The Saxon (German) Cities of Southern Transylvania
The “Saxon region” is one of the most romantic parts in Transylvania. Its significant Saxon (German) heritage is obvious and home to hundreds of well-preserved Saxon cities and villages. The German community with its strong, rich and distinctive culture left its mark deep in the magnificent ancient cities of Southern Transylvania, which still maintain their medieval character and atmosphere with their charming houses, winding cobbled streets and Gothic churches.
The Saxons came to Transylvania in the early 12th century, invited by King Géza II of Hungary mainly for the reason to defend the south-eastern border of Transylvania, thus the region is also home to hundreds of mystical fortified churches offering an exciting journey back in time.
The Southern Carpathians towering above it, the city of Brassó – featuring Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture as well as an abundance of historical attractions – is one of the most visited places in Romania. Settled by the Saxons as one of the “seven walled citadels” (Siebenbürgen in German), fortifications were erected around the city as a medieval custom.
The Town Hall Square
The Town Hall Square (or Council Square) – known as the Marktplatz by the German population – located in the heart of the medieval centre of the city surrounded by beautiful red-roofed merchant houses is the perfect place for relaxation while immersing in the beautiful mountain scenery around. Tip – It’s worth visiting the Old Town Hall situated on the square, which today is home to the Brassó History Museum.
The Black Church
The Black Church (or Marienkirche as it was known by the German population), towering over the Town Hall Square, is Romania’s most important gothic church and its enormous church organ is the largest in Eastern Europe. Built in the 14th – 15th century, it suffered great damage by a fire in 1689, blackening the walls of the church. Restoration works took almost 100 years to complete. The interior is magnificent with stained glass windows, stone columns and walls decorated with beautiful Turkish carpets and balconies. You can also admire at the impressive church organ by listening to concerts held here there times a week in summer.
The Saxons built massive stone walls and seven bastions around the city together with defence towers and gates. Part of the defensive wall can still be seen today, though most of it was taken down in the 19th century. Of the original seven bastions, only a few have survived, including the Graft Bastion on the north-west side of the citadel, renovated recently. On the west side of the citadel, the Black and White Towers are also worth a visit. Another of the original seven, the Blacksmiths’ Bastion is located on the southern end of the Citadel near the magical, fairy-tale like Catherine’s Gate. Once the main entrance to the city of Brassó, it’s the only original medieval city gate that survived. Schei’s Gate marked the entry point to the Schei Disctirct from the walled city of Brassó. It was the only entrance for the Romanians living in the Schei Disctrict as they were not allowed to use any of the other gates. Weavers’ Bastion is the largest and the best-preserved of the seven medieval bastions in the city, housing an interesting museum exhibiting medieval documents, armours, impressive Turkish weapons, guild flags, rare books and much more.
Brassó is also referred to as the “City at the foot of Mount Tampa”. Above the Weavers’ Bastion, there is a romantic alley, starting from which you can take a hike to the top of Tampa Mountain, where the original defensive fortress was built. Reaching the top takes about an hour, but you can also choose to travel to the peak by the Tampa Cable Car for the best views of the old town.
In addition to the above attractions, Brassó is home to a number of museums and historic churches that are worth exploring, too. Tip – A place near Brassó that’s also worth visiting is Brassópojána/Schullerau/Poiana Brasov, a mountaintop ski and summer holiday resort, just a 15-minute drive from the city. It offers one of the best skiing slopes in Romania in winter and it’s a hikers paradise in the summer months offering a panoramic view of Brassó at 1020m high.
Nagyszeben was the largest and wealthiest of the seven walled Saxon citadels, one of the most powerful and prosperous strongholds in Europe. Its Old Town still retains the glory of its medieval days. It has a distinct German feel with sections of the imposing medieval defence walls still guarding the city, its narrow streets, lined with steep-roofed 17th century buildings, opening into impressive, church-dominated squares.
Nagyszeben is a city with two levels – the Upper Town, home to most of the city’s historic sights and – the Lower Town, featuring colourful houses, cobbled streets surrounded by the imposing city walls and defence towers overlooking the River Szeben/Zibin/Cibin. The two levels are connected by the beautiful Passage of Stairs, an architectural masterpiece of twin staircases and archways, one of the most picturesque places in Nagyszeben.
In the centre of the Upper Town there are three beautiful squares – the Great Square, home to the city’s Roman Catholic Church and the Brukenthal Palace housing Romania’s most important art collections – the Little Square and – the Huet Square. The imposing Council Tower, built in the 13th century, offers a spectacular birds’ eye view panorama of the historic town and the Fogaras/Fagaras Mountains beyond.
Other places in the city worth visiting are – the Bridge of Lies, the first wrought iron bridge in Romania and – the Goldsmiths’ Square, a quiet, intimate square surrounded by charming old houses with medieval windows and doorways. The city is also home to a great number of museums, galleries and historic churches. Nagyszeben also makes an ideal base for exploring Saxon traditions in the nearby villages and countryside.
Tip – For a day trip from Nagyszeben, take the Transfagarasan Highway, one of the best and most scenic roads in the world winding through the Fogaras/Fagaras Mountains, open only a few months a year.
Segesvár, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is still regarded as one of the most beautiful and best-preserved medieval towns in Europe. This perfectly intact 16th century gem featuring nine towers, cobbled streets and ornate churches has a magical atmosphere. It is also the birthplace of Vlad Tepes (also known as Vlad Dracula), ruler of the province of Wallachia, who, some believe, inspired the fictional character of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, his house being only one of the many attractions here.
Visit the Citadel, the historic centre of the city, still inhabited today, and the Citadel Square, from where you can easily access the main attractions of the city. The Clock Tower, also known as the Council Tower, is standing 60m high atop the Citadel Hill, from the top of which you can have magnificent views of the old Saxon town. The intricate two-plate clock of the Tower has been continuously working since the Middle Ages. To the north of the Clock Tower you can find the Church on the Hill, one of the most significant gothic-style structures in Transylvania. Inside the beautifully restored interior you can admire its 500-year-old frescoes. There is also a small Weapon Museum next to Vlad Tepes’ birth house, containing a selection of interesting medieval weapons.
Also, each summer the Middle Ages come to life in the city when the 3-day Medieval Arts Festival takes place with people wearing medieval costumes and enjoying medieval music, dances, live theatre performances, parades and fireworks.
Medgyes is another well-preserved, picturesque, medieval town built by the Saxons. Dominating the Old Town, the fortified St Margaret Church represents the core around which the citadel gradually developed. The centre of the ancient city still maintains its medieval charm with its narrow, winding lanes, century-old houses and a large square surrounded by colourful buildings. You can also explore the countryside for more than a dozen fortified Saxon Churches, two of which are UNSECO World Heritage Sites.