About one and a half hour north-west of Brasov (120 km), is Sighisoara (Hungarian: Segesvár, German: Schäßburg), the last inhabited medieval citadel in Eastern Europe. It is a place straight out of the pages of a fairytale – one of the best preserved mediaeval citadels in Europe, a magical mix of winding cobbled alleys, steep stairways, secluded squares, towers and turrets.
Sighisoara is one of the 7 fortified Saxon cities in Transylvania, known as “Siebenburgen”, together with Brasov (Kronstadt), Cluj (Klausenburg), Sibiu (Hermannstadt), Bistrita (Bistritz) Medias (Mediasch), Sebes (Mühlbach). According to the legend the lost children of Hamelin emerged from the ‘Almasch’ (Varghis) cave into Transylvania – just to the north of Baraolt in 1284, lured there by the magical tune of the Pied Piper, a ‘Romany’ who had been cheated by the burghers after ridding them of their plague of rats. This is the ‘romantic’ explanation for the presence in Transylvania of Germans following ancient customs, yet isolated by hundreds of kilometers from Germany. The reality is that the fortified towns and villages of Transylvania were established in the 12th Century by settlers from the Moselle region, referred to locally as ‘Saxons'( Romanian-‘sashi’). They were attracted to Transylvania by favorable market rights by the Hungarian rulers who wanted them there to guard the mountain passes against Tatar and Ottoman raiders. They created the ‘Siebenbürgen’, the seven fortified cities, while in villages they constructed fortified churches in which they could shelter during times of siege. UNESCO has designated several of these villages and the mediaeval citadel of Sighisoara as Heritage Sites.
On the site of today’s Sighisoara, there used to be a Dacian settlement known as Sandova dating as far back as the 3rd century BC. It was the site of an Imperial Roman castrum and legion base from the 2nd century.
Nevertheless the town as it is known today was founded by German colonists.The chronicler Krauss lists a Saxon settlement in Sighisoara by 1191. This early settlement was most likely a village with a fortified refuge on the Castle Hill of today, and it was destroyed by a Tatar invasion in 1241, rebuilt, and in 1280 documented as Castrum Sex (citadel number six). Soon the Dominicans took interest in this place-in 1289 Schespurch (Scassburg) is indicated as seat of their monastery-and later the Franciscans.
The other German settlers to follow in the 14th century are mainly craftsmen and thus in 1367 Sighisoara is already known as town-Civitas de Segusvar. Under the threat of the Ottoman invasions the town was fortified, wall and towers were raised to surround the whole town. They were built in the 14th and 15th centuries, and subsequently consolidated. The walls were up to 15 meters high, and the fortification included 14 defense towers. Most of the citadel, and 9 of the defense towers are still standing.
The town played an important strategic and commercial role at the edges of Central Europe for several centuries. Sighisoara became one of the most important towns of Transylvania, with artisans from throughout the Holy Roman Empire visiting the settlement. The German artisans and craftsmen dominated the urban economy. It is estimated that during the 16th and the 17th centuries Sighisoara had as many as 15 guilds and 25 handicraft branches. Thus, the number of the crafts equal Sighisoara to the main German towns of the time, and trade contacts went as far as the Netherlands and Persia. This makes Sighisoara to be the first of the settlements in Transylvania to gain the status of a town in 1517, and even legal autonomy.The Baroque sculptor Elias Nicolai lived in the town.
The inhabitants of Sighisoara gave shelter (1431-1435) and support to Vlad Dracul in his attempt to get to the Romanian throne. The Wallachian prince Vlad Tepes, Vlad Dracul’s son, was born here in 1431. His father minted coins in the town and issued the first document listing the town’s Romanian name Sighisoara. Later the town supports the great Romanian Prince Viteazul (the Brave) to conquer Transylvania.The citizens of Sighisoara were also involved in the Peasant’s Rising of 1514.
The town was the setting for George I Rákóczi’s election as Prince of Transylvania and King of Hungary in 1631. Sighisoara suffered military occupation, fires, and plagues during the 17th and 18th centuries.
The nearby plain of Albesti was the site of the Battle of Segesvár, where the revolutionary Hungarian army led by Józef Bem was defeated by the Russian army led by Luders on 31 July 1849. A monument was constructed in 1852 to the Russian general Skariatin, who died in the battle. The Hungarian poet Sándor Petõfi is generally believed to have been killed in the battle, and a monument was constructed in his honor at Albesti in 1897. After World War I Sighisoara passed with Transylvania from Austria-Hungary to Romania.
