Fortified churches in Transylvania are among the most interesting and unique places to visit in Romania. They hold a big historical and cultural value and are typical for this very region.
A fellow travel blogger and Romanian native, Andrea from Travel Taste Feel blog, has decided to share more info about Transylvania fortified churches so when you plan your Romania itinerary you can easily include them in your trip. Read on to find out all about Romania fortified churches and how to visit them.
If Transylvania is considered a mythical land, Transylvanian fortified churches couldn’t be outdone. They add to the charm of the region. Some of these fortifications stand out with their old paintings, legends, fabulous landscape, history lessons, religiousness… What matters though, is that every village has a story to tell – from the fortress to the perfectly aligned old houses…
Nowadays we have around 150 fortified churches left, all situated in Transylvanian villages. 7 are part of the UNESCO world heritage.
To understand the thing with fortified churches, here you have some preliminary info on the former inhabitants of Transylvanian lands, the Saxons, and some general facts.
Table of contents
- 1 Who are the Saxons?
- 2 Fortified churches – General facts
- 3 Good to know before visiting fortified churches in Transylvania
- 4 Best fortified churches in Transylvania
- 5 Final thoughts on visiting Transylvania fortified churches
- 6 Travel Resources
Who are the Saxons?
In order to understand who the Saxons were and what they were doing in the part of the world called Transylvania, we have to go a long way back in history. More exactly, 9 centuries.
Although the villages with fortified churches are in Transylvania – part of Romania – the Saxons had nothing to do with nowadays Romanians.
The Saxons were Germanic people. They had come to the invitation of Hungarian kings between 1180 and 1250 to colonize a formerly wild area. The king was looking for allies in the permanent fight with the boyars. So, he decided to colonize the land with people who had to be productive, pay taxes and be loyal subjects. In the 12th century, in Western Europe there was an overpopulation, so, the kings wanted to lure people from the West to the East.
Transylvania was the farthest away for these would-be emigrants, so the king had to come with serious incentives. Therefore, he offered many important liberties for the times. So, the land soon became a German republic with a Hungarian king.
The Saxons were living a fine life …until danger stroke. Then, being totally alone in this part of the world, they couldn’t run away. They were tied down because of the liberties they enjoyed, so there was no other choice than build fortifications to protect themselves.
Nowadays, there are basically no Saxons left in Romania. Most of them were deported after WW 2 and persecuted by the communist regime. Still, Transylvanian Saxons left an important legacy we take pride in.
Fortified churches – General facts
The great number of fortified churches in Transylvania is unique in the world.
As the name says, fortification means protection, a building with a defensive role. But who were the enemies?
Mainly the Tatars.
They were sent by the Ottomans with a precise mission: to spread terror. When the Tatars attacked, the villagers would see from the hill the troops and knew they had a few minutes to take action. So, that is why they erected the fortifications.
Churches have always been made of stone, so eventually, during an attack, they were turned into safe houses. As a second step, walls and towers were built to offer more room and increased safety. This explains the multiple functions of both the church and fortification.
Besides serving as a spiritual place, the place of worship also meant protection. The fortress is not only an area of defense; it is synonymous with shelter, storage area, and fight zone.
You already understand my constant plea for the beautiful landscape. The top of the hill was a good observation point, and for us, nowadays, the Transylvanian highlands offer amazing views over the settlements.
Good to know before visiting fortified churches in Transylvania
An interesting fact is that the houses from the village were ranged in the vicinity of the church based on some criteria. The wealthier families used to live closer to the church than the needy ones. It translates into the fact that whenever an assault was approaching, the more well-off were able to take their important belongings to the church fast, thus preserving the heritage.
Fortified churches in the villages have a different atmosphere from buildings with the same destination in the city. The small village community acts as a family because they all know one another. Simplicity and sincerity are two major assets that we can still see in the country.
Upon planning a visit to one of these villages with fortifications, you will never need a GPS to find the church. But, you may need to find the key-holder.
Churches are usually open in summer and at weekends, but you may need to look for the key at the village priest in a less crowded season. (His phone number is usually on the door church).
Initially, these places of worship were Catholic, but after the Protestant Reform from the 16th century, the whole religious system underwent changes, along with important education reformation. Most of Romania fortified churches are now Lutheran.
Best fortified churches in Transylvania
If you don’t know where to start, we prepared a description of some of the most representative and beautiful fortified churches in Transylvania (this is not only my slightly subjective opinion). They can be found in the counties of Sibiu, Brasov, Mures, and Alba.
Biertan fortified church
Location: Biertan, Sibiu County
Entrance fee: 10 lei
It is simply splendid. This UNESCO heritage has a special halo that surrounds it, but it is not only the outside that surprises. On the contrary! It has a special door with a clever mechanism. It contains
15 bolts that can be simultaneously activated by a key, thus serving to the protection of goods! In 1910, the door was awarded a prize at the Paris International Exhibition!
The original altar of this late-Gothic church comprises 28 painted panels that go back to the late 15th century. It is the most beautiful and largest in Transylvania.
The Marriage Prison Tower is a must-see, as it represents the ancient way of doing couple therapy. Married couples who wanted to divorce were locked in a tiny room where they had to share everything. It is said that in 300 years, this method only failed once!
