Transylvania’s Fortresses

The UNESCO world cultural heritage includes 7 types of monuments and cultural objectives in Romania, all of which are considered great tourist attractions. The UNESCO list features 8 churches and monasteries from Bukovina, 8 wooden churches from Maramures, 5 Dacian citadels in the Orastie Mountains, the Hurezi monastery in the southern region of Oltenia, the Sighisoara mediaeval citadel, the Danube Delta biosphere reserve and the Saxon fortified villages and churches in Transylvania.

The Saxon villages in Transylvania are specific to the first centuries of the 2nd millennium. Houses were built in the region, which was at that time a border area, by settlers who came especially from Saxony. As they had to face Turkish and Tartar invasions, the central settlement areas which also contained the church, were fortified with defensive walls. The church was the only building large enough to host the entire village population. Consequently, Saxon churches were transformed to serve as the places where last-stands could be made in the event of an attack. There were many ways of fortifying Saxon churches, so it’s not possible to talk about a certain architectural style, but rather about a style specific to each local community. That is why Saxon sites in Transylvania now represent architectural monuments, unique in Europe for their complex role, encompassing the civic, the religious and the military.

There are more than 100 such monuments, but only 7 are UNESCO-listed: Biertan, Calnic, Darjiu, Prejmer, Saschiz, Valea Viilor, and Viscri, all located in the county of Brasov and neighbouring counties like Sibiu, Harghita and Alba.

Prejmer Fortress

Not far from Brasov lies Prejmer, the biggest fortified church in the Southeastern Europe built in the 14th century. The fortress has double walls and dungeons. Inside its walls there is a church, but the interesting thing here is the honeycomb like inner wall. Every family had one small room for sheltering in case the village was attacked. In peaceful times they used it as a storage room for food. Nowadays only one family lives here and takes care of the citadel. Few years ago a complete restoration of Prejmer was done with the help of the village community.

Harman Fortress

The fortress is located in the middle of Harman , a village 8 km far from Brasov. It dates back to the 13th century when the Saxons built the original church. Strong walls and bulwarks surrounded the church and on its sides there were massive towers. The local population added new parts to the original church in order to make it more useful to their needs. The chorus was built in square shape with a vault looking like a cross. It was surrounded by two chapels, as were Halmeag and Bartolomeu churches, indicating the influence of the Cistercian’s style. The traces of this style are to be seen in the round windows (which still exist) with four lobes in the upper side. The North Chapel was rebuilt in the 15th century. Its architecture is very impressive. The exteriors vaults of the chapel are sculptured in stone and have at each end a human face. The South Chapel still holds its initial form. Take a close look to those three double windows designed in a semi form letter representing the transition from the Roman style to the Gothic style, later on used to rebuild the church. The most significant event in the history of the fortification is the building in the 14th century of a massive tower on the West side for protective purposes.

Viscri Fortress

One of the most interesting Saxon fortified churches is in Viscri. Located on top of a hill that towers above the area, the church is ringed by two rows of walls and has 4 defensive towers, one of which is particularly huge, erected in 1494. Traveling to Viscri is possible from Rupea, a town located between the cities of Brasov and Sighisoara, along 7-kms of unpaved road. Today Viscri is home to only 25 Saxons, as most of them left for Germany, following the fall of the communist regime. Many of the Saxon deserted houses were in danger of collapse, though a number of them have been rescued thanks to Prince Charles and the London-based Mihai Eminescu Trust, who financially supported their restoration.

As Viscri has become a tourist attraction, the locals have taken an increasing interest in agricultural tourism. Local families can accommodate up to 50 people. The most interesting thing here is that everything they offer their guests is 100 % natural and locally produced: home baked bread, meat from own bred pigs, cows and chicken, home made cheese, plum brandy and wine.

The church in Viscri holds mass fortnightly and houses a museum of Saxon traditions. Every two years, the ethnic Saxons who left Romania years ago return for a reunion that has become traditional.

Rupea Fortress

Rupea Fortress, located on the Northwest side of the town, is built on a basalt rock. The first trace of the citadel is on a document where the writers referred to it as Koholom citadel meaning the rock eminence. It is said that on that particular rock once existed a Roman camp, during the time Dacia was conquered by Romans. Later on, the Saxons and Hungarians who settled on these lands rebuilt the camp. The first attestation dates back from the year 1324 when some refugees found a hidden place in the citadel running from the fury of the Hungarian king Robert Carol’s army. Little by little the inhabitants built three protective towers and two interior courtyards. Inside the fortress there is a well 40 m deep. The water is still drinkable.
In 1790, a strong storm destroyed the roof and since then it hasn’t been repaired.

