The turn-off for Agapia Monastery is 4km south of Târgu Neamt, heading towards Piatra Neamt. About 400 nuns live here, toiling in the fields, tending vegetable gardens, weaving carpets and make embroideries for tourists.
Agapia actually consists of two monasteries. The larger and flashier Agapia din Vale (Monastery in the Valley) is at the end of the village of Agapia itself. It was built by Gavril Coci (Vasile Lupu’s brother) between 1642 and 1644, however its current neoclassical facade dates from reconstructions between 1882 and 1903. The church’s interior was painted by Nicolae Grigorescu (1838-1907), featuring murals with heebie-jeebie eyes that stare at you whichever way you turn. A small museum off to the right contains icons from the 16th and 17th centuries. The main buildings are modern and underwhelming, but wandering the grounds, past the gardens, is, um, spiritual.
Agapia din Vale has the capacity to house visitors (20 lei per person, no breakfast), though this service is mainly meant for religious pilgrims.
Agapia din Deal (Agapia on the Hill), also called Agapia Veche (Old Agapia), is the second monastery, 2.2km from the main monastery complex (follow the road to the right, go through the charming old section of Agapia, full of wooden homes, to the signposted dirt road veering off to the right). It’s worth the hike uphill. You can drive as well, but only take a powerful car and not after rain, as some sections of the gravel road are extremely steep. This quiet, humble monastery is less ornate than Agapia din Vale and it only has modern frescoes, but it nonetheless charms with its peaceful ambiance and wooden buildings. It was founded by Lady Elena, wife of Petru Rares, in 1642-47.
A dirt road in front of the lower monastery veers to the left towards the small and highly worthwhile Sihla Monastery (Schitu Sihlei) on a small plateau in the hills. The central church is small, wooden and somber. This is one of the area’s more visually pleasing religious sites, mainly due to the nearby cave of Pious Saint Teodora. Teodora supposedly lived in this tiny, open cave for 60 years. Her ‘home’ is eerily lit by candles, highlighting the slab of rock she called a ‘bed’. Her relics are now in Pecherska Monastery in Kiev. Sihla Monastery can house a limited number of visitors.
It’s possible to comfortably access Varatec, Agapia and Sihla monasteries on foot, if you base yourself at a guesthouse on the road to Agapia (there’s a shortcut back-road leading to Varatec!). One of the more modern choices along this stretch is Pensiunea Marian (Tel. +40 (0) 233 245 004), a new, well organized place with a dangerously kitschy, Romania-meets-the-Wild-West garden and an on-site restaurant. It’s situated about 1.7km from Agapia din Vale and 2km from the back road shortcut leading to Varatec. Rooms are simply furnished and still new looking, with gleaming bathrooms and good beds. Most rooms have balconies. No breakfast.
Alternatively, there are dozens of attractive homes in the villages of Agapia and Varatec with cazare (rooms for rent) signs in their windows. Guesthouses abound in the area.
Seven daily buses also go from Târgu Neamt to the lower monastery, listed on bus timetables as ‘Complex Turistic Agapia’. From Piatra Neamt, there are two buses daily. All buses between Târgu Neamt and Piatra Neamt stop in Sacalusesti village, from where it is a 6km hike along a narrow road to the lower monastery. The upper monastery is a further 30-minute walk uphill.