The Clock Tower
Landmark of Sighisoara, the Clock Tower is the most impressive and picturesque if it’s towers. Its role was to be the main gate into the citadel and to house the town’s council. It was built in the second half of the 14th century and expanded to 64m height in the 16th century. After a big fire in 1676 (when the town’s gunpowder deposits exploded) the roof of the tower was restored to the present Baroque shape, and in 1894 the colorful tiles were added. The four small corner turrets (also seen in other Transylvanian towns) symbolize the fact that the town had judicial autonomy, and the “right of sword” (ius gladii) which was the right to convict criminals to death. The clock was installed in the 17th century. The tower houses the town’s History Museum. Make your way to the wooden balcony at the top of the tower where you can look out over the town with its terra-cotta roofs and painted houses and the surrounding countryside. On the way to the balcony one can also see the clock mechanism.
The Clock of the Clock Tower
In 1604 the tower was equipped with a wooden horologe which was remade in 1648 by Johann Kirschel. He equipped the clock with two big dials (one on each facade of the tower) and with two groups of wooden figurines arranged in niches. The figurines are moved by the clock’s mechanism. On the citadel side we see the Goddesses of Peace holding an olive branch, accompanied by a drummer who is beating the hours in his bronze drum; above them there are the Goddess of Fairness holding a balance and the Goddess of Justice with a spade accompanied by two angels representing Day and Night. At 6 AM the angel symbolizing the day comes out, marking the beginning of the working day and at 6 PM the angel symbolizing the night comes out carrying two burning candles in his hands and marking the end of the working day and the arrival of the evening.
Looking over downtown there is a second niche holding a figurine which some say represents the executioner and a second drummer. Above them there are seven figurines representing the pagan gods who personified the days of the week: Diane, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn and the Sun. These figurines are sitting on a wheel and they move at midnight marking the change of the day. Like the tower’s turrets, the figurines indicate the fact that at the time the horologe was installed the rustic Baroque style was the fashion in Transylvania. The clock still works, complete with the rotating painted wooden figures, one for each day of the week. The present mechanism of the clock is newer, dating from 1906. The clock was modernized with an electric engine in 1964. The niche with figurines representing the days is visible from inside the Clock Tower.
The History Museum
The museum consists of the clock tower, torture chamber and the medieval arms exhibition; one ticket will let you see all three. The Camera de Tortura (torture chamber) at the foot of the clock tower was used for prisoners and also to extort confessions, using an amazing array of cruel instruments. Some devices are on display here and on the walls are copies of German books documenting the use and effectiveness of the contraptions. Ask the staff to show you the brick where around 1680, a prisoner scratched the hardly legible words ‘Morgen wird ich…’ (‘tomorrow I will be….’), and see if you can figure out the last word. The Medieval arms collection next door shows the development of weapons used in and around town throughout the ages.
The Church on the Hill (Bergkirche)
This beautiful Gothic church dominates the hill at the southern end of the citadel. It can be reached by climbing the 175 steps of the covered wooden Schoolboys’ Stairs which dates from 1642. The building of the church started in 1345 and ended in 1525, 180 years later. Huge pillars carry a lofty gothic ceiling (restored after an earthquake in 1838). The church was completely painted on the inside but in 1776 it was decided to destroy the old painting provided that exact copies should be made on parchment. Unfortunately the copies were lost. The recent restoration brought out fragments of the late 15th century frescoes. Inside the church there are also beautiful religious sculptures and paintings like the pulpit carved in 1480, an old stone front dating from the 15th century as well as shrines brought from the churches of Saes and Cund. The church has been recently restored.
The House With Stag
The House with Stag gets its name from the stag head fixed on the corner of the building. This type of construction is specific to the Transylvanian Renaissance of the 17th century. The house was recently restored. The restoration revealed the external mural painting showing the stag’s body and the inscription. Nowadays, the building houses a modern pension, a cafe-restaurant with traditional dishes and a Romanian-German cultural center.
The Taylors’ Tower
The taylor’s guild was the richest in town and this can be seen in the imposing tower they erected. Built in the 14th century, the tower was initially as tall as the Clock Tower but its upper part was destroyed in a fire in 1676, when the town’s gunpowder deposit which was located in this place exploded. The Taylor’s Tower is the second access road into the citadel, an entrance consisting of two vaulted galleries, which used to have huge oak gates with iron lattice. The tower was restored in 1935.
