There are seven villages with fortified churches which comprise the Fortified Churches of Transylvania UNESCO World Heritage site, dotted across the lovely landscape of the south of Transylvania. The churches are:
Biertan: This is a church in the style of a Gothic hall nestled on a low hill and constructed in 1522-3. It has its own fortified walls, constructed at the same time.
Câlnic: This was once a 13th Century home and subsequently converted into a chapel in 1430, who then added the defensive walls, additional towers, and other fortifications.
Prejmer: This church is constructed in the shape of a cross, in early Gothic style. Walls were added in the 15th Century.
Viscri: A Romanesque chapel that was later added to in the 16th Century, transforming it into a church with a single nave, phenomenal buttresses, and tall arches. Its walls were strengthened in the 17th Century.
Dârjiu: Built in the 13th Century and home to murals dating from this period, it was fortified in the 16th Century, and restructured in the 17th.
Saschiz: The church which was once here was entirely replaced in the late 15th – early 16th Century by a late Gothic structure which is half church, half bastion.
Valea Viilor: Once a fairly simple church, it was utterly renovated into the late Gothic style in the 16th Century, and fortifications were added at that time.
The villages and their churches provide an excellent insight into the lives of the Saxon settlers sent into Transylvania to begin cultivating the land and defending Hungary from the Ottoman Empire. While there are differences between each church and village, there are also common elements.
Villages were laid out and constructed in such a manner as to make fleeing the land and preserving both life and stock as easy as possible in the event of an invasion. As such the villages are built in a line which runs alongside a stream. Then there is a central square, and the church is to the centre of the square, at the heart of village life and at the heart of its defence.
The houses themselves are in neat, tight rows, each with a high-walled garden. This slows down potential invaders, as the gardens themselves contribute to the defence of the village. Each house’s yard and courtyard is within these walls, as are their barns and animals. Animals could easily be rounded up and taken to safety in the event of an incoming army, and only taken out to pasture on shared farmland during the day.
The churches were home to communal larders, where each family had its own storeroom to keep dried meats and preserves, even in times of peace. In war the layout of the village made it easy for townsfolk to round up their families and belongings and get to the safety of the church, where the entire village would remain protected from invaders – and with a handy store already full of preserved foods, they could withstand even a prolonged war in surprising comfort. Having the church at the village’s centre meant that no family was stranded at the opposite end of the village from the defences, and that the church was equally hard to get at from all directions.
Biertan village is home to one of the strongest fortified churches in Transylvania. The church was built in the late Gothic style, but has Renaissance influences, and was the last church to be constructed in this style. There are five ramparts on the inner wall, and three walls in all. Make sure to see the northern portal with its amazing bolt that has nineteen locks.
Câlnic is different from the other villages on the list, as it was constructed around a pre-existing 12th century moated fortress which was sold to the Saxons by its then-owners. The Saxons built around it and fortified it further, turning it into a church. There are valuable fresco fragments within, as well as a 17th century decorated wooden stand.
Prejmer’s walls are fourteen metres high and five metres thick. This town was assaulted fifty times by the Ottomans, but never once conquered. There is an 18th century painted pulpit, and the church has two hundred and seventy two rooms across three storeys, each belonging to one family in the village.
Viscri is a charming village whose church was originally 12th century, but expanded and fortified by the Saxons in the 16th. The village and its church are beautifully preserved.
Dârjiu is intriguingly a settlement of Szekely people, a Hungarian ethnic group for whom the Saxons built the fortress-church and village.
Saschiz’s fortifications are charming ruins, an example of how failing to adhere to the successful village layout would bring doom: Saschiz’s fortress was not to the centre of the village, but instead outside of it, connected via a tunnel for villagers to escape to it through.
Valea Viilor was constructed by Saxons for Hungarian settlers, and its church built around a former, smaller church.
The 13th Century Saxons were a population of farmers, merchants and artisans who were highly regarded by the Kings of Hungary, who requested that they colonize the region south of the Carpathian Mountains to form a defence against the Ottoman Empire.
In return for this frankly massive favour, the Saxons were granted privileges by the Crown, which included a largely autonomous way of life and a lack of taxation. Each village was self-governing, responsible for its own people and its own defence.
The Saxons were already well-versed in the construction of fortifications, as well as the level of civic planning required to bolster defences, and having free reign to select their locations and build on – in most cases – unoccupied land allowed them to display the full mastery of their crafts.
The earliest of these seven settlements was Biertan, first referenced historically in 1283. Over the next four hundred years the Saxons both built settlements for themselves and for Hungarians already present in the region, and the lack of intermingling between the two cultures meant that Saxon heritage remained extremely strong within the villages that the Saxons settled themselves. They retained their customs and language for hundreds of years.
Biertan was the Episcopal Seat for almost three hundred years, between 1572 and 1867 and, as such, exerted tremendous influence over both the religious and cultural lives of the Saxon population across the region. It is still home to an annual festival on the first Saturday after September 15th, celebrating the Saxon culture.
The city of Brașov is a good place to base yourself to visit these villages.
Day trips with tour operators are highly recommended, but renting a car is also an option. Be aware that roads in the mountains are narrow and lined with ditches and thorned bushes – you may find yourself checking a rental car for nicks and scratches too often for peace of mind, so while a tour group will reduce your freedom, it may be the better option.
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