Visiting the Saxon Fortified Churches of Transylvania

In this trip report, we will visit the Saxon Fortified Churches of Transylvania in Romania.

Romania

There is a lot to see and do for tourists in Romania as country is dotted with magnificent towns and stunning natural landscapes.

Most of the charms of Romania can however be found in the countryside and I would certainly say that this is where the heart of Romanian culture lies.

There is just something special about Romanian villages and small towns. They have a traditional, old world charm which seems to have been long gone from Western European societies.

Here you may still see horse-drawn carriages cruising around the countryside, farmers baling hay with old-fashioned pitchforks and the local townsfolk all hanging out together in the shade of a tree to catch up on the latest gossips while drinking some homemade plum brandy.

Sure, there are also those who have tractors, big BMWs and the latest iPhone, but it is the contrast which makes the Romanian countryside so intoxicating. It’s a place where the best of the new world comes together with the charms of the old world.

hosman sibiu romania transylvania countryside
Driving through the Romanian countryside near the village of Hosman, Sibiu County. ©Paliparan

Fortified churches

Of all the stunning countryside sights of Romania, the Saxon fortified churches of Transylvania might perhaps take the top spot. There are well over a hundred villages and towns throughout Transylvania with a Saxon fortified church.

Some of these churches are relatively well-known both nationally and internationally, while others are about as off the beaten path as you can get in Romania.

If you have the time, it is well-worth it to tour around the countryside and see as many as you can.

Not only are those churches interesting sights to visit, you will automatically traverse through some highly scenic areas and get a feel of Romanian village life. And to understand Romania, you must have a look outside the cities as well.

saschiz fortified church romania
The fortified church of Saschiz towers high above the hilly landscape. ©Paliparan

German migration

German-speaking people only arrived in Romania in the 12th Century after they were invited by the Hungarian kings who ruled Transylvania back then.

These Germans were often well-educated people and excellent craftsmen, skills which the Transylvanian rulers needed to build fortifications against foreign invaders.

The newly arrived German immigrants were also tasked with mining and cultivating the lands. The entrepreneurial mindset of these Transylvanian Saxons as they became to be known was also highly valuable in the development of trade and commerce.

Fun fact: Although these Germans are known as Transylvanian Saxons, they actually didn’t hail from Saxony but rather from the Rhineland, speaking a Franconian German dialect.

weinkeller restaurant sibiu
If you look carefully enough, you can still see German words on signs in Transylvanian Saxon towns and cities. ©Paliparan

Fortified church

Since the Middle Ages, these Germans thus became an important part of everyday life in Transylvania. In the cities such as Brasov and Sibiu they were mostly middle and upper class traders, craftsmen, educators and high-ranking officials, while in the countryside they founded their own thriving farming communities.

In the towns and villages which were too small (and lacking the finances) to be walled entirely, the Germans came up with an ingenious idea how to protect themselves. They turned their churches into miniature forts.

Around the church, a fortified wall was built. The church tower itself was constructed as high as possible to have a great vantage point over the surrounding area.

These churches were never meant to withstand a siege by a properly equipped army, but were constructed mostly as a place to shelter for the local community in case they were attacked by brigands or a smaller group of enemy soldiers.

Inside these compounds, there was plenty of space to store enough provisions to defend the church for a couple of weeks until a relief force could arrive to rout the attackers.

hărman fortified churches
Inside the high walls of the fortified church in Hărman. ©Paliparan

The Saxon communities nowadays

Unfortunately, there aren’t actually many German-speakers left in most Saxon Transylvanian towns.

Many ethnic Germans were killed in World War II or fled alongside the retreating Nazi forces when the Soviet Army swept through Romania.

Although the newly communist Romanian state did not conduct a mass expulsion of ethnic German citizens as some neighbouring countries like the Soviet Union did, most Transylvanian Germans did face economic hardship under the new communist rulers, just like most of their ethnic Romanian compatriots.

When after the fall of communism in 1989 the Transylvanian Saxons could finally get a passport (in the Ceaușescu era this was only possible for party loyalists) they emigrated in droves.

As they could easily get German citizenship under a special law of return, many in the Saxon community opted for better living standards in Germany.

