By Jim Ferri
All around Europe you’ll find many medieval walled towns and cities – Rothenburg, Mont Saint Michel, Edinburgh, Dubrovnik, Èze, Siena and numerous others.
They’re all appealing and interesting to visit, but they’re actually just tourist towns.
Most of their old towns have been given over to tourist shops and restaurants, and their streets are filled with tour groups and backpackers. Their medieval areas are no longer a living part of the actual old city.
But in the Transylvania region of Romania – an area many travelers relate only to the 19th-century novel Dracula – I found an authentic vestige of Medieval Europe. And there the only talk of Dracula was from tour operators in Bucharest and a handful of tourist shops near the castle where the fictional Count was supposed to have lived.
In Transylvania, I found a countryside with medieval walled towns where people still live and work in medieval buildings built by their ancestors in the Middle Ages. The only thing missing are legions of tourist shops and legions of tourists.
For the most part, it’s a window into authentic-Medieval Europe, something you’ll find nowhere else.
I took a four-hour drive from the capital of Bucharest to Sibiu, a fairytale-looking city in a fairytale-looking area. It’s a pretty little town, very medieval and colorful, that was named as the European Capital of Culture in 2007.
Sibiu was originally founded by Saxons, invited by the region’s Hungarian rulers to colonize the region and help defend its borders. Over time, the colony became a city citadel and a prosperous center of trade.
You can still see that prosperity in Piata Mara, its main square that is as beautiful as it is vast. At one end is a Baroque palace built for Samuel von Brukenthal, the Governor of Transylvania in the late 1700s. It now houses the Brukenthal Art Museum, Romanian’s oldest museum, home to a collection of Romanian and Western art.
Other museums are located in even older buildings: the Museum of History in a Medieval building built in 1549, the Museum of Pharmacy in one dating from 1569.
Sibiu’s historic center is exceptionally charming, with medieval steep-roofed houses with attic windows looking almost like eyes peering at you. A plethora of narrow streets and lanes tumble out into open squares surrounded by colorful façades of buildings and churches.
Walk across Liars Bridge, just a block from the main square, and you’ll find yourself at the bottom of another plaza filled with people sitting in tree-shaded cafes at lunchtime. The whole place is incredibly charming.
The Drive to Sighisoara
I left Sibiu after a few hours to drive to Sighisoara, another cornucopia of Medievalism. It was a beautiful day for a ride, with an azure sky highlighting wisps of cirrus clouds, as I drove across the countryside.
As much as by its beauty, the countryside rewarded me with the feeling that I was gazing out the car window at another century. The hills were speckled with herds of grazing sheep, their bleating occasionally carried towards me by the breeze as I stopped to take a photo. There were no fences to slice my view since now, as in Medieval times, the pasturelands continue to be communally held.
There were no tractors in the fields; farmers were still cultivating the land with horse-drawn plows and people tended their crops by hand. All along the highway I passed farmers on horse carts as I sped past the tops of countless vegetables pushing their way up through the loamy, near-black topsoil.
Passing through little towns it was almost as if I was looking at a child’s drawing of brightly painted block-like house set up right along the edge of narrow sidewalks.
Many of the houses were painted so vividly – ranging from earth tones to near-atrocious neon – that I began to wonder if such color choices had been a result of Romanians having lived under a Communist regime for decades. Without any freedom of expression for so long, might painting one’s house in vivid colors have been one of the few allowable freedoms they enjoyed?
I turned off the road when I saw a sign for Biertan, one of the places I wanted to see. I immediately entered a small village where people were dressed in a mix of traditional costumes and jeans. A group of teenagers playing soccer in the street paused just long enough to let me through. Further along, a half-dozen men stood in the street talking. Once through the village I was in countryside as green as Ireland in the spring.
When I reached Biertan 10 minutes later, I was shocked in that it looked as if it had been plucked from the German countryside. It was beautiful, with a castle overlooking a little village set beneath a small, terraced mountain.
People were out on the street standing in little groups chatting with one another, reminiscent of the passeggiata in little Italian towns.
Since I need to get to Sighisoara I only had time to roam about for a half-hour, and on my way back out of town had to slow down for a shepherd grazing his two cows along the roadside.
Like Sibiu, Sighisoara was also founded by Germans, invited by the Hungarian king, and like Sibiu is a living medieval town with centuries-old houses still inhabited by residents, not tourists.
One of the few places tourists can habitat in Sighisoara is the seven-room Residence Fronius, which claims to have been welcoming guests since 1609. I had gone online and had booked a room there for €95, and it turned out to be very comfortable, a large room with a modern bath, and a good breakfast. It was the perfect location to wander about the old town, although I was glad I was able to drive up the cobblestone street to it and not have to drag my luggage.
Around the corner was the city’s most popular sight, the 13th-century clock tower in the old city walls, renowned for its wooden figures on the clock symbolizing day and night. Near it was the house where Vlad the Impaler was alleged to have been born in the mid-1400s.
Unfortunately, I had to leave late the next morning to continue my travels back towards 21st-century Bucharest, to catch my flight to London and then onto the U.S.
Although I had traveled only a few hours to the west, I found myself centuries away from the energetic, sometimes frenetic, capital of Bucharest.
The three-day trip was too short and too rushed, but it was an amazing three days of travel that allowed me to step back into another century and experience authentic Medieval Europe more closely than ever before. Obviously, sans Dracula and Vlad.
If you go:
Romanian National Tourist Office
355 Lexington Avenue, 8th Floor
New York, NY 10017-6603