Viscri fortified church
Location: Viscri, Brasov County
Entrance fee: 12 lei/adult and 6 lei/seniors and students
Viscri is already a legend thanks to Prince Charles whose love for these lands put the village on the map again.
Like in all rural Transylvania, time stood still. You can see troughs for the cows in front of the houses painted in blue and old peasants chatting about village life. Viscri simply has a charming touch and takes pride in their old white fortification that is part of the UNESCO heritage. It is today a Lutheran church and part of it is home to traditional objects belonging to the Saxon community.
The setting of the church awaits the visitors to share with them stories about the centuries when there was a Saxon community that came straight from the valleys of Rhein. The church itself was started by the Szeklers before Saxon’s arrival.
It is very small, modest, and neat. The two towers and bastions complete the initial tribune and tower. The fortification was built later to protect from the Tatar invasion, somewhere after 1500.
Nowadays, one can still see the old paintings and marvel at the simplicity of the Saxon lifestyle. Although it does not impress with its dimensions, we can easily observe the thickness of its defensive walls. After invasions became seldom, the church accomplished other functions, such as housing, or storing the lard.
Harman fortified church
Location: Harman, Brasov county
Entrance fee: 15 lei adult/10 lei pensioners and students
Placed very close to its highly rated brother, Prejmer, I had lesser expectations from Harman fortification. To be honest, Harman totally blew my mind. I was astonished by the beauty of the place, as well as the degree of preservation of the fortification. It is a must for its rare pre-Reformation paintings or area of natural beauty. But above all, for the perfect example of fortification.
Meaning Mount of Honey in Latin, Harman goes long way back, until 1240. According to the fashion of the times, Harman also underwent a lot of sieges. The fortifications proved strong even in front of Gabriel Bathory, the dictatorial prince. As a consequence, Harman was the only commune in the region that could defend itself.
The church is a mixture of Cistercian elements and other various styles, such as early Gothic or late Romanesque. Although the church itself isn’t fortified, it is surrounded by two concentrical walls and a defensive moat, has seven towers and strong gates.
But the main attraction resides in the impressive size of the fortification. It was designed to shelter the entire village, more precisely 800 locals! Freshly restored, the fortification is a history lesson throughout the generations: from sieges to community pantry!
Prejmer fortified church
Location: Prejmer, Brasov county
Entrance fee: 15 lei adult/7 lei student
Prejmer fortification is a must. Besides being a UNESCO legacy, Tartlau (according to its German name), is the ultimate fortification. It all started with the church, whose construction began in 1218. It was under Teuton domination before being taken over by the Saxons.
The interior of the Gothic church is simple and plain; however, it boasts the oldest triptych altarpiece in all of Transylvania, dating from around 1450.
The fortification closely embraces the church. You can observe the thickness of its walls. Everything comes with a reason: Prejmer is the most eastern village founded by Saxons, so it needed extra protection. And it offered protection. They say that throughout the numerous sieges, Prejmer fortification only succumbed once.
Being in the vicinity of Harman, Prejmer serves a similar role: protection, defense, living space, and storage room. The fortifications are 5 meters thick and 12 m tall and contain firing chambers, holes to throw hot tar pitch or, the organ of death (a medieval machine-gun).
Alma Vii fortified church
Location: Alma Vii, Sibiu County
Entrance fee: 10 lei
Visiting Alma Vii is an experience itself. The village and the surroundings are breathtaking, and they will make you fall instantly for the settlement with colored houses, the honesty and simplicity of the locals, and the UNESCO fortified church, of course!
Placed on top of a hill, the 14th-century church rises proudly above the village, while the fortifications were added two centuries later. The four towers represent the four cardinal points. The main tower had horizontal firing chambers, while the first floor could be used as shelter in needy times.
Like most churches, the Alma Vii one has a beautiful blue and gold organ, is simple and plain, without paintings on the walls. Like in other churches, you can also climb your way up to the tower to admire the beautiful landscape. You will be amazed by the splendid nature and lovely houses painted in various colors that will remain on your retina! Alma Vii truly gives a feeling of peace and communion with nature that makes centuries-old history so easy to integrate!
The variety and beauty of the landscape caught the attention of Prince Charles, who, through the “Mihai Eminescu” trust funded an important sum of money for Alma Vii.
Final thoughts on visiting Transylvania fortified churches
All in all, Transylvania is filled with fortified churches. You can just jump out of the car without knowing whether the fortification is famous or less known. After all, in all my peregrinations hunting for fortified churches, I’ve never come across any that disappointed me or that I disliked. But I came across some that I really liked!
Biertan, Câlnic, Dârjiu, Prejmer, Saschiz, Valea Viilor and Viscri are the fortifications that are part of the world heritage.
These are other nonetheless beautiful churches that are worth paying a visit (in no particular order): Valea Viilor, Mălâncrav, Bazna, Moșna, Cristian, Cisnădie, Cisnădioara, Axente Sever, Hărman, Sânpetru, Codlea, Vulcan, Archita or Cloașterf.
So, fingers crossed! I’m absolutely positive you’ll also find your share of church/fortification – nature – the history that will be just your cup of tea!
About the author: Andrea Kriston is a travel content creator at traveltastefeel.com. After visiting several countries, she decided to write about her native Romania which she saw with other eyes as a grown-up. She never turns down chocolate or a glass of good wine, is playful, and loves bright colors. You can follow Andrea on Instagram and Facebook.
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