TOP 5 Best Churches in TransylvaniaPosted in Cultural / Arts, Inspiration, Nature / Sightseeing, Religious, Traditions / History
The mysterious land of Transylvania used to host more than 300 fortified churches in the 16th century, with 150 still visible today. 7 of them are part of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Out of them all, we have chosen for you a TOP 5 that you should definitely not miss when visiting the area.
There are numerous explanations regarding Transylvania’s name origin. In 1075 it was mentioned for the first time as “ultra sylva”. This means “the land behind the forest” - no matter where you come from, in order to get here, you need to cross the thick forests of the Carpathian Mountains.
Transylvania’s cultural and religious heritage started to be built somewhere in the 11th – 12th century. Back then, German-origin people (the Saxons) were encouraged by the Hungarian King, Stephan I, to settled here. In exchange for special privileges, such as free land or tax exemption, they were expected to defend the Eastern border of the Hungarian Kingdom. Additionally their mission was to increase the productivity of the land and to extract the salt.
The Saxons and their neighbors, the Székelys, through their high skills, hard work and discipline managed to build impressive urban and rural communities. Besides the residential houses and public buildings, the fortified churches are a very important cultural heritage of Transylvania.
Fortification systems in Transylvania
During the entire Medieval period, Transylvania has been a border province for the Hungarian Kingdom. It was frequently attached by the Eastern raising powers: the Mongols, Tatars and later on, the Ottomans. As such, the Saxons had to come up with defensive solutions.
There are mainly 4 types of fortifications that can be seen in Transylvania:
- When the community was smaller, with lower financial resources, they were building a church and surrounded it with thick fortification walls. In case of danger, they were all taking shelter inside the fortified churches, as it is the case in most of the villages (e.g. Malancrav, Viscri, Alma Vii, etc.);
- When the community was larger, they would build a stronger fortification system of the church, with thicker walls. Like that, they could build individual rooms (a room for every family in the village) inside the walls, on several levels (e.g. Prejmer, Harman).
- In some cases, when the location and relief was favorable, the Saxons built citadels on a top of a hill, not far away from the village (e.g. Rasnov, Saschiz, Rupea). If the village was attacked, the life of the peasants could continue inside the citadel even for years. They were storing food inside and one of the rooms was usually arranged as classroom;
- The urban communities could afford to build a fortification system around the entire city. This would offer protection to all its citizens and would encourage economic growth. Here we have many examples: Sibiu, Brasov, Medias, Sighisoara, Bistrita etc.
Viscri is probably the best-known village in Transylvania. It is located behind the hills, hidden from the busy road between Brasov and Sighisoara. The village became very popular among tourists especially after the visit of Prince Charles. He appreciated in Viscri the preservation of local architecture, traditions and the simple way of life.
Many of the local houses have been nicely restored and transformed into guesthouses and small restaurants. Here tourists can rest overnight or taste local dishes and freshly-backed bread.
The church, located in the center of the village, was built following the arrival of Saxons in this area, in the second half of the 12th century. As many churches in Transylvania, it was built as a Catholic church, but it became Lutheran following the reform. The strong fortification wall (7m/23ft high) has an oval form and a tower in each cardinal point. Since 1999, the fortified church in Viscri became part of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Closer to Brasov city, Prejmer is a border village of the former Transylvanian country. Its Saxon inhabitants had to come up with a stronger fortification system in order to survive the numerous attacks. These were usually coming from South, through Buzau river valleys. Their solution was a strong oval fortification system, around the church, larger and taller than other Transylvanian villages. Inside the walls, every family in Prejmer would have a small room, with food supplies, where they could take shelter in case of danger.
The construction of the church it is said to be started by the Teutonic Knights, who were settled in this area at the beginning of the 13th century. The fortification wall appeared after, at the end of the century, and it consisted in a strong defensive wall (3-4m thick and 10-12m high). It had several towers, bastions and a moat filled with water all around the fortification.
Visiting the fortification, you will get a feeling on how Saxons were managing to survive in those dark medieval times.
Not very far away from the beautiful citadel of Sighisoara, hidden behind the hills, you will find Malancrav. The village is not very well known by tourists, however it hosts a real architectural and artistic treasure. Here you will find the best-preserved interior frescoes of a Saxon church in Transylvania.
The fortified church was built in the first half of the 14th century and the linear interior frescoes are dating from the same period. A simple oval wall and the first level of the gate-tower is all that remained today out of the fortification system of the church.
The history of the village is strongly related to Apafi family, one of the most influential noble families of Transylvania. They built a beautiful manor right near the church, which was recently restored by Mihai Eminescu Trust. This NGO was supported by His Royal Highness, Prince Charles of Wales.
Biertan is one of the oldest and most important Saxon communities in Transylvania. It is mentioned for the first time in 1283. Between 15th and 16th century, the locals built on a hill, in the center of the village, the most impressive rural fortification in Transylvania. The imposing late-Gothic-style church was defended by a strong fortification system all around it. For almost 3 centuries (1572 – 1867), the church was the see of the Lutheran Evangelical Bishop in Transylvania. This offered the village a privilege status which can be seen in local architecture. In the center, the buildings are all displaces around a central square, like in the small cities.
Some of the things you should not miss while visiting the fortified church in Biertan is a very elaborate old locking system, entirely hand-made by local blacksmiths in the 16th century. This was awarded a Gold medal at the Paris International Exhibition, in 1900.
There are several other interesting legends to be heard about Saxons in Biertan. Inside the fortification, besides several towers (each one with its own purpose), there is a very interesting room, looking more like a prison cell. It was the place where couples who wanted to divorce were forced to live in for one month. The only had one bed, one plate, one glass, one spoon, so they had to learn how to share. The legend says that in all those years, only one couple kept their decision of divorcing after they spent that month locked in the cell.
5. Alma Vii fortified church
Probably less known than any of the other 4 fortifications presented above, Alma Vii is a village at the end of a road, quiet, but with a special charm. It is a place less known by the tourists, even by Romanians. It does not offer to many accommodation facilities, except for a beautiful restored old house, transformed into a comfortable guesthouse by a young German family.
If you are looking for a true medieval rural experience, this is definitely the place you want to try. You will be amazed by the tranquility of the area and charmed by the green forests, on the surrounding hills.
The architecture of the old Saxon houses, painted in vivid colors is also spectacular. The people are modest, but very welcoming and will always say hello to you when meeting on the streets. It is very interesting how people here manage to live happily in such a simple way of life.
In the middle of the village, on a small hill, you will see the old Saxon fortification. The church was built at the beginning of the 14th century, but the fortification system was only added 2 centuries later. The entire fortified church was restored recently, again, with the help and support of Mihai Eminescu Trust NGO. As such, tourists can take a tour on the old guard corridor, climbing into the towers for spectacular pictures of the village and its surroundings.