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Heart of Transylvania

Citadels of Faith
Day one
The dawn catches us in Bucharest, the city is waking up, and so we decide to leave as soon as possible, before the monster with two million heads eats us up. It's the last weekend in July and also the hottest so far.
Once we are out of the big city, the road unfolds obediently before us, more and more attractive as we advance to our destination. Prahova Valley shows its green, happy face and soon we pass past the steep cliffs of Bucegi Mountains. In Sinaia there is a holiday atmosphere: people strolling up and down, the sun is alone in the sky, undisturbed by clouds. After Azuga we enter Transylvania and after a bit more we are in Brasov (Kronstadt to the Saxon colonists who founded the city many centuries ago).
Rupea village and citadel Finally, we manage to find the way to Sighisoara and here we are in the Transylvanian plateau, which stretches lazily under the incandescent sun.
From a hill the Teutonic citadel of Feldioara (Marienburg) smiles to us, then the one at Rupea (Reps). We pass through the heart of a fairy tale land, among green hillocks which host hamlets lost form "civilization", ruined castles and citadels, fortified churches, villagers mowing the fields just like their ancestors and their ancestors' ancestors. The time seems to play tricks with us, hadn't been for the road, we would think we are in the Middle Ages.
Rupea citadel
Our first stop is at Bunesti (Bodendorf to its Saxon founders), a small village which seems deserted at noon. We head towards the fortified church, which defies the horizon from a height. But the gate is closed, so we try to find the key in the village. A woman guides us to nea Misu, one of the last Saxons in the village. We found him lunching, but he agrees to open the citadel gate for 50000 old lei (about 1,5 Euros). He's an old, slender Saxon, sun-burnt, with callous peasant hands, who mixes up German words in his speech. He doesn't know any more when was the church built, when was it restored or when it will be ....
The church was rebuilt in Gothic style in the 14th century, on the foundations of an old Romanic basilica. After that, the fortifications were added and the Bacon Tower (Speckturm) seems to be in use even today as a shelter for the bacon. But our nea Misu cannot confirm this. The church needs urgent restoration. It is a very delicate monument, its round, smooth shapes suggesting no stone blocks were used, but rather a fluid stuff, just like you would build sand castles on the sea shore.
Nea Misu, one of the last Saxons in Bunesti
Inside the church, we admire the organ, the beautiful golden altar, the Gothic ribs that cross the ceiling, but above all the picturesque Saxon furniture, hand painted in warm colors. Then we stroll in the court, taking a look at the fortifications, which are so delicate as if they were not built to reject, but rather to attract.
The fortified church at Bunesti Bunesti church Bunesti church Bunesti church
Bidding farewell to nea Misu we continue our trip through the green plateau. Not far from Bunesti, the splendid silhouette of the fortified church at Saschiz shows up. We see the picturesque tower, reminding the Clock Tower in Sighisoara, and the church consolidated as a stronghold with firing wholes and spires. And on a hill, the ruins of the peasant citadel dominate the village.
The church is closed for restoration. Years back, on a warm Sunday of autumn, I witnessed the Saxon service in the church and I was fascinated by their traditional dress, sober and simple, which they wore with pride.
Saschiz church Saschiz church Saschiz church Saschiz peasant citadel
Already overwhelmed by what we have seen, we continue our trip to Sighisoara (the old Saxon citadel of Shassburg), where the Medieval Festival is under way. We find fast accommodation in an big beautiful house on a green hill, close to the citadel.
We dress as medieval as possible and head towards the old city. Sighisoara, the ancient citadel, unchanged for centuries, is to us different every time. Now it shows up as a chic European town, with tastefully restored buildings, with good services, attractive (and expensive) pensions and hotels, cosmopolitan people. It's not any more the dusty countryside town of the old days.
Friday, the first day of the festival, is less crowded. A few youngsters play guitars on the streets, others make colored pigtails or tattoos, others sell hand-made souvenirs. We take advantage of the relative calm and visit the citadel. There are some organized events as well: a medieval play in the Citadel Square and a few concerts - one in the Hill Church, which we've just missed. We climb the wooden covered stairs and we rest on the grass of the upper hill, where it's always more silence and the views upon the town are magnificent.
After a copious meal we stroll again in the citadel. Not only the buildings inside the citadel have been restored, but also many outside. The park at the foot of the citadel looks gorgeous, full of flowers in all colors of the Universe.
But the night falls and, tired and overwhelmed by the Middle Ages and the heat, we retire on our green hill, where we sleep like babies.
