Discovering the Saxon heritage
Travelling to Romania, and especially to Transylvania, means being ready to accept a permanent duality between new and old, as modernity meets tradition at every step. From dreamy villages to fortified towns and industrial cities, everything is half modern, half impregnated with the charming air of the past ages. The medieval atmosphere that hovers over the Transylvanian towns will take you back to an era that you have never experienced before, but have only heard about in the knights’ tales.
The closest city to Bucharest that can provide a powerful “medieval experience” for every visitor is Brasov, situated 170 km north of the capital, at the end of a chain of popular ski resorts. Here, tourists can take part to the modern hustle and bustle of the city’s everyday life while admiring the city’s well preserved medieval fortifications and city centre, which revolve around the Council Square and the 14th-15th century Black Church. All the medieval architectural design and structure of Brasov’s historical buildings are remindful of the times when the city was the crafts and commercial capital of the Saxons community in Transylvania.
But Brasov is not the only city in the country with Saxon architecture and medieval atmosphere. The colonizers settled here in the 12th century founded six other cities and towns, called burgs. Actually, the German name of Transylvania, Siebenburgen (“seven burgs”), comes from these settlements. The seven medieval citadels of Transylvania are the present-day cities of Bistriţa (Bistritz), Braşov (Kronstadt), Cluj (Klausenburg), Mediaş (Mediasch), Sebeș (Mühlbach), Sibiu (Hermannstadt) and Sighişoara (Schburg).
Less than 150km west of Brasov, another superb medieval city displays an impressive array of walls and towers, narrow sloping streets, arched passageways, Gothic and Baroque churches, bridges and shingle-roofed historical houses with “eyes”. This is Sibiu, the most important Saxon citadel in the 14th century and the 2007 European Capital of Culture, which hosts annual international festivals, such as Sibiu International Theatre Festival and Sibiu Jazz Festival. The successive rings of fortifications, with high walls and bastions, still visible nowadays, enclosed the city centre, which overlapped with the present-day Big Square. This, together with the Small Square and Huet Square, are bordered by important medieval architectural monuments that create a wonderful feudal atmosphere. Walking by the streets of Sibiu at dusk, when the sun’s light starts to dim, you can even imagine and feel the medieval citadel’s bustling life in the course of its history.
Continuing our journey on the footsteps of the Transylvanian Saxons, we reach Sighisoara, one of the few European medieval citadels still inhabited. The town has preserved most of its fortified defences, such as the guild towers, which, together with the gaily-painted houses, form a special architectural combination that attracts thousands of tourists from all over the world, especially during the summer. July is the month when you should book your trip to Sighisoara, as that’s the month when the world-famous Medieval art festival takes place every year inside the citadel’s walls. This picturesque event successfully combines the modern life of the town with the air of the former centuries, bringing to life a suite of knights, fair ladies, kings, troubadours, minstrels, buffoons, witches and wizards.
Less than 2.5 hours by car separate Sighisoara from one of the northernmost medieval Transylvanian cities, Cluj-Napoca. The Saxons founded it over an ancient Roman settlement and it took them around two centuries to build the city’s fortifications. From the over 20 medieval towers and gates protected by the guilds, the current Medieval Citadel of Cluj-Napoca preserves only one tower and two bastions. However, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saint Michael, dating from the 14th century, still remains one of the most remarkable and impressive Gothic monuments in the country.
For nine centuries, the Saxon culture has survived almost unaltered between the forested hills and valleys of Transylvania. The perfectly aligned Saxon houses, churches, towers and fortified walls are a model of rigour and civilisation, a proof of ingenious architecture and a perfect example of unity in diversity. Take a tour of the Transylvanian medieval town in order to discover a gate in time in the middle of a modern world that sometimes seems to be turning too fast!