Fortified saxon churches

The Tarnave plateau, which stretches for some 120km between Bra?ov and Sighi?oara, is traditionally known as Burzen Land (Tara Barsei in Romanian). It was to this region that Saxons - mainly from the Franken region in western Germany - were invited by the Hungarian king Geza II in 1123. In the 15th and 16th centuries, following the increased threat of Turkish attacks on their towns, the settlements were strengthened with bulky city walls and fortified churches. Defensive towers in the churches served as observation posts and

THE SAXON CHURCHES

SSoBàgaciu

Cristuru Secuiesc i Târnavo^

iCurciu

Jidvei fárnaya Mica

Copja Mare

Bjertan'

iQ O Màlirtcrav Nou Sàsesc

Mojna

Bu nef ti'

Valea Viilor

-Axente Sever)

O Bràdeni

Viscri

AjV ©Movile

®Lovnic

Noericho/ 0 Marpod

'Jura Mare

Hosman

Arpasu de Jos

Cibin Gorges

To RSmnicu Válcea (84km)

town entrances were guarded with a portcullis that could be quickly lowered as the enemy advanced.

Around Media; & Copja Mica

There are a number of fine fortified churches around these two towns. Bazna (Baassen in German), a small village first settled in 1302, is northwest of Media? (head north towards Tarnaveni for 7km then west another 5km). Its late-Gothic St Nicholas' Church was built at the start of the 16th century on the ruins of a 14th-century original. Its highlight is the three pre-Reformation bells (1404) in the church tower. The 6m-tall wall that surrounded the church was partly dismanded in 1870 because the villagers needed bricks to build a wall around the village school. From 1842 onwards the village developed as a small spa resort following the discovery of natural springs which released sulphurous gases.

Bagaciu (Bogeschdorf) is to the north of Media?. Follow the main northbound road for 15km, then turn right along a minor road signposted 'Delenii' for 6km. The pre-Reformation, late-Gothic altar in ils church, restored in Vienna in 1896, is con sidered to be the best-preserved Saxon church altar. Heading 4km south along the dirt track from here, you come to Curciu (Kirtsch). The decorative stone frieze above the western door, featuring apes and other animals, is unique to this 14th-century vil lage church.

From Cop?a Mica, head south along a dirt track to Valea Viilor (Wurmloch). The village, dating from 1263, has a quainl fortified church which was raised at the end of the 15th century and surrounded by 1.5m-thick walls. It is on Unesco's list of World Heritage sites.

$eica Mica (Kleinschelken), first settled in 1316, is 3km west of a turn-off 11km south of Cop?a Mica on the road to/from Sibiu. The village was engulfed by fire several times during the 16th century, but remarkably its local church, built in 1414, survived. Its beautiful baptismal font is late-Gothic (1447) and cast from iron. In the church courtyard stands an old well, and the ensemble is surrounded by 15m-tall

Willis. There's also a small fortified Saxon I liui'ch in Jeica Mare, 4km south of its sister village.

from Media? you can also head south Inwards Agnita. Ten kilometres south along |llln minor road is Mo§na (Meschen). Its village church, dating from the 14th century, »lis completely rebuilt in 1485 in a late-linthic style. Its centrepiece is the tall bell lower, eight storeys high. Alma Vii (Alemen) It lust a few kilometres south of Mo?na. The linn -towered church was built at the start of ■he 14th century and fortified in the early Itilh century. It's seen better days, but has ii luiry tale-like quality.

Around Sighijoara

I hese tiny villages are poorly served by public transport but are within easy hiking ilmtance of one another. Biking is another n|i|ion, or arrange a day tour with Bed & breakfast Coula (pl28).

I leading west from Sighi?oara, you might lliinking of filling up your water bottles at the freshwater spring, just off the main mud beyond the Motel Restaurant Dracula 11>128) in Dane$, where there is also a small Inrtified church. Some 9km south of Dane? Is Cri}. From Laslea, energetic hikers can liek for some 10km south to Nou Sasesc; bear light where the road forks or, alternatively, hear left to get to Malincrav. At each of these villages is a small fortified church.

In the industrial town of Dumbraveni, 19km west of Sighi?oara, there is a country market on Thursday mornings, where locals sell their cattle, sheep and horses. Ileyond, at $aro§ a small fortified church Is open only on August 15th (St Mary's I 'ay). From there, a road lined with hemp fields (it's used to tie bundles of corn together) heads south 9km to Biertan (Birthalm; www.biertan.com in Romanian), the highlight on liny fortified church route.

Biertan's fantastic 15th-century church (admission €0.50; ® 9am-7pm Tue-Fri & Sun, 9am-4pm Sat, closed 12-1pm) was the site of the Lutheran bishop from 1572 to 1867 and is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site. Its Viennese-style altar (1483-1550) has 28 panels and its three rings of walls stand up to 12m tall. This is the only fortified church in the region which is open and holds regular services; even at that, they're held only once a month, as after Biertan's Saxon priest moved to Germany in 1995, there is only one priest for four villages.

Near the altar in the church is the sacristy, which once held treasure behind its formidable wooden door with an even more forbidable lock: it has 19 locks in one, and is such a marvel of engineering it won first prize at the paris World Expo in 1900. Inside the grounds are many buildings of interest, including a small bastion which is famous in local lore: couples wanting a divorce were supposedly locked in here together for two weeks as a last attempt to resolve differences. There was only one bed and one set of cutlery. The method was so successful, only one couple decided afterwards to go through with divorce in 400 years!

Aside from the church, Biertan is a pleasure to stroll around, a quiet, friendly town with painted wooden gates and a burgeoning tourist infrastructure which is seeing more and more homes being repainted or opening up to travellers. Six kilometres south of Biertan is the small village of Richij, likewise dominated by a fantastic stone church. From Biertan you can also head east for 2km along a dirt track to Copja Mare (Grosskopisch). The church there dates from the early 14th century and was fortified to fend off Turkish and Tartar invasions in the 16th century, but failed to fend off Szekely troops, who attacked the village in 1605 and pillaged the church.

Brateiu, just 6km east of Media?, is an almost completely Roma village. Driving through here can be a fascinating or unnerving experience, depending on your taste for adventure. Upon recognising you as a foreigner, one villager after another will descend upon the car, yelling offers to come inside for something to eat, or to buy something. Local Romanians tend to be afraid to enter the town. From Brateiu, continue east along the main road for a further 5km then turn right at the turn-off for Atel (Hetzeldorf). The church, dating from the 14th century, was heavily fortified in 1471. In 1959 the northern tower was levelled to uncover a secret tunnel leading to a neighbouring farmstead.

Viscri is some 45km southeast of Sighi-?oara. Follow the road towards Bra?ov and turn right in Bune?ti. From here a dirt track leads to the remote village. First mentioned in 1400, the village was heavily damaged by fire in 1638. Its one-room church was built in the 12th century by Szekelys and taken over by Saxon colonists in 1185. It is now recognised as a Unesco World Heritage site.

SLEEPING

As there is no system of organised local homestay in the area, your best bet is to look out for cazare signs in the windows in these villages.

Casa Otto Wagner ((§ 269 868 249; per person €10) is a lovely oasis, snug up against the old town wall in Biertan, and has clean double and triple rooms. It can also provide meals on request.

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