In the southern part of Romania, not too far from Bucharest, there is a small city of great historical importance: Curtea de Arges. One of the oldest towns in the country, Curtea de Arges was the capital of feudal Wallachia. But that’s not the only thing that it can brag about. The city is also home to one of Romania’s most beautiful churches – Curtea de Arges Monastery – a landmark steeped in history and surrounded by legend.
Considered a symbol of the Romanian monastic world, Curtea de Arges Monastery is also an amazing architectural monument. Totally worth visiting if you go to Romania.
A Brief History of Curtea de Arges Monastery
The original cathedral in Curtea de Arges was founded in 1514 by Prince Neagoe Basarab, on the ruins of an old Orthodox church from the 14th century. The consecration took place on August 15, 1517 (on the Feast of the Assumption) in the presence of Prince Neagoe Basarab and his family, the courtiers and boyars, as well as the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Bishop of Wallachia.
In 1610 the troops of the Transylvanian prince Gabriel Báthory conquered the city of Curtea de Arges. The invaders stole all the precious objects from the monastery, desecrated the graves and even melted down the cathedral’s tin roof to use it for guns.
Throughout the centuries Curtea de Arges Cathedral underwent many restorations. The first to rebuilt and endowed the cathedral was Prince Matei Basarab (1632-1654). Later on, Prince Serban Cantacuzino (1769-1774) carried out some restoration work also. Then, during the wars with the Russians and the Turks, the monastery was again robbed and devastated.
The current appearance of the cathedral dates back to 1875 and is the merit of King Carol I of Romania who hired a famous French architect to do the restoration. The architect also built the episcopal palace which the king used as his summer residence.
From a Princely Monastery to a Royal Cathedral and Necropolis
Before becoming monarch of Romania, Carol I of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen visited the whole country on horseback. He chose Neag’s Bridge, near Sinaia, as his place of residence and Curtea de Arges as his burial place. As a result, he built the Peles – one of the most beautiful castles in Romania – and restored the cathedral at Curtea de Arges, transforming it into a necropolis for the royal family.
The cathedral, which resembles a very large mausoleum, sits upon a raised platform above the ground. The architectural style is Byzantine, with Moorish arabesques and fancy trimmings. The shape is oblong, with a central dome fronted by two smaller cupolas and a secondary dome that springs from the annex.
In the narthex of the cathedral are the tombs of the founders: Neagoe Basarab, his wife – Stana (Sofronia) and their daughters. Also here are the tombstones Neagoe Basarab’s sons-in-law: Stefanitā Vodā, and Radu de la Afumati.
On the other side of the narthex are the tombs of the kings of Romania: Carol I (1914) and Queen Elisabeta (1916), who after her husband’s death retired to Curtea de Arges Monastery; King Ferdinand (1927) and Queen Maria (1938); King Charles II and his son, King Michael I.
Queen Maria’s body was buried at the Curtea de Arges Cathedral, but as per own request, her heart was laid in the Chapel of Stella Maris in Balchik. In 1940, when Romania surrendered Balchik to Bulgaria, the queen’s heart was temporarily buried near Bran Castle. However, in 2015 her grandson King Michael I of Romania requested that her heart be moved in the Pelisor Castle where it is even today.
Myths and Legends of Curtea de Arges
The beautiful cathedral at Curtea de Arges has inspired many legends. But perhaps the most beloved one of all is the legend of Manole, the chief mason who built the monastery. This ballad is an example of a folkloric myth that has at its core the belief that nothing durable and unique can be built without sacrifices.
The Legend of Master Manole
The story has it that Negru Vodā (the Black Prince) – one of the rulers of Wallachia – wanted to built the greatest monastery that anyone has ever seen. He hired a group of 10 skilled masons whose leader was Manole, and promised to make them very rich if they succeeded. But if they failed, he threatened to execute them all.
The masons started to work, but the place seemed to be cursed. Whatever the workers built during the day, fell apart during the night. Tired and discouraged, the masons began fearing for their lives.
One night master Manole had a dream showing him that the church would not stand until they immure a human being within the walls. Since the site for the monastery was very remote, the only people coming by were the workers’ wives and sisters. So they decided that the first woman to appear the next day will be the one they will sacrifice.
Manole prayed the whole night for rain and wind and hail that would keep his wife from coming. And God listened to his prayers and send down the most terrible of storms. But nothing could keep Ana, his pregnant wife, from showing up next day to bring her husband’s lunch. Horrified and devastated, Manole had no choice but to keep his promise.
When the masons finished the church, Negru Vodā asked them if they could ever make a similarly marvelous construction. Manole and his masons answered they could easily build an even greater building. Fearing the workers would build a more beautiful cathedral for someone else, the Prince let them all stranded on the roof to perish.