Sighisoara Sighisoara Sighisoara, the Clock Tower Sighisoara
Day two
While the old burg livens up under the early sun, we start a new trip, as we hope to see many interesting things today. We pass through Danes, a village with small courts full of flowers aside the road and then we follow the country road through a small forest towards Cris, the Saxon village Kreisch. We reach the village and notice the perfect silence and the green hillocks around. Years back, I visited the Cris castle - then just some romantic ruins under restoration. This time a villager - one of the few people we see in the village - guides us to the court of the castle, which has been partially restored since my latest visit. He tells us that the restoration stopped because the inheritors pretend the castle and they expect to take it back. We can only hope that once the castle gets back to the owner, the restoration will continue and it will be open for tourism.
With an unexpected erudition, he tells us about the strong Bethlen family, the one who owned the castle for centuries.
We enter various rooms which look like wine cellars, we pass through long halls, we climb into the picturesque tower from where beautiful panoramas of the village lie at our feet. It seems the history has frozen in this magic place which had its share of bitterness. Once a jewel, home of many masterpieces, with a small lake and a tastefully arranged island, destroyed largely by neglect, the old castle awaits now a better fate.
Castelul din Cris Castelul din Cris Castelul din Cris Castelul din Cris
We leave Cris behind and head towards a place with a legend-like name: Malancrav (Malmkrog for its Saxon founders). In Laslea, a small village with a citadel and a castle, the asphalt ends and a dusty country road begins, which makes our journey difficult. The landscape is amazing: green forested hillocks, here and there a cornfield and all around - a perfect silence. The trip on the country road is more and more difficult and we ask ourselves if the effort pays off. But, brave as we are, we advance while admiring the landscape.
And as we advance deeper into the Transylvanian plateau, the time seems to run backwards and behind the clouds of dust we leave the 21st century and ahead us a magic door opens to the early Middle Ages. A few villagers like descending from a Breugel painting mow the field at the foot of a hillock. We ask them how long is it still to the village and one of them, with a patriarchal beard and plaited hair, answers in the cutest local dialect: "Immediately !". Encouraged by this sign of civilization, we don't dare however to ask also in which century we are and continue the journey. And thus, among the hills, alongside of the country road, the first houses of the village emerge - typical Saxon houses, green and blue with red roofs, big gates and large interior courts.
The only men we meet, a massive blond Saxon, points us to the fortified church, finding his Romanian words with difficulty. We climb a slope which offers us beautiful views over the village and we reach a big rocky wall. The steps that lead to the citadel gate are blunt by the generations who have been walking here for centuries. In the court the church shows up, built from the same river rock like the wall, simple and supple, a masterpiece of Transylvanian Gothic.
Malancrav
Malancrav fortified church But nothing could prepare us for what we find inside the church: splendid frescoes on a blue background with laces following the ribs of the ceiling, performed with an skill which is unusual for a small village church. We find out that the fortified church was built in the 14th century and the paintings date form the same period. Like the Bukovina painted monasteries, we find here biblical representations in small registers, a true open book. Truly remarkable is the style, with obvious local influence: the soldiers who torture Jesus are dressed just like those who used to oppress the local villagers at the beginning of the 14th century and the judges that unfairly convict Jesus look like those to whom the villagers complained without results. It's an essentially Gothic painting, with Byzantine contaminations, which can be explained by the environment of the Orthodox Romanians.
Fascinated and moved by this true Transylvanian Sistine Chapel, we go into the court, where the mown hay amplifies the feeling of archaic. We climb into the tower, from where the village emerges in its entire beauty.
Malancrav fortified church Malancrav fortified church Malancrav fortified church Malancrav village
It seems we don't want to leave this place. But it is getting late and we have a few places left to visit today. So here we are in Medias (Mediasch), a medieval town which we visited a few times before, but we never found it so beautiful, with the restored citadel and the nice park at the foot of the citadel, closed for the cars. Despite the heat, a few people stroll through the old center. Medias looks now like a true Saxon burg, as such a historic town should. With its elegant tower, Saint Margaret church dominates the citadel.
We eat on a recently opened terrace and then we head towards the citadel kern, the so-called castle. The strong fortifications, with defence towers, surround the small square where the Evangelical church Saint Margaret lies, built in the 14th century on the foundations of a Romanic basilica. The Gothic shapes, simple but vigorous, are impressing, both outside and inside the church. The collection of old Oriental carpets - such an exotic element in this sober Gothic setting - reminds the time when the Saxons had commercial links with the Turks in the Middle Ages.
