Known for quite some time as the birthplace of Dracula’s Legend, Transylvania was recently named by Lonely Planet as the must-see region for 2016. But Dracula has little to do with Transylvania being a wonderful tourist destination. Rather, it has to do with its beautiful medieval and baroque architecture, friendly people, unique culture, and fresh food.
Transylvania has several towns that fascinate visitors with their quaint cobbled streets, romantic citadels, and elegant clock towers. Brasov, Sibiu, Sighisoara, and Cluj attract thousands of tourists every year with various medieval and baroque-themed events and several well-known jazz, rock, or electronic music festivals.
However, even more, charming than these towns are the rural areas. Transylvania is famous for its almost 140 villages with fortified churches, the last remaining buildings of this type in Europe. Many of them date back to medieval times, being built by German settlers brought here to protect the inner sides of the Carpathians against Tatar invasions.
In the rural world, the church has always been the heart of the community: the place where people began their lives, they were given a name, received the first lessons about life, laid the foundations of a new family, and, finally, the place that marked their passage into eternity. In Transylvania, the church took on additional roles: refuge against invaders, storage room for food, and court of law for those who broke the written and unwritten rules of the village. Nowadays, after most of the German population left for Germany in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many of these roles have been put on hold. Some churches even collapsed under the weight of time, but many still stand as proof of a way of life that has long disappeared in the rest of Europe.
Prejmer Fortified Church
The largest and probably most monumental fortified church is that in the village of Prejmer (or Tartlau in local German dialect). The church is situated very close to Brasov (approximately 15 km) and is accessible by both car and railroad. Built in the late thirteenth century, the church is protected by 12-meter-high and 4-meter-thick walls surrounded by a water-filled canal.
The inner side of the walls contains almost 300 rooms. Each family in the village used to have a corresponding room in the citadel – here, they would seek shelter during invasions and store wheat and bacon during times of peace. Today, the church and its fortification are part of the UNESCO World Heritage and a landmark definitely worth seeing on your trip to Romania. If you plan to visit the church, make sure to come during the annual pancake festival held in Prejmer every February and take the form of a joyful and – of course – delicious carnival.
Viscri Fortified Church
A small village to the north of Brasov hosts yet another UNESCO treasure: the fortified church of Viscri (Weisskirch in the local dialect). If immersing yourself in the local culture and lifestyle is what you are looking for when traveling, Viscri is the place to be. The church itself is quite small, and its interior is decorated with hand-painted wooden panels, a classicist altar, and a small pipe organ. Most impressive, though, is the monumentality of the fortress surrounding the church, with its thick walls and white towers visible from miles away. But don’t visit only the church – go and meet the villagers! You can visit several traditional households that still maintain their original furnishings. Even Prince Charles owns such a household, which serves as his home during holidays and is cared for by a local family. And if you’re looking for some horseshoes…to put on your horses (if you have some) or hang on your living room walls, don’t forget to visit the blacksmiths – they will teach you a thing or two about playing with fire.
Saschiz Fortified Church
While the simplicity of Viscri’s architecture might be impressive, it is not characteristic of every church in the area. The church of Saschiz, by contrast, is remarkable due to its fairytale-like clock tower. Four smaller towers can be seen in each corner of the building’s rectangular rooftop. This stands as proof of the fact that during the Middle Ages, Saschiz was home to a court of law that had the right to impose the death penalty on criminals and outlaws. The church is guarded by a peasant fortress located on a hill above the village, which can be reached on foot. Don’t hesitate to climb up – the landscape is spectacular! And after having satisfied your hunger for culture and experience, you can satisfy your sweet tooth by trying some of the locally-produced jams Saschiz is so famous for. You can find them right in the very heart of the village, at the information center next to the church.
Not far from Sighisoara lies the village of Malancrav, which holds not one but two precious historical landmarks: a gothic fortified church as well as the recently restored Apafi manor. The manor was awarded the “Europa Nostra” award for the quality of the restoration works that a local foundation coordinated. It now functions as a country guesthouse. The church is very close to the manor and is one of the few remaining fortified churches with gothic murals. Most of the frescoes inside the church date back to the fourteenth century, making the building a valuable example of late medieval art and architecture. But Malancrav is not only about its historical buildings – but the village is also famous for its traditional arts and crafts. Several women in the village amazed Prince Charles in one of His Royal Highness’s numerous Transylvania tours by weaving colorful carpets using hand-made looms. In fact, many of the carpets decorating the manor have been woven by hand by local artisans.
Biertan Fortified Church
Last but not least, don’t forget about the church of Biertan, situated not far from the road linking Sighisoara to Sibiu. Also included in the UNESCO World Heritage, the ensemble looks like a unique combination between a castle and a church. For almost three centuries, the church functioned as the headquarters of the Lutheran bishop in Transylvania. Because of this, it was heavily fortified; the church is surrounded by three belts of walls and medieval towers. One of the towers is famous for its “reconciliation role” – according to local folklore, couples heading for divorce were locked by the local community in the tower, with only one bed, one table, one plate, one spoon, and one cup of water, until they changed their minds and made up.
So, if you travel with your partner and you have a quarrel, don’t hesitate to come to Biertan – but bring along your own spoon, the one in the tower is a little rusty after all these years!