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SIGHISOARA

Although there is evidence of Roman settlements in the foundations of present day Sighisoara, the town was first recorded in historic documents under the name “Castrum Sex” in 1280, and in 1298 as “Schespurch”, when the Saxons firmly established themselves here. The first stone was laid at the foundations of the Church on the Hill in 1345 and the first craftsmen’s Guilds were mentioned in 1376.

In the citadel – a UNESCO World Heritage site – the fortifications were strengthened in the 15th and 16th centuries against frequent Turkish raids. This part of the town was exclusively inhabited by Saxons, who in 1224 had obtained special freedoms from King Andreas II of Hungary, including the right to appoint their own priests and judge disputes according to their own judges. They also set up the Guild system. Sighişoara’s famous defence towers, named after the guilds that funded their construction, were erected, extended and re-built constantly between the 14th and 17th century. Nine are still standing: the Blacksmiths’ Tower (now a small theatre), the Tinsmiths’ Tower (in the grounds of the Lutheran Church), the Tanners’ Tower, the Leather-makers’ Tower (adjoining the office of the Mihai Eminescu Trust), the Weavers’ Tower, the Rope-makers’ Tower (the only inhabited tower, where the cemetery caretaker lives); the relatively newer Clock Tower, one of the main attractions and symbol of the town, accommodates Sighisoara’s History Museum.

There are two especially notable churches in the heart of the citadel. The Monastery church, originally a Dominican monastery, became a Lutheran church in 1556. Its present Gothic style dates to 1676 when it was rebuilt after the great fire. A valuable collection of Turkish rugs decorates the walls. The Church on the Hill was originally built as a simple chapel in 1200. Owing to its dominating position, it was also used as a watchtower.  Over three centuries it was gradually enlarged to its present size and restored in the 1990s. Access to the church is up a 17th century covered wooden staircase with 176 steps. Close by is the Joseph Haltrich High School, named after the 19th century ethnologist, who is buried in the Saxon cemetery in Saes. Along with the church, this school has been the guardian of Saxon culture, its traditions and ethnic identity. Teaching is still in German with parallel classes in Romanian.

The Clock Tower also dominates the skyline. It was built by two Austrians who visited Sighisoara a year after the fire of 1676. The figures which move as the clock strikes the hour are unique in Transylvania. There is a drummer and an executioner – symbolising the right to apply the death penalty and emphasising that the town’s laws should be taken seriously. Lower down are a set of seven brightly coloured figures, carved from oak, one for each day of the week.

Close to the Clock Tower there is a house called Casa Vlad Dracul. The owners claim, without proof, that it is the birthplace of the famous 15th century ruler Vlad Tepes – also known as Vlad the Impaler and Dracula - on whom the novelist Bram Stoker based his novel. Tepes’s father, Vlad Dracul, certainly spent some time in Sighisoara and Transylvania between 1430 and 1436, trying to gather military support to overthrow his Ottoman-backed brother who ruled Wallachia.

Across the street from the Monastery Church is the Venetian House, so named because of the special shape of its windows, which accommodates the office of the German Democratic Forum and, downstairs, the Sighisoara Heritage information centre.

In the lower town below the citadel is Sighisoara’s primary shopping district. To the south, towards Brasov, lies the new town, with its communist factories and apartment blocks built in the 1960s and 70s.

BREITE

On a hill plateau overlooking the Sighişoara citadel lies the Breite Ancient Oak Tree Reserve, one of the largest, most representative and beautifully preserved wood pasture habitats with multi-secular oak trees in central and eastern Europe. There are more than 600 oak trees on the plateau, some of them around 800 years old. You can reach the plateau from Ana Ipătescu street, turning right through the forest, or from the road to Medias, through the Orthodox cemetery.

The Breite reserve is managed by The Mihai Eminescu Trust and the Sighisoara Local Council, who work to protect this unique habitat and encourage local inhabitants as well as outside visitors to enjoy its multiple natural, historic, aesthetic and cultural values. Aside from the ancient oaks, the Breite plateau shelters a number of species of plants and animals of conservation interest. For more details see the website www.breite.ro

APOLD

Apold was first mentioned in writing in 1309 but evidence of a very early settlement emerged as archaeologists uncovered 1st century BC treasures (a necklace and silver chain belt).  The remarkable 16th century Lutheran church, with its massive clock tower, is situated in the centre of the village and has two fortress walls with their own towers. In the entrance to the second precinct, the Oat Tower was built to store grain and shelter animals in times of siege. In the White Tower villagers kept a smoked ham permanently hanging in case of emergencies.

Today an ongoing programme of gentle restoration work continues here under the auspices of the Coronna Foundation with help from the Mihai Eminescu Trust. Sebastian Bethge, who lives in the village, can provide more information and arrange a tour of the church (tel. +4 0724 155977). The aim is to revive traditional building skills through the restoration of the church and its ensemble, as well as providing simple accommodation for visitors.

The slumping hills of Apold, visible on the right side of the road after leaving the village, are micro-landscapes with a complex mosaic of xerophilous and xero-mesophilous plant communities of great botanical interest, which can vary greatly depending on the slope gradient, exposition and isolation. The open steep slopes are formed as permeable sandstone and marl layers slip over the water-impervious clay layers underneath. When walking over these special geological formations, please keep in mind their conservation value and do not collect the plants.

BRADENI

The first documented name of the village was terra Heen (1297) while later, in 1349, it was referred to as Villa Hegun. The Church of St Andrew was first mentioned in 1350. Its 1.2-metre thick and 12-metre high walls also served as defenses until the exterior fortification was built at the beginning of the 16th century. The defense wall had bastions in each of the four corners, but one has been demolished and another rebuilt in 1866. Inside the church has rich decorations and a pentagonal choir.