The masons fashioned themselves wooden wings and tried to fly off the roof. But, one by one, they all fell to the ground and died.
* Manole’s Funtain
On the spot where Manole fell, a spring of crystal clear water sprang. In time the spring went dry, but in its place people built a beautiful fountain to keep the legend alive. Manole’s Fountain is in a small park across from the monastery.
NOTE: One of the salons in the Episcopal palace displays a series of mural paintings depicting the legend of Manole. The salon is currently closed to the public, but it may reopen in the future, so check at the entrance.
The Legend of Saint Filofteea (The Maid from Arges)
Another legend refers to Saint Filofteea, a 12-year old girl whose relics are in the chapel of the Curtea de Arges monastery. The story says that the girl used to carry food to her father who was working out in the field. But one day she gave the food to some beggars she encountered along the way, so she had no food left for her father.
Hungry and upset, the father wanted to punish her, but Filofteea ran away. That made the father even more mad, so he threw his axe towards her and killed her with one hit. Realizing what he did, the father tried to save the girl, but her lifeless body became miraculously so heavy that nobody was able to move it.
Hearing the story, the Archbishop of Trnovo came to see that for himself and decided to canonize the girl and move her relics to a church or monastery. So he began listing the names of the nearby churches, but the corpse didn’t get any lighter until he mentioned the name of Curtea de Arges Monastery. And thus Saint Filofteea’s remains ended up in the Chapel of the Curtea de Arges Monastery, where they still rest today.
Secrets of the Curtea de Arges Cathedral
The Secret of the Marble
One thing to notice when visiting the cathedral is that in addition to limestone, a lot of good quality marble used in the construction. What’s interesting this fact is that there are no marble quarries in Curtea de Arges, or nearby. So where did this marble come from?
As it appears, Neagoe Basarab, the cunning Wallachian ruler who built the Monastery, brought marble from the Greek archipelago. But this wasn’t easy to do, as Wallachia and the Greek islands were under Ottoman control.
The sultan forbade the use of marble in churches, precisely to prevent Christian places of worship from overshadowing the mosques. So Neagoe asked the sultan to approve his import, lying to him about the destination of the marble.
The Mystery of Allah’s Name on the Keystone
Another hard-to-believe mystery of the Curtea de Arges is the presence of Allah’s name on the cathedral’s keystone. The name – which was written in Ottoman characters – was first discovered by the Romanian historian, archeologist and folklorist Grogore Tocilescu.
However, after the restoration done by King Carol I, the keystone in question disappeared. Unfortunately, there are no images of this keystone and nobody knows what happened to it after the reconstruction.
The Old Princely Church at Curtea de Arges
Long before the sumptuous Cathedral of Curtea de Arges was built, the Royal Church of the State of Wallachia was St. Nicholas Church. This beautiful monument dating from the time of Matei Basarab (1310-52) marks the spot where the old court once stood.
Although not as impressive in size as the Curtea de Arges Cathedral, St. Nicholas Church has a greater historic significance, being the first princely church of Wallachia. For a long time the church served as a burial place for the rulers of Muntenia. Among them are Voivodes Vlaicu and Basarab I, the founder of the state of Muntenia.
St. Nicholas Church was built in Byzantine style, in the shape of a cross. The outside look of the building is not particularly impressive, but the interior frescos are amazingly beautiful. There are about 130 mural paintings in all, most of which date from 1364.
How to Reach Curtea de Arges Monastery
Curtea de Arges sits at a distance of: 36 km from Pitesti, 37 km from Râmnicu Vîlcea, 129 km from Brasov and 146 km from Bucharest. The town can be accessed either by car, by bus or by train. The easiest way is to drive from many nearby cities in Romania.
Coming from Bucharest, you should take the Autostrada București-Pitești (A1/E81), then follow DN7C to DN73C to Curtea de Arges.
From Brasov road access is via the Transfagarasan Highway (DN7C) which is open only during the summer months.
Coming from Râmnicu Sārat, start on road DN7/E81 toward Bucharest, then move on road DN73C to Curtea de Arges.
Note: Although you can reach the town by train from almost any city in Romania, I don’t recommend the train as it’s the most time consuming. From Bucharest the train ride takes about almost 4 hours.
There are also busses that will take you to Curtea de Arges Monastery. From Bucharest the ride is about 2 hours.
Summer hours: from May 15 to 17 September
Daily: 8:00 am – 8:00 pm
Winter Hours: from September 15 to May 14
Daily: 8:00 am – 5:00 pm
Adults – 4 RON