also in the past, they used to function as fortresses, sheltering local villagers, offering them protection from invading outsiders. Today, they just offer refuge to busy townsfolk impacted by the stressful toll of city life, with many providing accommodation and meals at convenient prices.
The latter benefit is partly why monasteries are a very popular destination with local tourists in Romania, nowadays. But expats living here who are curious to know where many Romanians get away for the weekend, so that they can explore those destinations too, should also be aware that quite a few such short-term visitors actually do religious tourism. That is to say, they visit monasteries because, as practising Orthodox Christians, they want to pay homage to wonder-working icons or get water from blessed springs which are said to have healing properties.
Whether you are religious or not, though, monasteries are definitely fine destinations because they literally offer access to oases of peace and quiet – let alone opportunities for meditation and/or insights, depending on your individual mood and mindset. So let’s have a look at three such pockets of tranquility, all located in the county of Prahova and easily reachable by car on day-trips from Bucharest.
First, the Ghighiu monastery. Built originally in late 16th century, as the existing historical records imply, the monastery owned a relatively large estate and is now home to a wonder-working Black Madonna icon, Saint Mary the Syrian, which draws thousands of pilgrims and visitors every year. Ten minutes away from the main church, in the monastery’s gardens there is also a healing spring which can be reached on foot via an impeccably gardened passageway of vegetation; in late spring, walking under the vaults of colourful flowers, with their mesmerising scents, feels a bit like being on your way to Eden. The balsamic compound of Ghighiu (aerial views of which you can watch in the video below) is a 1-hour drive from Bucharest, located on the eastern Ploieşti belt, along the DN1A route Bucharest > Otopeni > Baloteşti > Ciolpani > Bărcăneşti > Ghighiu.
Secondly, the Caraiman Monastery. As the (recent) story goes, its founder father Gherontie Puiu had a dream in which Saint Mary told him, “You’ll find a fir tree with six branches, near a stream … . Build the monastery there!” So the compound was originally built in 1998 around a stately fir tree which supports the aghiazmatar. Today, it seems part of an ambitious development project which includes, on a 23,500-square-metre area, a three-winged building with a large guest wing and a conference and training events unit called the “Holy Cross” Social Pastoral Centre, as well as a small farm with an enclosure where young visitors wonder at the up-close proximity of turkeys, geese, ducks and fluffy yellow chickens. The Caraiman Monastery is two hours away from Bucharest and can be reached, as you will see in the short virtual drive at the end of this post, via a pleasantly winding road off the DN1/E60 route Bucharest > Otopeni > Băicoi > Câmpina > Sinaia > Buşteni.
Finally, the Cheia Monastery is set in a slightly wilder area around Wallachia’s old border with Transylvania, near the mountain village of Cheia (900m altitude) and a picturesque small lake, surrounded by wooded hills and rugged mountain peaks. Originally a shelter to persecuted Romanian refugees from neighbouring Transylvania (ungureni) in the 19th century, the place was home to two wooden abbeys (the first of which was built in 1770), before the current brick-and-stone frescoed church was erected in 1835. Today, the monastery compound includes a three-winged building encircling the main church, the chapel and a frescoed aghiazmatar kiosk in the pleasantly gardened patio, with monks’ cells, guest rooms, a small library and museum, as well as a nearby modest fish farm with rather unappealing tanks where young visitors, however, are happy to do a bit of trout-spotting. Cheia is one hour and 45 minutes away from Bucharest, located on the DN1A road, following the route Bucharest > Otopeni > Ploieşti > Vălenii de Munte > Măneciu > Cheia.
So if you’re after a quiet weekend when you can just follow the trail of your thoughts in a peaceful environment, visiting a monastery might just be the thing for you. Here’s a relaxing short drive to Caraiman to get you started...
Notes & sources