For most westerners Romania is this former Eastern Bloc country of Nadia Comaneci –the famous Romanian gymnast who scored the first perfect 10 in the Olympics. But few people know how beautiful this country really is and how much it has to offer. In recent years, Romanian tourism has had an ascending trend. Many of the landmarks and historic monuments that suffered neglect over the centuries have been rebuilt and restored. Although many valuable historic buildings and churches in the country have been destroyed and demolished during Ceausescu’s years, Romania still has a large collection of beautiful medieval castles and fortresses that survived the time. Most of them have been built between the 12th and 18th century as strategic points of defense against the invaders. A great majority of them are located in Transylvania, a historical region in the central part of Romania that has been dominated by different people and countries throughout its history, more recently by Saxons. As a result, there are over 200 villages, churches and fortifications built by the Saxons in the region. Here are some of them:
The Fortress of Alba Iulia
Alba Iulia is one of the most beautiful examples of Vauban military architecture in Europe. The fortress’s history dates back to the Roman period. In the Middle Ages Alba Iulia served as the capital of the independent Principality of Transylvania and the residence of the Transylvanian princes. The fortress of Alba Iulia as seen today was built in the 18th century by the order of the Habsburg emperor Charles VI. In the second part of the19th century most of the walls and bastions were demolished to make room for the modern city. During the communist era, the fortress fell into complete neglect because of the lack of funds for repairs. In recent years Alba Iulia citadel was fully restored, with beautiful walls and gates. When visiting the fortress today, you can still see three of the original six highly ornamented, early Baroque gates.
The Fortress of Râsnov
Not far from the city of Brasov, about 650 feet above the town of Râsnov, on the route that connects Transylvania and Wallachia, there is one of the best preserved rustic fortresses in Romania. The Fortress of Râsnov was built by the Teutonic Knights –a catholic religious order formed in Palestine during the late twelfth century by German crusaders– who were brought here to defend the Southeastern border of Transylvania from the Cumans and the Pechenegs. Unlike other Saxon fortresses in Transylvania, the Fortress of Râsnov was designed as a place of refuge over extended periods of time. The legend says that during a long siege of the fortress, the citizens of Râsnov were very concerned about the lack of available fresh drinking water, so they ordered two Turkish prisoners to dig a well in the center of the fortress. The two men were assured that they would be released upon completion of their task. According to the legend, it took them 17 years to finish the well, but in the end they have been killed. The famous 146 meters deep well still sits in the center of the fortress. The old Fortress of Râisnov has been restored to its former glory and today you can visit the impressive remains. There is also a museum where you can see some interesting artifacts.
Like Râsnov, the Castle of Bran was also established as a fortress by the Teutonic Knights, as part of a defence system against the Mongolian invasions. The castle was built in a very strategic location: up on a steep cliff, within the narrow Bran Gorge, on the passageway between Transylvania and Wallachia (in old Romania). In 1407 Bran Castle was given by the Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg to his ally, Prince Mircea the Elder, of Wallachia, in return for his loyalty. After the death of the Romanian Prince in 1419, Sigismund gave the castle to the Princes of Transylvania. Contrary to the popular belief, Bram Stoker’s character Dracula did not have any connection with Bran Castle. Vlad The Impaler, the Wallachian ruler who may have been the inspiration for Dracula, was only connected with Bran through an alliance during his first reign (1436 – 1442). The Princes of Transylvania asked him to handle the anti-Ottoman resistance at the border. In more modern times, the Castle of Bran became the summer residence of Queen Marie of Romania who did a lot of remodeling and renovations to the old fortress, transforming it into the beautiful castle that we see today.
The Fortress of Slimnic
Also known as Stolzenburg, the Fortress of Slimnic was completed at the beginning of the 14th century, as a refuge place for the Saxon communities in the area. The construction was realized entirely from brick on the site where a smaller fortification used to be. At first a Gothic chapel and the current bell tower were erected. A new building (probably a church with three naves) was added towards the second half of the 14th century, but that was never completed. The western wall of the fortification with crenels and loopholes was built in the 15th Century. During the 16th century the fortress was extended again and reinforced to better resist the attacks. Over the centuries the Fortress of Slimnic was besieged in various occasions first by the by Turks then by the Hungarians. The repeated attacks mainly destroyed the second ring wall, which surrounded the parish church built in the 14th Century. In the 18th century, after the rebels of Francisc Rákóczi II set it on fire, the fortress was abandoned for good.
The Fortress of Rupea
Established by the Saxons in the 13th century, the fortress of Rupea is one of the oldest medieval sites in Transylvania. In Hungarian, the fortress’s name was Köhalom, meaning “mound of rocks.” It is believed that at some point almost 400 people lived between the walls of the fortress, where they had all the necessities: a parish, a chapel, a local market, a fountain and even a so-called “bacon tower”, where all the meat reserves were stored. The the fortress was built and extended in several stages between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, to serve as refuge for the inhabitants of the surrounding villages against attackers. Although once one of Transylvania’s most important citadels, Rupea was slowly abandoned. By the end of the 19th century it was just a pile of rocks. During the Communist Era, the Ruins of Rupea barely escaped total demolition. After the fall of Communism in 1990, the local authorities made several attempts to restore the fortress the plans had to be repeatedly deferred because of lack of funds. Finally, in 2013, the once derelict ruins had undergone extensive renovations. Today the fortress of Rupea is a major tourist attraction in the county of Brasov.
The Fortified Church of Biertan
Located in the County of Sibiu, Biertan is a typical Saxon village easily accessible from the main road. In the centre of the village there is one of the most imposing fortified churches in Transylvania. The fortress-church was first mentioned in a document of King Matei Corvin in 1486. 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 is very typical of Transylvania and was 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 were forced to retreat there. Because the thick walls remained cool year round, food was also preserved there in times of peace. The fortress has three exterior walls and five towers, each one interesting on its own way.
The Ruins of Saschiz
Saschiz is a beautiful little village located about 20 kilometers from the city of Sighisoara, in the heart of Transylvania, in the Mures region. Saschiz is known for its medieval fortress and church constructed by the Saxons, a population of German origin who settled here when Transylvania was part of Hungary. The ruins of a 14th-century fortress sit atop a hill overlooking the village. There is a small dirt road from the village center that leads to the ruins. Part of it is drivable, but the rest you’ll have to walk through a forest (about 15 minutes). The walk is not very difficult and it’s well worth it. Saschiz was once a defensive fortress that protected the town against the numerous invasions in the region. Although almost destroyed, you can still see a good part of the former fortress and walk around the ruins.
There is a beautiful view of the village and the famous Clock Tower from up there. The Clock Tower from Saschiz is one of Transylvania’s most beautiful medieval monuments that also belongs to a fortified church built by Saxons in the 15th century. The Tower is admired by everybody who travels the European road (E60) that crosses the centre of Saschiz.