Rasnov Fortress

Rasnov Fortress was built about 800 years ago on a rocky hilltop, elevated at about 150m above in the small town of Rasnov. It is located 15 km southwest of Brasov and also about 15 km from Bran Castle. The fortress is on the Bran Pass, a trade route connecting Wallachia with Transylvania. It is one of the biggest rural fortresses in the country and somehow unique in that it was meant to be a place of refuge for the commoners from sieges over extended periods of time. As such it had at least 30 houses, a school, a chapel, and other buildings more commonly associated with a village.

The fortress has been restored to it’s former glory. There is also a museum here, hidden behind the ancient walls. The museum’s “piece de resistance” is a skeleton buried below a glass floor, but you may also find some really interesting artifacts in there. The inner rooms are looking more like a maze, with several wood ladders linking them and a few so-called secret passages which should keep you busy for quite a while.

Finally, the bonus: the view over the mountains, green fields and little brown dots – houses from the small surrounding villages is magnificent!

Vulcan Fortress

Vulcan’s fortified church is worth visiting, too, because it has just been restored and it is very beautiful and neat.

Cristian Fortress

If you visit the city of Sibiu you can choose to visit Cristian, the closest Saxon fortress, only a few kilometers away. The present-day Gothic-style Evangelical Church stands on the site of a 13th century Roman basilica. The fortress was built in the 16th century, and had two rows of walls bordered with towers. Gaining access to the inner fortress isn’t’t as difficult as it might sound – visitors simply need to ring the bell. The church tower, which has a clock, also accommodates several electrically-operated bells, the result of a modernization process carried out a few years ago. The fortified tower, called the Bacon Tower, was built in 1700, much later than the Great Tower. It once served as a chapel, but it was later modified. Those were hard times and people preserved bacon. They would store it in a cool place and kept it as food stocks. The tower was a kind of a fridge – people would fill the tower cellar with ice and this kept things cool throughout the summer. Entering the tower was only allowed on Sundays, to keep the heat out. The fortified church in Cristian also has two tunnels that could be used by people under siege whenever they had to leave the inner fortress, allowing them to flee to the forest or to an old monastery area.

Biertan Fortress

Biertan, just 8 kms off the main road that links the cities of Medias and Sighisoara, is one of the most impressive medieval strongholds in Transylvania. Perched on top of a hill the church is the heart of a fortress with 3 defense walls and 6 towers. Unlike other Saxon fortified cities, tourists visiting the fortress of Biertan must pay an entrance fee, for which they get a guide.

The Evangelical Church of Biertan was built between 1490 and 1524 replacing a former smaller one. This church is one of the biggest Saxon peasant churches in Transylvania. It was built in the Gothic style and was included on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1993. This church boasts the biggest Transylvanian painted multi-paneled wooden altar screen, which resembles the pages of a book . The altar was built by Viennese artisans and by artisans from Nurenberg between 1483 and 1513. The icons feature numerous scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and from Jesus’ childhood. In the center, where one can now see a crucifix, there was originally an icon representing the Virgin Mary, indicating the fact that the church was initially a Catholic one. The lecterns were built out of lime wood between 1514 and 1523 and they were particularly valuable due to their exquisite inlays. The font dates back to the 16th century. It is firmly secured to the ground and is decorated with lilies. One can also observe the pulpit, carved from one single Ulrich stone that came from Brasov, dating back to 1523. In the back of the church is the organ. It is the 5th organ built by Karl Hesse from Vienna . It has 1,290 tubes, 25 registers and a pedal. It works even today, though it is used increasingly rarely. Most of the Saxons living in Biertan left for Germany, as happened in all other Saxon villages.

Worth mentioning is also the door to the vestry. Built in 1515, the door has a particularly ingenious locking mechanism with 19 bolts that can be simultaneously activated by a key. Visitors can also admire the towers surrounding the church, namely the Clock Tower, the Bell Tower, the Gate Tower and of course the Bacon Tower. There is also a tower called the Prison where married couples seeking divorce were incarcerated in the Middle Ages. After having been given just a knife, a fork, a spoon and being forced to share a bed, the couple could make their final decision . Every year, on the second or third Saturday of September a General Assembly of the Saxons is held in Biertan, accompanied by a parade of traditional costumes and a party, involving plenty of singing and dancing.