Explore on MAPS
Contact us
Return to HOME PAGE
View pictures of
See also pages on Romania
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 Saxons.

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.
The Villages
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 farming.
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 Hungarian manor house.

A village lady looked after our house and cooked hearty 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 significant Saxon town, it is a gem. Its historic medieval 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 and chimneys, cobbled streets and brightly coloured buildings. It is our guide Sergiu's home town and he took delight in showing us around.
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 sloping rooftops.
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
Return to Top
Becaz Gorge
Amusement hall in the salt mine
Departing Malancrav
The manor house at Malancrav
Towards Biertan
Clocktower in Sibiu
Street in Nou Sasesc
Street in Biertan
Track to Copsa Mare
Street in Copsa Mare
The road to Richis