The fish ponds of Brădeni were created along the Hârtibaci Valley, a tributary of the Olt River. With a total surface of 171 ha, the ponds offer great opportunities for bird watching and recreational fishing. The area has been proposed as a nature reserve therefore, when visiting, please keep in mind its conservation value and do not disturb the area. Shore vegetation is mainly represented by bulrushes (Typha latifolia) and reeds (Phragmites australis). Submerged and floating macrophyte plants include hornwort (Ceratophylum sp.), water milfoil (Myriophyllum sp.) and pondweed (Potamogeton sp). The most frequently caught fish species are common carp (Cyprinus carpio), goldfish (Carassius auratus) and wels catfish (Silurus glanis). Among several birds that nest or feed here are the ferruginous duck (Aythya nyroca), the great egret (Ardea alba), two Grebe species (Podiceps cristatus, P. ruficollis), the great bittern (Botaurus stellaris), the black stork (Ciconia nigra) and the osprey (Pandion haliaetus).

NETUS

Inside the polygonal fortified walls of Netus church stands a small, stocky 15th century building with an amusing, totally out-of proportion clock tower. The clock itself was made in 1860, with a large inscription: O REX GLORIE VENI NOBIS CUM PACE.

IACOBENI

The beauty of Iacobeni is its impressive and well preserved church which lies on a hill northwest of the village. There are two connecting defense walls, each with several towers and buildings attached, including an entrance tower, a corn tower, a house for fruit storage, a clock tower and a priest’s house. In the roof of the clock tower there is an inscription dated 1626.

CRIS

Although Cris has an imposing church, restored in 1840, the pretty village is more famous for its Bethlen castle, one of the finest examples of Transylvanian renaissance architecture. The castle’s main features are its first storey arched balcony and the tall southern tower built in 1559. Ransacked by the communists over two days and nights in 1947 and then appropriated, the building was partially restored during the Ceausescu era. Recently Cris castle has been returned to descendents of its previous owners, the Bethlen family. Visitors can be shown round by the guardian who lives close by.

The area is also famous for its Downy Oak Nature Reserve. The sub-Mediterranean downy oak species (Quercus pubescens) usually grows in pure forests on south-facing slopes, offering shelter to several other interesting species of plants and animals. Walking carefully through these woods, one can see roe deer, brown hares, wild boars, woodpeckers and pheasants.

DANES

Situated on the main road only 9 km from Sighisoara, this village has a railway station for local trains and a horse-riding school for beginner and advanced riders as well as a swimming pool. One of the few hops drying facilities in the area is located here. The Sighisoara region used to have the largest hops farms in the country, but many are now abandoned.

The late Gothic church in Danes, fortified with a simple wall, was built in 1506 and lies on the north side of Danes’s main street. The priest’s house was completed in its present day form in 1874 and the new Clock Tower with its wooden passageway was built in 1927.

LASLEA

In the centre of Laslea’s high street, which is very close to the Sighisoara-Medias main road, there is a large church and a hospital for the elderly in the imposing former German school. Within the fortified precincts is the bell tower, the only surviving part of the original 15th century church, though the space is dominated by the much larger 1845 church, which sits at right angles to the earlier building, overlapping one corner of it. Further up the road, on the corner of the junction to Malancrav, there is a food store.

MALANCRAV

First mentioned in historic documents in 1305, Malancrav has retained more Saxons than any other Saxon village in Transylvania. In 1340 the commune and its surrounding land came under the ownership of the Apafi family, two of whose members ruled Transylvania in the 17th century. Malancrav has a Lutheran Church with rare 14th and 15th century frescoes and a 16th century altarpiece – the oldest entire piece of its sort still in its original location in Transylvania. On the hill above the church stands the recently restored Apafi Manor. A visit to see it and the nearby organic apple orchard would be rewarding. The manor contains a library in five languages and a beautiful drawing room, as well as five handsome bedrooms. There is also a small, charming 18th century Hungarian Catholic church on the main street. The Orthodox church is located in the higher end of the village

NOUL SASESC

This village, one hour’s walk from Malancrav over the hill, was also owned by the Apafi family between the 14th and the 17th centuries. To this day there is a small derelict Apafi house in the centre of the village, but this has yet to be restored.

In 1658 much of Noul Sasesc was destroyed by the Tartars, though the 15th century church still stands on a hill above the village. Behind the altar there is an altar-piece from around 1790 depicting the Crucifixion. The contemporary neo-Gothic altar consists of a wooden panel with a painting by Eduard Morres depicting the blessing of the children, painted in 1929. The baroque pulpit crown is dated 1770.

RONDOLA

Rondola is another of five neighbouring villages that belonged to the Apafi and Bethlen families from 1340 onwards. The church is 15th century, with a low clock tower built in 1792. It possesses a stone pulpit dated 1775 and an altar built in 1881 by Wilhelm Hörbiger, painted by Carl Dörschlag. The organ, built in 1857, was made by the renowned Samuel Binder from Sighisoara

FLORESTI

Floresti is one of the smallest but nonetheless most charming of Saxon villages. Its tiny Lutheran church was saved from dereliction and restored by the Mihai Eminescu Trust; its stone walls are supported by many buttresses. Built in 1424 by Antonius and Markus Bethlen, the church has a plaque on the east wall commemorating the Bethlens. The tower dates from 1835 and has a pyramidal roof. In October 2008 the church was re-consecrated. There are two guesthouses available and delicious lunches or dinners can be arranged for up to 20 people. Walks to the neighbouring villages of Cris and Malancrav are spectacular particularly in late spring and early summer.