That said, in the main cities and in some villages originally founded by the Transylvanian Saxons, a small but proud ethnic-German community still remains as some people just were not able to give up the houses and lands they inhabited for centuries.

biertan fortified church transylvania
Locals walking towards the impressive fortified church of Biertan. ©Paliparan

UNESCO World Heritage

Some of the fortified churches have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites. These are the churches in Biertan, Câlnic, Dârjiu, Prejmer, Saschiz, Valea Viilor and Viscri.

Although some of these churches are among the best you can see, they are by no means the only beautiful fortified churches in existance.

The list of fortified churches in endless – besides the more than 120 Saxon fortified churches there are also 23 Székely (ethnic Hungarian) fortified churches to explore in Transylvania.

viscri romania fortified churches transylvania
View over the countryside from the church tower of Viscri. ©Paliparan

Visiting the churches

The most visited of the Transylvanian fortified churches (such as Biertan, Viscri and Prejmer) are open every day of the week and will charge a minor entrance fee of around 10 lei (~2 euro).

However, the great majority of the fortified churches have their doors normally shut as there just aren’t enough visitors stopping by daily to keep them open around the clock.

In case you end up at a fortified church which is closed, there is always a note posted on the door or a nearby announcement board with the telephone number of the keyholder.

Just give the caretaker of the church a ring, and he or she will most likely come within a couple of minutes to open the door for you.

Chances are that the keyholder does not speak English or German, so writing down a Romanian sentence or two in advance does certainly help in case you do not speak the local language. Use Google Translate or perhaps ask a hotel or restaurant employee to help you with this before you set off.

In case no entrance fee is charged, you should definitely leave behind some money in the church collection box as these village churches can certainly use all the support for renovations and upkeep.

harman fortified church brasov romania
The interior of the fortified church of Hărman, which is one of the cosiest churches I ever visited. ©Paliparan

Car or public transport

Although some Saxon fortified churches can be visited by using public transport, not all of these Transylvanian towns and village have great transport links.

Many have no public transport links at all, and those which have them might only see one or two buses a day, making it difficult to plan an itinerary.

Because of this, it is highly advisable to have a (rental) car as not only does it make it so much easier to explore these amazing Saxon fortified churches, but also the surrounding countryside.

With a car, you can easily combine these historic churches with other interesting sights and some of the gorgeous nature in the area and get the most out of your day.

Arranging your trip

If you need a rental car, I can highly recommend the services of Auto Rent Brasov in Brașov, Rodna Rent a Car in Cluj-Napoca and Prima Rent in Bucharest as local companies. I’ve rented cars with these companies multiple times and was always satisfied with their service.

Of course, most international rental agencies such as Hertz and Sixt also have offices in most of Romania’s biggest cities and airports.

For trains in Romania check national railway company CFR Călători, although some rural lines in the country are operated by one of the smaller private companies. Bus timetables can be checked at Autogari.ro (and sometimes booked as well) – although it does not always list local bus lines.

Either base yourself in one of the great Transylvanian cities such as Sibiu or Brașov and make a day trip to visit some of the Saxon fortified churches, or make a small road trip and actually stay in one of these small towns and villages for the night before moving on.

Some of the Saxon towns such as Viscri and Saschiz have quality homestays and bed & breakfast (B&B) accommodation options.

transylvania car dacia sandero harman
The fortified churches of Transylvania are best visited by car. ©Paliparan

Travel across Romania

As I’m writing this, I have visited around 20 of the ~150 fortified churches in Transylvania. This trip report will therefore be continuously updated as I try to visit all the fortified churches in Romania, one at a time.

In the individual chapters of this trip report, I will not only try to give some background information about every Saxon fortified church and town, but will also explain whether or not you can reach it with public transport.

If there are any other sights of interest in the immediate surroundings, I will of course cover these as well!

prejmer fortified church
The fortified church of Prejmer in the thick morning fog. ©Paliparan

Trip report index

This trip report consists of the following chapters:

1. Hărman, Brașov County
2. Prejmer, Brașov County

** rest of the chapters to follow soon **

Koen

Koen works as a freelance journalist covering south-eastern Europe and is the founding father and editor-in-chief of Paliparan. As a contributor to some major Fleet Street newspapers and some lesser known publications in the Balkans, he travels thousands of miles each year for work as well as on his personal holidays. Whether it is horse riding in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains, exploring the backstreets of Bogotá, or sipping a glass of moschofilero in a Greek beachside taverna, Koen loves to immerse himself into the local culture, explore new places and eat and drink himself around the world.

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