When people think of Transylvania, vampires, beasts, fairies and Dracula always come to mind. But, this fairytale land is so much more. Transylvania is home to the most well-preserved medieval towns, Saxon (German) architecture, glorious castles and stunning mountain scenery. Interestingly, Saxon (German) villages dominate this region. German Saxons came to Transylvania during the mid 1100s from the German regions of Northern Europe. They were placed in Transylvania by the Hungarian King to defend the border of Hungary against invasion. Highly skilled and talented, the Saxons built several fortress cities to protect their adopted homeland. We never imagined to find such German heritage nestled in the heart of Romania.
After leaving the smeltering heat of Bucharest behind, we set out on a week-long car adventure around this remarkable land of mountains and walled citadels. Before making our way across the Transylvanian border, we spent time with our friends Calin and Mara in the Prahova Region where we tasted wine (Fete̯askə Ne̯aɡrə) and stayed in a countryside villa. There… animals, pedestrians and horse-drawn carriage dominate the roads. Brett skillfully navigated around cows, horses and stray dogs as we never knew what would lie ahead on the undeveloped Romanian roads. We had a relaxing evening barbequing, drinking wine, listening to David Gilmour and sharing stories with our Romanian friends.
We ventured on north the next morning, stopping off to explore Peles Castle, situated at the base of the Bucegi Mountains in the cute little town of Sinaia. Built in the late 1800s, Peles Castle is a stunning work of German new-Renaissance architecture. The 160-room castle was the summer residence of the royal family until 1947. The two hour tour was well worth the extra Lei, as we saw the royal’s bedrooms, theatre, smoking room and libraries with secret doors. The rooms are in pristine condition with original furniture and possessions. And, filled with ceiling and wall paintings, Murano crystal chandeliers, stained-glass windows, Cordoba leather-covered walls, teak furniture, handmade silk embroideries and much more. It would be easy to spend days exploring this astonishing maze of art.
After a delicious lunch by the castle we journeyed on north to Sighisoara. Our google map directions led us on an off-road excursion….. on old winding gravel stone roads leading through several of the abandoned German Saxon villages. After years of prosperity and the fall of Ceausescu and communism in 1989, the Germans abandoned their Saxon properties and migrated to West Germany. The German government provided incentives for them to return to their homeland. The abandoned Saxon villages have become flooded with Gypsies. We were shocked as we passed through the colorful villages to find Gypsies sitting on their doorsteps….. or walking their cows while staring as we passed through. Apparently, many of the remote Saxon villages receive few visitors and hardly ever see cars. We learned that many of the original German Saxons are now fighting for the return of their land. We suppose they are hoping to capitalize on the rising tourism boom in the region. With the estimated 1 million Gypsies now occupying Saxon land, it’s hard to imagine how their might be room for the returning Germans who slaved to make Transylvania what it is today.
One of our favorite Saxon pitstops was Biertan village, which has been slightly restored in hopes of attracting tourism. A castle and church remain perched high above the city center. We paid a few Lei to visit the church and the surrounding castle ruins. After passing by the only two restaurants in town, we headed south out of the village to stop at an old Communist-Era winery, called Crama Winery. There, we found a Romanian farmer in overalls who explained that we could no longer buy individual bottles. However, he was excited to have some visitors and invited us in for a tour of the facility. Christie used her Spanish skills to communicate with “John”, who only spoke Romanian. The Romanian language has Latin roots, making it very similar to Spanish and Italian. The winery was from the 1960’s, and had a dungeon-like feel that made you think we were in a horror film. During our tour of the basement, he picked up a few glasses and started pouring us nice fruity crisp white wines straight from his fermentation tanks. The tasting included, Riesling, Chardonnay and Muscat wines. We left buzzed and happy that we had the unique opportunity to explore this decrepid communist style winery facility.
Our driving route from Sinai to Sighisoara grew worse as we headed north and the daylight began to fade. At one point, we were driving on a narrow gravel/rock road through overgrown bushes. By 21:00, we finally reached Sighisoara to discover their Annual Town Festival had taken over the old city streets. After dropping our bags off, we headed to the town square stage to watch folk music, dance and traditional stints. The streets were filled with vendors, performers, food and people enjoying the last night of the festivities. Locals were out partying well into the night.
The following day we joined two young high school girls for a tour of their hometown. They took us all around the old upper town……. showing us Vlad “Dracul” Tepes’ home of four years, the guild’s watch towers, the church clock tower, and the enormous covered wooden staircase leading to their high school. We learned how the old German craftsmen guilds were individually responsible for guarding their tower. Local children must choose one of two tracks when starting school. There is still a popular Germany only track in addition to Romanian-English. The wooden walkway is situated in the middle of the upper town. A rich American recently offered to buy it and transport the structure to the USA. The town refused the offer in favor of preserving their culture. Children today still use this walkway to school.
Upon learning about Saxon traditions and life in Sighisoara, we continued our journey southeast through the triangle… again taking the off-the-beaten path roads that cut through once thriving Saxon villages. Within a few hours we arrived in Sibiu, the former center of Transylvanian Saxon. We neglected to book a hotel ahead of time and after a short drive around the old town, we found a lovely pension. Built in the 12th century by German settlers (Transylvanian Saxons), Sibiu was the largest and wealthiest of the seven walled citadels in Transylvania. The narrow old city streets are centered around Piata Mara (Big Square), Piata Mica (Little Square) and Piata Huet. There is no shortage of people watching here with lively restaurants and outdoor cafes scattered around the Piatas.
During its time, Sibiu was one of the strongest of the Saxon towns. The walled city consisted of 39 defensive towers, five bulwarks, four gates and five artillery batteries. The most well-preserved part of the fortification is in the southeast of the city. There we found one of the original towers with carpenter craftsmen working on making furniture just as they did in the Saxon times.
Brasov, was our last Saxon town in the triangle. Being the largest and most touristic town of the Saxon triangle, we spent only one night. We strolled around the old Town Hall Square and old city streets admiring the colorful baroque buildings. We passed by the Black Church (Biserica Neagra), the largest gothic church in Romania. The name “Black Church” comes from when the “Great Fire” of 1689 damaged and blackened the church’s walls. Most intriguing was our discovery of the Jewish Community Synagogue tucked away down a hidden passageway. Presence of Jews in Brasov dates back to 1492 and a Jewish Community was set up in the early 1800’s. At its peak the Jewish community in Brasov reached 4,000 Jews. The beautiful and well-preserved synagogue still holds religious services and festivities for its 250 remaining Jewish members in Brasov.
Exhausted, educated and inspired…. we refueled for our eight hour drive down the Carpathian mountains on the Transfagarasan Highway to the “real” Dracul’s Castle.