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and the Saxon Villages
To reach the Saxon villages of Transylvania we again crossed the Carpathians and spent a
night in the Szekely lands in the village of Praid. On this part of our journey we were to
experience the legacy of the country's ethnic minorities, in particular the Szekelys and the
It was a very scenic day's drive through the mountains to reach the area, the highlight being
the Becaz Gorges. A narrow sinuous road runs through these deep limestone gorges. It is a
favourite excursion for local people and at the scenic stopping places there were many tacky
souvenir stalls. Along the way we ate a rich Szekely lunch in a restaurant where the specialty
was a goulash made of pork, sauerkraut and sour cream.
The Szekelys are ethnic Hungarians with their own Hungarian dialect and a distinctly
different cultural life in their adopted home of Szekely Land. Originally settled in scattered
communities in Hungary, they first moved into this part of the Carpathians from the 11th
century. Further significant immigration came in the 18th century following harsh treatment
under the Hapsburgs.
The Saxons have a different story. They lived here for nearly nine centuries and nurtured a
unique cultural and architectural heritage. After WWII they began to return to Germany. This
emigration was supported by the Ceausescu regime and under an agreement between the
two governments, Germany effectively bought the returning Saxons. The population then
dramatically diminished (perhaps by 90%) after the fall of the the Communist regime when
the German government offered citizenship to those wishing to return. The lure of an easier
life was too much for most families. They just left their homes and villages and now these
are either deserted or being repopulated by Roma communities.
There are a hundred or more charming villages in what is called Saxon Land. Typically
there is a fortified church on a hill, surrounded by tight lines of village houses with steep
pitched tiled roofs.
The departure of the Saxon population has led to many of the villages being virtually
abandoned, leaving the houses and churches to fall into disrepair. Seven are listed by
UNESCO and there are a number of organisations now dedicated to their preservation
and restoration. With increasing tourism many houses are now used as guest houses.
The houses present to the street
as flat, rendered facades painted
and decorated in pastel shades.
A break in the wall makes way
for a large gate, always closed,
that leads into a grassed or
cobbled courtyard. Around the
courtyard is the entrance to the
house and a collection of
barnlike structures that were
used to house farm animals and
all the equipment that goes with
In Praid our Szekely guesthouse was almost a museum with
collections of farm tools and machinery even older than those
currently in use. Inside, the walls were hung with embroidered
cloths and traditional ceramics. All the furniture was cheerfully
painted with traditional motifs. In the morning there was a colourful
market where there was a busy trade in fruit and vegies, cheese,
sausage, clothes and other useful stuff.
Praid's most popular attraction is its salt mine. Kilometres underground, it
requires a bus ride to reach a foreboding entrance, then staircases lead down
several hundred metres. Here we found ourselves in an enormous brightly lit
cavernous area where there were cafes, playground and climbing equipment,
amusement rides and even a chapel. People come down here for what is
called speleotherapy, treatment for respiratory and allergic illnesses. We
found it an intensely unsettling environment and couldn't wait to get out.
It had been intended that we base ourselves in the village of Malancrav
for several nights but a wedding in an old manor house there had
disrupted all arrangements in the area so instead we had the opportunity
to experience three different villages on three different nights.
In our spacious room we were astonished to find we were to sleep in a
really traditional bed - on two levels, one a drawer that could be pushed
out of the way in the daytime. We loved the rustic feel of this place.
First up was
Malancrav nestled in
a valley and
overlooked by its
fortified church and
the 15th century
A village lady looked
after our house and
meals for us.
Biertan was the next village - bigger and perhaps more
prosperous. It is known for its grand fortified church, almost a
castle, which towers above the town. Below is a huddle of terra
cotta roofs and strings of traditional houses along muddy streets.
Another comfortable room here had a more conventional bed. We
loved the variety of its lovely houses
We didn't stay in Viscri but negotiated a terrible road to reach it and
inspect the splendid fortifications that completely surround its 12th century
fortified church. It is possible to walk right around the ramparts and climb a
wonky staircase to a very folksy museum. Restoration of village houses
has been given some priority and a further drawcard to attract visitors is the
fact that Prince Charles has bought and restored a house here.