The Monastery Church
The Monastery Church is located in the Citadel Square not far from the Clock Tower. The church, which is built in Gothic style of the hall-churches with 2 naves and 2 rows of pillars, belonged to the Dominican Monastery. The monastery used to be to the North of the church; it was built at the beginning of the 13th century and it was demolished at the end of the 19th century. The church was restored in the 15th century and then again after the big fire of 1676. The last repairs were done in 1894 and 1929 when the church acquired its present day look. The church holds valuable objects like a bronze front dating back to 1440, a stone door frame carved in 1570 in the Transylvanian Renaissance style and built into the northern wall of the church, a collection of 17th century Oriental carpets donated by merchants and a fine altar piece from 1680. The organ was built in 1680 in Baroque style by the same artists that carved and painted the altar, the sculptor Johannes West and the pilgrim painter Jeremias Stranovius. The organ is used even today in concerts organized in the church.
The Rope Makers’ Tower
The Rope Makers’ Tower is part of the old fortification on top of the hill. Its role was to defend – together with the Goldsmith’s Tower – the north-west corner of the hill. It is believed that the tower is one of the oldest buildings in Sighisoara, dating from the 13th century. Its foundations are on the pre-Saxon citadel walls; the tower has a simple square plan. Nowadays the tower is the home of the guardian of the Evangelic cemetery on the hill.
The Shoemakers’ Tower
The Shoemakers’ Tower is located in the north-eastern part of the town; it was mentioned in documents dating from the mid 16th century but it was totally rebuilt in 1650 being one of the recent towers of the town. It bears the influence of the Baroque architecture, being short, with a hexagonal base with sides of different lengths. It has a picturesque look due to its roof which resembles a pointy helmet and which bears on one side a small tower of observation.
The Vlad Dracul House
Sighisoara fame is drawn mainly from being the birthplace of Vlad Tepes-The Impaler which some still believe served as the inspiration for the novel “Dracula”. The house in which he was born lies is located in the Citadel Square, close to the Clock Tower. This ocher-colored house is the place where Vlad Dracul, the father of Vlad the Impaler, once lived Vlad Dracul was a knight of the Order of the Dragon (hence his name – Dracul means Devil in Romanian). Today the house serves as a restaurant.
The Covered Stairway
Next to the School Street there is a covered wooden stairway named the “Covered Stairs” or “Schoolboys’ Stairs”. The stair was built in 1642 to facilitate the schoolchildren’s way to the School on the Hill and the churchgoers’ way to the church during winter. Originally the stairs had 300 steps, but today their number was reduced to 175. The Covered Stairway leads also to the Church on the Hill.
The Orthodox Cathedral
A modern addition to Sighisoara’s skyline, the cathedral has a simple Romanesque interior. It is located on the northern shore of the Tarnava Mare, and is accessible by a footbridge. The cathedral, which is dedicated to the Saint Trinity was built in 1934-1937 in Byzantine style. The building is painted in black and white and features a dome and a tower.
The Streets and Houses of the Citadel
One of the nicest things in Sighisoara is to walk the long and narrow cobbled streets lined with faded pink, green, and ocher houses. Each house deserves a look as each one of them is different than the others and has something worth seeing. Some look like simple craftsmen’s houses while others look like houses that belonged to the rich. Since the citadel is still inhabited is interesting to see how life goes on within its walls. Everybody goes about their business as they did centuries ago.
Around the citadel walls are the towers that the guilds erected during the 14th to 16th centuries to protect the town from Turkish raids. Each tower was built by one of the guilds and bears the name of the guild. 14 towers were erected but only 9 are still standing. These are: The Rope Makers’ Tower (Turnul Franghierilor), The Taylors’ Tower (Turnul Croitorilor), The Shoemakers’ Tower (Turnul Cizmarilor), The Butchers’ Tower (Turnul Macelarilor), The Furriers’ Tower (Turnul Cojocarilor), The Tinkers’ Tower (Turnul Cositorarilor), The Tanners’ Tower (Turnul Tabacarilor) and The Blacksmiths’ Tower (Turnul Fierarilor). The ninth tower still standing is the Clock Tower itself.
Medieval Music Festival
The unique yearly Medieval Music Festival attracts thousands of young Romanians to a merry weekend of music, party and dancing. Many of them look like hippies, drink beer and go to the pop concerts in the lower town. In the citadel, performances ranging from classical flute concerts to Indian music and theatre are held in churches, the fortress towers and in the open air. Market stalls will be selling traditional Romanian artifacts. Hotels have to be booked long in advance, but ample accommodation is available in simple local homes for around US$10 (or bring a tent to camp in someone’s back yard for a fee); at the station you’ll find people offering rooms as well as at the festival accommodation agency.
If you want to know how much time to budget for Sighisoara, a day should be enough (plus a few days more for visiting the Saxon churches in nearby villages). Sighisoara is usually very quiet but in the first or second week of July the annual Medieval Folk Festival takes place here and it becomes very crowded.