Hitchhiking to Mountaintop Monastery in Transylvania
Why go all the way to a remote monastery in the Carpathian mountains of central Romania?
To visit a grave, of course. A man whose life greatly influenced mine – a man who taught me to take my own spiritual growth seriously and to explore my soul’s depths – his teacher was Arsenie Boca (29.9.1910 – 28.11.1989). He told me a lot about Arsenie Boca, Romanian orthodox monk, priest and artist persecuted under the communists, who is revered with increasing intensity in Romania. While interning in a church congregation in Vienna in 2015, I spontaneously decided to go on a pilgrimage to visit Boca’s grave at Prislop Monastery, and learn about this country in person, a country and place my friend and teacher had told me so much about.
How to Get to Prislop
Coming from Vienna, first I had to take a train to Budapest, then hitched a ride via Blablacar.com, a ride-sharing app to Cluj-Napoca, a 6 hour drive (crossing the border here by car means leaving the Schengen Visa area, so depending upon your passport it might take longer). Then I got another Blabla ride from Cluj to Deva (approx. 2 hours south) and there my friendly Romanian driver helped me find the right mini-bus heading south from the domestic bus station at Piata Garii in central Deva. The minibus dropped me off 45 minutes later in Hateg, via a stop in Hunedoara.
After enjoying a lunch of polenta with egg and cheese, a national dish called ‘mămăligă cu bulz cu ou’, I hired a taxi to drive me the 15 km up to Prislop monastery. [Update: as of 2016 the road to the monastery is under construction and makes the trip more difficult, check Tripadvisor reviews for the latest]. The driver waited for me, and I left my backpack in the car so I was free to explore the final resting place of the Romanian orthodox priest and monk Arsenie Boca.
Transportation in Romania
Getting to Romania is quickest by plane, but most fun by car – the roads are not very well-developed, and there are few highways so travel is slow but this gives you a view of the countryside, much of which still untouched.You can see the haystacks piled up in their traditional mushroom form, and really get a feel for the place. Because I had a limited time, once I had seen the monastery, I took the taxi back to Hateg, and hitched by lorry to the train station in Simeria; from there I got a train from there to Sibiu, another city I was eager to see.
Hitchhiking is still common in rural Romania, and so I decided to give it a try when needed to get back to Vienna ASAP, and I saw a middle-aged woman hitching a ride on a main road. I stood next to her and followed suit when she got into a large truck, or lorry, for the Brits out there. I don’t recommend hitch-hiking for those uninitiated to budget travel or cultures in general. I rarely do it, and rely upon my intuition, faith and years of experience with cultures, and with people.
For example, once I hitched a ride with my host sister in Berlin because we were late to school when I was a 16-year-old exchange student. Not a good idea. The men who picked us up joked about not letting us out, and tried to get some action from us, before finally opening the doors again. At the time, being late for school trumped risk of bodily injury apparently: Ah, teenagers.
But hitching remains commonplace in rural areas and less-developed countries where there’s the culture of hospitality and scarce resources, or no public infrastructure, where everyone still knows everyone else and helping out your neighbor remains self-evident. I also discovered in Romania that it seemed like every second person I met had an immediate family member who had immigrated to the U.S., so they were more than happy to help me and tell me about their son or daughter, now a lawyer or doctor in San Francisco, or New York. My fellow hitcher lady was no different.
Four years later in Berlin I encountered some Romanian guest laborers living near a friend’s container commune (seriously, so Berlin!) and despite the language barrier, I managed to communicate that I had visited Prislop. That warranted receiving a portion of fried chicken and many thumbs up from them. Boca is well-known throughout the Romanian world for having spiritual powers, and many people still flock to his grave, and to see his paintings. I was lucky that it was not very busy the day I visited, and the crowd-control lines were empty.
History of Prislop
Prislop is believed to have been founded by monk and serial-monastery-founder St. Nicodim in the second half of the 14th Century, and experienced many ups and downs in the centuries since, finally being restored under the leadership of Boca in 1948. Prislop is still an active monastery, or rather nunnery actually with nuns and clergy busily going about their day. There is supposed to be a healing spring nearby, but I did not explore that far.
The main hi-light is the small stone church, which houses one of Boca’s frescoes, and his grave up the hill, with the trees and mountains rising up around. It is said that flowers there never wilt or die; they did look rather fresh to me. The faithful come up to the grave to touch it, and the presence of this man’s influence is still to be felt. My friend related an anecdote about Boca, that he was speaking to a congregation and had the ability to perceive people’s lives and deeds, in one incident calling out a woman for aborting a child, and in another chastising other believers, and making a great impression upon them. He became known as “guider of souls” and thousands sought him out for his gifts of prophecy and healing.
Boca became a threat to the communist regime and was banned from clerical work and Prislop in 1959. He then worked at the Romanian Patriarchate’s Workshops in Bucharest and after his retirement in 1967, painted for 15 years at the St. Nicholas” Orthodox Church in Drăgănescu in Southern Romania, now known as the “Sistine Chapel of Romania.”
It is difficult to find much material on his life and work outside of Romanian, but in time that will change. According to Wikipedia, in October 2015, the same month of my visit to Prislop, the autonomous Romanian Orthodox church began considering “the cause of his recognition and proclamation as a saint.” If you speak Romanian, you might find this film interesting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptbTap5NHqw
As his influence grows, so do the commercial opportunities connected to his name; the road to the monastery has people selling icons and photos of the priest, his piercing eyes and stern visage appearing to question the enterprise. I also saw his photo for sale in other areas of Romania .
During my trip I was listening to this Romanian a capella group’s religious album, it gives a you a feel for the language: Artis Voice Quartet, “Hristos a Inviat/Christ Was Sent” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gslHZyJJ-Bg
I only learned of this artist last year on my second trip to Romania, but in recent years, famous Romanian rapper Cedry2k (aka Marius Stelian Crăciun) has become influenced by Arsenie Boca in his conversion (back) to Romanian Orthodoxy. You can hear one of his songs here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwwVsBPWfCc.
Here is an interview with Cedry2k from 2013, where he talks about his return to God. If you speak Romanian, you will enjoy it, otherwise I put it in Google Translate which did an ok job, and this quote from him covers everything:
“Everything happened gradually, slowly. Over time, I began to appreciate this example of Christ, of unconditional love. I came to realize that in life it is relatively easy to do anything. One thing is very difficult – to love unconditionally, to give your heart to a man who is your enemy, to respond in the end with love to everything around you. Not necessarily because it is so. you have to, but because that’s the reality in you. And slowly, slowly, all my prejudices towards the Church were taken away. I happened to encounter certain maxims of the saints who shocked me by their depth. They seemed to me of divine origin….Love is the only true proof of God’s presence in the world.”