Fortified churches of Transylvania

In need of marriage counseling? Visit Biertan!

The grandest of the fortified churches in Transylvania – a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

If your marriage or partnership is suffering, visit Biertan fortified church in Transylvania. There is a room here where couples would be banished for two weeks in medieval times to work out their differences.  The room contained only one small bed and one set of cutlery. In 400 years, only one couple went through with divorce—not a bad rate of success!

The Lonely Planet Romania Travel Guide advises you to save this fortified church for last, if you are visiting several. We followed their advice, and I understand why now. Biertan is a picture-perfect fortified church in the village of Biertan, sitting on a small hill, surrounded by higher hills. Having taken a little detour from Sighişoara (Biertan is 27 km southwest of Sighisoara), we arrived from the south, and followed a dirt road into the village. For a map of our route in Romania click here.

The inside of Biertan church – the altarpiece paintings are from 1483-1515.

The frescoes inside one of the towers surrounding the church.

The church was built in the 15th century and is surrounded by walls and towers and has an old covered stairway climbing from the main square of the village up to the church.

Gravestones of the Lutheran bishops who served here from 1572 to 1867 are located in this tower.

One of the towers surrounding the church.

A view of the church from Biertan village square.

The sacristy door lock – 19 locks in one! A marvel of engineering that won first prize at the Paris World Expo in 1900. The church’s treasures were behind this door.

Leaving Biertan to the north, the road is paved to the main highway (Highway 14) connecting Sighişoara to Sibiu.

A view of Biertan village from the church, looking south.

If you only have time to visit one fortified church in Transylvania, this is the one. The entry fee is 8 lei per person (about 3.3 lei per US dollar).

See my post “The Fortified Churches of Harman and Prejmer” for a short background on fortified churches in Transylvania. Other references: Lonely Planet-Romania 2010 & Rough Guide – Romania 2010.

Viscri – A Seemingly Untouched Romanian Village and Fortified Church

This little village and fortified church were on my list of favorite spots in Romania. The village feels secluded and remote, and the church doesn’t appear to have changed in hundreds of years. This place felt like the “real Europe” and one can quickly imagine what life was like here hundreds of years ago. The village has very few cars and no paved streets (one street was cobblestone). The church is visible as you drive into town, just follow your nose to find it. For a map of main sites visited in Romania click here.

The fortified church of Viscri.

Walking up to the entrance of Viscri fortified church.

While Viscri is not far (only 7 km) off the main route (E60) between Braşov and Sighişoara, the road is a bit rough—a combination of rough, broken pavement and gravel. Since there are few cars in Viscri, the locals probably don’t care that the road is not in the best shape, and the more difficult access means less visitors messing up the place! The only practical way to visit Viscri is with a rental car. The church is 13thcentury, and hasn’t changed much in the last 400 years; the old painted wood loft railings and creaky stairways are original from the 1600’s.

The interior of the Viscri fortified church–frozen in time.

At the top of the Viscri church tower, trying not to fall through the floor boards.

My son and I climbed up the tower of the church, through narrow stone stairways and over wooden boards where we had to watch our step or take a chance on falling through!  The fortified walls, built in 1525, contain storage areas and farm tools from many years ago.  There was an entry fee of 4 lei per person.

Inside the walls of Viscri fortified church.

A view of the village of Viscri and surrounding area from the tower of the church.

The village population consists of a few Saxons and mainly Roma (Gypsy).  We saw some displays of woolen socks as well as other woolen items (hats, etc.), and read afterwards that making these items is a major cottage industry of the village, exporting many of their hand-made goods to Germany.

A typical scene in Viscri.

You pass through the village of Bunesti on the way to Viscri – a view of rural life in Romania.

New home construction in Bunesti.

Children in the village of Bunesti pose for their picture.

See my post “The Fortified Churches of Harman and Prejmer” for a short background on fortified churches in Transylvania. Other references: Lonely Planet-Romania 2010 & Rough Guide – Romania 2010.

The Fortified Churches of Hărman and Prejmer

A great day trip from Braşov is visiting the fortified churches in Harman and Prejmer, towns that still retain their Saxon roots. We visited these churches as we left Braşov before heading to Sighişoara. The easiest way to visit these towns is by rental car, but it’s also possible by train or bus. Hărman is not open Monday and Prejmer is not open Sunday, so if you want to do both, you’ll need to visit Tuesday—Saturday. For a map of sites visited in Romania click here.

Exterior view of Harman fortified church with the walls and towers.

Fortified churches are a unique feature of Transylvania, and there are 280 in Transylvania. Each one has its own different style, but common features include high surrounding walls (sometimes several concentric rings) usually with towers, a church in the center of the fortifications, often with its own tower, and rooms for provisions in case of attack and sometimes boarding rooms for the villagers inside the walls—these fortifications often look like a combination of a castle and church. A whole trip could be spent just visiting these wonderful sights, and maps are available that show driving tours of these churches, which are often in little villages. The two listed here are close to Braşov and close together. Their purpose during medieval times was to provide safety to the villagers in times of attack, often from the Ottomans as they sought to expand their empire westward.

Hărman

The church at Hărman dates back to 1240, the belfry tower was added in the 14thcentury, and the walls were constructed in the 15th century.

Even the church had exterior rooms for protection–ladders could be pulled up.

In addition to the church, the fortifications retain part of the interior living and storage rooms along the walls, giving a feel to what the internal fortifications looked like.

The storage and living quarters along the inside walls.

You can visit some of the rooms and dark walkway around the wall which haven’t changed much from their original state. In the church, women would sit in the center pews and the men on the side pews, in case of attack the women would be in the center protected by the men surrounding them.

The pews where the women would sit in the church.

The men would sit in these side pews to protect the women.

It would have been quite a life to constantly worry about your village being attacked by the Ottomans.  The walls originally had a moat around them, and part of it is still visible.

The caretakers of this church are German, descendants of the Saxons who settled this town.  The entry fee was 4 lei per person (about $3.25).

Prejmer

The village of Prejmer is more rustic than Hărman, with dirt roads in some parts of the village.

A typical street scene in Prejmer–note the horse-drawn “tractor” on the right.

The fortified church has very high walls (12-14 meters high), and given its size, it’s difficult to appreciate from the outside.

Exterior view of Prejmer fortified church.

Reinforced door at the entrance to Prejmer fortified church.

Prejmer was the most powerful peasant fortress in Transylvania. The main entrance feels like a step back in time, just like walking into a medieval village. This fortification also had a moat, which has since been filled in.

The entrance to Prejmer fortifications.

Beyond the initial entrance, there is another entrance into the interior courtyard where the church is located and surrounded by little rooms (272 of them) on four levels attached to the defensive circular walls.

The 13th century Prejmer church.

The interior shelters of Prejmer–where the villagers would live in times of pending attack.

These rooms are well-preserved, and from the courtyard the ring of rooms almost looks like a hotel, with numbers on each door. Each room was assigned to a village family. Many of the rooms are open, and they also provide access to a dark walkway running the length of the walls at the top, where guards and lookouts could be posted.

Typical living quarters inside the fortifications.

The walkway on the upper floor around the walls of Prejmer fortifications.

Some rooms were also dedicated to specific purposes–such as a school, for storage, weaving, etc. The entry fee was 8 lei per person.

A school room at Prejmer. Note the wall paintings.

As with many sites we visited in Romania, we pretty much had these places to ourselves.

References: Lonely Planet – Romania & Information at the sites.