There are many reasons why people like to visit Romania, like the stunning scenery, old medieval towns, or legendary castles and fortresses. But not many visitors are aware of the authentic old villages in the region of Transylvania which remained unchanged in structure for hundreds of years. There are seven villages with fortified churches in Romania on the UNESCO World Heritage site. But perhaps the most imposing one of them is the fortified church of Biertan.
Despite being one of the most unique places in Romania, the fortified church Biertan is often overlooked by tourist traffic. When I first visited it, I was quite pleasantly surprised by the beauty of this fortified ensemble. You can actually see it from the road just before entering the village of Biertan, which hosts it. The church is located 10 km away from the main road that connects Mediaş to Sighişoara.
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What Is a Fortified Church?
The spiritual and defensive center of each village was a fortified church where the villagers would retreat with their belongings in case of an attack. This kind of church-fortresses are typical for Transylvania and were prompted by the Tartar destruction of the country in 1241.
The villagers would store dry food (flour, dried ham and fat bacon) within the church walls and use it when they had to retreat there. Because the thick walls remained cool year round, the villages also stored food there in times of peace in order to preserved it.
What to Look for When Visiting the Biertan Fortified Church
Biertan is a typical Saxon village, dating back to 1283. The main characteristic of the Saxon villages are the fortified churches. Therefore, the village of Biertan also has a fortified church located on a hilltop.
The Covered Staircase
The access to the fortified church is through a covered staircase, very similar to the one in the medieval citadel in Sighisoara.
The main role of fortified churches was to defend the lives of the villagers. As a result, they were built up on hills and surrounded by strong ramparts.
Biertan Fortified Church is one of the best examples of how skillfully the Saxon could transform their churches into real fortresses, surrounding them with several layers of walls. There are five ramparts on the inner wall and three walls in all.
The Sacristy Door Lock
One of the great attractions at Biertan church is the door of the sacristy, which dates back to 1515. The door is very unique because it has a complicated locking system operated by a key and a crank.
The Church Sanctuary
Biertan Fortified Church was erected in the 16th century in Gothic style, on the site of an earlier Romanesque church. This was one of the strongest fortified churches in Transylvania. The Saint patron of Biertan is Virgin Mary.
The current hall-church has three naves and retains a design very close to the original. You can still see many of the original elements, including some frescos, the painted pews, the southern tower, as well as the tombstones of the Saxon bishops in the Mausoleum tower.
The Polyptych Altarpiece
Biertan church is home to the biggest and most spectacular Polyptych altarpiece in Transylvania. The altar consists of 28 panels depicting beautiful scenes from the life of Jesus, Mary, the crucifixion, baptism, circumcision and various paintings with saints.
The altar was the masterpiece of a Viennese artist who finished it in 1483. Some of the paintings were copied after the altarpiece of Schottenkirche – one of the most beautiful churches in Vienna.
One of the most impressive elements at Biertan are the towers surrounding the church: the Clock Tower, the Bell Tower, the Gate Tower and the Bacon Tower. Within the grounds are several other interesting buildings, including the Prison Tower – which once served marital counseling purposes.
The Marriage Prison
One interesting buildings not to miss at Biertan Fortified Church is the Marriage Prison. According to the legend, spouses who were seeking separation were locked in this tower and forced to stay with each other for six weeks before being granted the divorce.
If at the end of the six weeks they would still claim “irreconcilable differences,” the divorce would be pronounced. But in the tower the couple had to share one bed, one chair, one table, one spoon, one fork, and no knife. It may sound like a strange solution, but the method was actually quite effective – a “remedy for divorce.” As a result, in 300 years only one divorce happened in the fortified church of Biertan.
Visiting hours and admission price
High season (April to October): Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 a.m – 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Low season (November to March): Tuesday to Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Ticket price: 10 Lei/person (aprox. $2.50).
A Final Note
This fortified church of Biertan has a great historic and esthetic value. Firstly, it gives an insight into a time in history when Transylvania was colonized by the Saxons.
Secondly, the value of Biertan’s Medieval Fortified Church is further enhanced by its excellent shape. Out of the 300 fortified churches in Transylvaina, this church has been perfectly preserved. Therefore, it comes to no surprise that Biertan is a UNESCO Heritage site.
There are around 200-250 such villages with fortified churches in Transylvania, scattered along the main roads between Sibiu, Târgu Mures, Sighisoara and Brasov. If you have a car, you should try to visit some of them.
The Saxon villages in Romania still maintain their medieval charm. Traditions, culture and lifestyle in this area of the country remained unspoiled for centuries.