Medias Medias Medias Medias
Leaving Medias behind, we head towards Bazna, a picturesque village with a recently restored fortified church. The citadel is closed, but the vicarage is open, so we enter the court of this one, where a group of foreign tourists eat at a long table. A women comes with the citadel key - the biggest I've seen so far. We are again impressed by the ribs that cross the Gothic ceiling, by the small and beautiful organ and by the simlicity and elegance of the style.
Bazna Bazna Bazna Bazna
Biertan fortified church Now we try to advance towards Cetatea de Balta, but the road is really bad, so we give up and make the turn to Sighisoara, making a short detour to Biertan (Birthalm). The fortified church at Biertan is one of the strongest citadels in Transylvania. Begun in 1492 and finished in 1516, the church was Episcopal Seat for almost three centuries. We notice the beautiful park with flowers at the foot of the citadel and the medieval style restaurant recently opened. The church, surrounded by three defense walls, dominates the village from a height that offers beautiful panoramas upon the green plateau.
Every year, on the third Saturday of September, the Saxons from all over the world meet here. Dressed in traditional costumes, they parade through the village, dance and sing, eat and drink.
Biertan fortified church
Finally, late in the evening, we are back in Sighisoara. Here Dan Puric enchants us with his pantomime and the streets are definitely more crowded than the evening before. Tired and full of splendid memories, we go to sleep.

Day three
After another short visit to the citadel, where we buy souvenirs, we head towards Sibiu, with the intention to cross the Olt Valley to Ramnicu Valcea. We leave behind Medias and many villages with fortified churches and here we are entering Slimnic (Stolzenburg), a Saxon village overlooked by the romantic ruins of the old citadel, built in the 14th century.
At the foot of the hill lies the fortified citadel, where the Saxon service has just ended. "The father of the Saxon", how he calls himself, the priest that gets out of the church seems to descend from a medieval fresco. With his white hair and the black, sober suit, untouched by centuries, he guides us to the ruined citadel.
We climb with difficulty under the unmerciful sun and we reach the citadel entrance. The red ruins are very appealing. Actually it seems that the citadel was never finished and now it's in the state the Saxons left it in the Middle Ages. The feeling of archaic is overwhelming. We climb into the tower and admire the citadel and the village stretched on the hillocks, we pass underneath red Gothic arcades, we play with the stray cats who found shelter here.
Slimnic The Father of the Saxons from Slimnic Slimnic Slimnic
We continue our journey through history towards Sibiu (Hermannstadt), the most Saxon of the Saxon citadels. Here the first organized fortifications in Transylvania were built and here live nowadays the most Saxons, including the city mayor. We are amazed by the massive restoration work through which Sibiu prepares itself to become the cultural capital of Europe in 2007. We are pleasantly surprised by the chic and relaxed atmosphere of this town, which we visited several times before.
On Balcescu Street and in the whole old center the cars are not allowed. Alongside Balcescu Street, terraces with tasty food await the visitors. We eat at The Owl and we suddenly feel much better. Then we head towards the Grand Square.
The buildings are restored, the atmosphere of medieval burg is complete. The asphalt has been removed from the entire center to be replaced by cobbled stone, just like in the Middle Ages. We enter the evangelic church Saint Mary. Begun in the 14th century, it was extended several times, the actual shape stemming from 1499, when the picturesque lateral attics were built, giving the church a special look. Gothic art is at home here: supple ribs, majestic pillars, broken arcades, medieval coats of arms, a beautiful organ and an impressing Crucification painting, all amaze and enchant us.
In the Small Square, we admire the Councilors' Tower, where we climb. Then we head towards the citadel walls, where two polygonal bastions remind the time when, like any other free city in medieval Europe, the citizens used to contribute to the citadel building, the guilds having the duty to build and maintain each a defense tower. From here stem the names like "carpenters' tower", "potters' tower", and so on, in all Transylvanian burgs.
Spellbound by the treasures seen so far and promising to ourselves to come back to Sibiu when the restoration is complete, we cross the Olt Valley which digs courageously through the Carpathians and after a short break at Cozia Monastery, we reach Bucharest in the evening.
Sibiu Sibiu Sibiu Sibiu
Sibiu
I end here the story of our Transylvanian journey. But the magic of those days will remain in my soul for a long time and I know that, no matter how hard I try, the written words are not able to reproduce it, not even partially. Because who could put in words a part of his own soul ?


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