Alma Vii was our final village, with another fortified church,
more streets of charming houses, another simple room in a
restored house and a delightful couple who plied us with
wholesome food, tuica and homemade wine. You get the feeling
that after weeks exploring these forgotten villages there would
still be more tucked away in a hidden valley across the hills.
Sighisoara is not a
village but a large and
town, it is a gem. Its
centre, known as the
Citadel perches high
on a hill surrounded by
14th century walls
which today still retain
nine of the original
fourteen towers, each
dedicated to a
particular guild. It is a
confection of sloping
roofs, turrets, towers
cobbled streets and
buildings. It is our
guide Sergiu's home
town and he took
delight in showing us
Walking between the Saxon Villages
Malancrav to Copsa Mare
There was overnight rain and for the first time we woke to the prospect
of walking in less than perfect weather. But it soon fined up and we left
our lovely house and walked down the wet street of Malancrav, crossed
a trickling creek and climbed behind the village to the fortified church,
isolated and deserted on the hillside.
We climbed further up and
down into the hills with Sergiu
keeping an eye out for the
shepherds, sheep and dogs
known to frequent these
hillsides. At the top of the hill
we spotted them and they
spotted us as well.
Up another hill there were flimsy
wooden towers strategically placed
round the hillsides. Apparently this
is country favoured by hunters. We
lunched at one of their picnic tables
- bulky slabs of bread with cheese
and sausage - probably much as
the hunters would eat. A
spectacularly muddy track took us
up to a fine view over the
surrounding hillsides then there was
a grassy descent to the muddy
road into Copsa Mare where we
spent some time scraping mud from
our boots before taking in the
splendid fortified church whose bell
tower could be climbed for a fine
view of the village.
There was a great view back
down to the village sprawling
along its valley. Some more
climbing along a muddy track
brought us to the manor house
where preparations were in full
swing for the wedding that has
disrupted the district. We
weren't allowed inside.
These dogs came very close, barking furiously but they soon lost interest when
we turned off the grassy track and took a wide detour. The shepherds watched
with little interest and took no action. Walking over the hills through the wet
grass, we saw teams of prospectors spreading cable about - apparently they
are testing for what may be considerable reserves of shale gas.
We negotiated lots of mud and reached the village of Nou Sasesc where the
sky cleared and the wet road reflected the unfailingly picturesque houses.
Biertan to Richis
This was a shortish morning walk timed to reach the nearby village of Richis for
an inspection of the church there in the company of one of the surviving Saxons.
After an agreeable easy walk
along the valley we crossed over
a hill and came down into Richis.
Here a very old man, rather like a
leprechaun, took delight in
guiding us round his church
where pagan carvings of mythical
green men were secreted.
We walked out of town, passing
one of the derelict collective
farms from Soviet times. Our
route followed a rough road
along a valley where crops grew
beside the road and wooded
hillsides climbed skywards.
Barking in the distance had us
diverting through the stubble of a
cornfield, only rejoining the road
when it was deemed safe.
Our Romanian adventures finished, as they had started, in a city we had
never heard of before planning these explorations.
We stayed in the remarkable Hotel Imparatul
Romanilor, truly a relic of the Austro-Hungarian
Empire where we expected Franz Joseph to step
out of a portrait and into the gilded hotel foyer.
Sibiu was built in the 12th century by the Saxons. Like Sighisoara its
guilds were rich and powerful, creating a prosperous walled city with 39
towers and four bastions. The historic centre of the city is a delightful
melding of several large pedestrianised squares surrounded by towers,
turrets and elegant low scale pastel buildings. Part of its charm comes
from the very unusual windows that look just like eyelids blinking from the
The city was designated as the European City of Culture for 2007. This
designation is made by The European Union on an annual basis and is
an opportunity for a city to smarten itself up and show off its cultural
attributes. This has done a lot to put Sibiu on the map.
We loved the agreeable ambience of Sibiu, its lovely buildings and relaxed
restaurants and bars.
To truly round off the trip, as we sat having dinner on the square, there was another
demonstration against the Rosia Montana project. We felt we had come full circle.
In other pages are descriptions of our experiences in
Amusement hall in the salt mine
The manor house at Malancrav
Clocktower in Sibiu
Street in Nou Sasesc
Street in Biertan
Track to Copsa Mare
Street in Copsa Mare
The road to Richis