Today we are going to Transylvania, in the counties of Brasov and Sibiu, to some of the oldest and most beautiful fortified churches. Placed in beautiful natural scenery, some of them are still the venue for masses and cultural events. The circuits including these churches afford tourists unparallelled access to local legends and culture.
Our first stopover is Harman, or Huntschprich, as it is known in the Saxon dialect, which means Honey Mountain. This is a small and tranquil village in the center of Romania, 10 km away from Brasov. The most impressive venue here is the fortified church, a very well preserved 12th century building. You can see from afar the main church tower, which has around it four smaller towers. This is not a common image in villages, because the presence of such a tower meant that local law enforcement had the right to mete out punishment by death, which was unusual in small localities. Then you can make out the massive walls and the moat that initially went around the village. The peasants had no military training, and relied on these medieval defenses, says Dan Ilica-Popescu, custodian of Harman fortress:
“They had four gates to pass through to get into the courtyard. From there you can see the massive church, surrounded by little houses for the locals, which is unusual for Barsa Country. They were built next to the church. Unfortunately, only the ones on the south side have been preserved. Right now they are museums: one museum showcases Saxon garb, another is an old school where you can still hear the local German dialect. We offer guides who speak Romanian, German, and English. We also have a printed guide with the description of the citadel and the objects in museums. It is available in Romanian, German, Italian, Spanish, French, and Hebrew. We are also preparing the Polish and Russian versions. We are trying to cover as much ground as we can.”
Also in Brasov County, on one of the northern sides of Magura Codlei Mountain, more than 800 years ago, the Teutonic Knights erected a fortress. The Black Fortress, as it was dubbed, was turned then into a peasant fortress. This happened in 1432. right now, the impressive walls are still a wonder for tourists. They are between eight and ten meters tall and two meters thick. If you go to Codlea Fortress, you can meet there Ileana Nica. She has been volunteering since she was five, and is host for the visitors:
“The church dates back to the 13th century. It was initially a Catholic church, and only the back part was built back then. Which is why it is so strange to see two styles in the same church. The back part is Roman in style, the front part is Gothic. The Gothic part was built in the 15th century, along with the defensive walls, when it was turned from a Catholic to an Evangelical church.”
The ceiling is the main attraction in the fortified church, according to Ileana Nica. Also there you can admire an impressive collection of paintings:
“The ceiling is unique. It has 252 sections, each of them a representation of Martin Luther. They are all different. The painting differs. This is a unique sectioned ceiling. There are more, but none like that. One was made in the 18th century by a painter called Johannes Stolz. The painting collection belonged to the man who repainted the church in the 20th century, restoring all the paintings. He is a local painter who lived between 1886 and 1980. It is interesting that he captured all the important historical events, which is reflected in his paintings. He has paintings of women in peasant garb working in the fields. At the same time, you can see a painting of women in the field during the communist period, when clothing was completely different. We had tourists who told us that they heard of this painter in Vienna. He made over 2,000 paintings in his lifetime.”
To the west, we get to Cisnadie, a locality in Sibiu County. The town is well known for its fortified church, dedicated to Saint Walpurga. It was built by Saxons 800 years ago, and in the Middle Ages it was known as Heltau, and was famous for its workshops that made farming tools and fabrics. In Cisnadie you can also see the belfry of the local Evangelical fortified church. It was an innovation for the Middle Ages. It was the first clock tower in Transylvania, and the first tower east of Vienna to have a lightning rod. Bell Ioan is the curator of the Evangelical church in Cisnadie:
“It was built in the early 13th century. It is a former Roman basilica, turned Catholic until 1544, when it was turned into an Evangelical church. The foundation is the same, but along the generations there were many stages of building. Along the years, the church has defended the locals against invaders. It was the first Gothic style building. The middle nave is still Gothic in style. Three defense towers were built on top of the church, north, south, and over the altar. You could shoot guns from the top of the towers. That was not always successful, since invaders kept coming. First there were the Mongols, then the Tatars, the Huns, then the Hapsburgs.”
In a relatively small area of Transylvania you can find over 200 churches, fortified churches, church castles, and fortifications. Some of them are part of the UNESCO world heritage. You can also find a multitude of town churches and fortifications. Many of the are part of a program called 'Discover the Soul of Transylvania'. The program is aimed a restoring and maintaining monuments by promoting the Transylvania Card program. This card offers discounts from various partners, as well as free of charge access to fortified cities and their events. The card costs 55 lei, 12 Euro, and may be purchased on the website transilvania-card.ro.