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Notes on the Geography of Romania (Transylvania): Romania: Transylvania

This folder consists mostly of photograph of Saxon churches between Sibiu and Sighisoara. The best study of those churches may be Hermann Fabini's The Church-Fortresses of the Transylvanian Saxons. Of the now-vanished Saxon community itself, the best English description may, despite its title, be Michael A. Nagelbach's Heil! and Farewell, a biography of one pastor and his losing battle in the 1930s. Lucy Smith's Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Tarnava Valley is casual but handy.

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We'll begin with Sibiu, a town of 150,000 and, with daily flights to Munich, the easiest access point to the region we're exploring, which stretches north and east 40 miles to Sighisoara. The view here is of the Old Town from the Forum Hotel on the left to the adjacent Orthodox Cathedral, the high-spired Lutheran cathedral, and the tower of the Catholic church, which fronts on the Old Town's main square. A pedestrianized road runs from the Forum to that square, and we'll follow it.

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It's Nicolae Balcescu Street, formerly Regina Maria Strasse. Balcescu was a revolutionary who, on the losing side, was exiled in 1848 and died at 33 in Sicily. A century later, Romania's Communist government was eager to eradicate the memory of Romania's once-popular last queen, and Balcescu's argument in favor of land reform, noted by Marx, made him a sound choice.

The well-presented steet looks very much like a German town, which is not surprising since for a long time before World War I Sibiu was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Back then, it was called Hermannstadt, a name bestowed at the town's founding in the 12th century and lingering today in the name of the town's professional football club.

Most of the buildings have, in addition to normal doors, large tunnel-like entrances.

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Here's one of them.

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It leads, as do many if not most of the others, to one or more homes.

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Marie was married to King Ferdinand, and the town's main square shortly after his coronation was renamed the Ferdinand Ring. That name's gone now, too, replaced by the neutral Piata Mare. Marie had been British, while her hasband was German--full name Ferdinand Viktor Albert Meinrad of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. Funny, how you can stroll around all day and be oblivious of these names, which once seemed very important.

That's the Holy Trinity Roman Catholic church, which we previously saw from a distance. Next to it is the city hall, once upon a time a land-credit bank.

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How old? Not very: 1906. The Communist regime nationalized the bank, which had been created to improve the lot of peasant farmers, and made it the city hall.

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Given their druthers, the Communist taste in architecture ran on different lines, suggested by these apartments buildings along Boulevardul Mihai Viteazul. That's Michael the Brave, the prince of Wallachia from 1593 to 1601. One hand tosses history; the other celebrates it.

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We have several choices.

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We could head south into the Transylvanian Alps, seen here from Hosman, east of Sibiu.

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The mountains south of Sibiu are locally called the Muntii Cibin or Cindrel Mountains. The name Cibin is akin to Sibiu; both derive from Cibinium, the Roman name for the River Olt, which lies a bit farther east. There's a lot of history around here if you dig.

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The mountains include the ski resort at Paltinis, but scout around and you'll find vacation cottages from the days of Johann Stauss I or II--makes no difference.

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Or we could head northeast and bump into Sighisoara, formerly Schässburg and, earlier still, Castrum Sex. The citadel includes, from the left, the Joseph Haltrich High School adjoining the Protestant Church on the Hill (or of St. Nicholas), the extraordinary 14th to 16th century clocktower, and, on the right, the church of the town's Dominican monastery.

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The clocktower, built over the main gate to the citadel, was rebuilt and expanded in the 16th century after a gunpowder explosion. Goes to show: you set out to defend yourself against Turks, and you wind up shooting yourself in the foot.

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The tower with its gate into the citadel.

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Yes, it's in working order.

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The Strada Scolii, or Student Street, wends up to the hilltop school. You can probably guess that the citadel is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Has been since 1999. You're not likely to learn without digging a bit that the Nazis took over the school, as they did throughout the region. Was the town unhappy about this? Don't bet on it. The residents at that time were mostly Saxon, which is to say German, and they were bitter about Transylvania being assigned to Romania after World War I.

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There are other once-German towns in this part of Romania. Here's Medias, half-Saxon a century ago. The building in the foreground is labelled Zur Spinnerin, the German word for thread or yarn spinner. The oddest thing in the picture, however, is the Church of St. Margaret's tower--the Trumpeter's Tower--juxtaposed against a gate tower with a wooden defensive balcony. Both are from the 16th century, when the Turks were a threat. We'll see lots more like that gate tower.

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We'll begin at Cisnadie, seven miles south of Sibiu. The church was begun in the 12th century and raided by the Mongols in 1241. The Turks first arrived in 1493 but came more than once.

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The church is wrapped in its own wall, and the wall is divided into cells where villagers could live, family by family, in the event of siege. Each family kept a storehouse well-stocked with food in its cell.

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The columns framing the entrance have handsome capitals with what Fabini calls guilloche-and-palmette trim.

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There's a lot of variation among the Saxon churches, but the general austerity is usually a gift of the Reformation.

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The way up.

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All these churches have stone stairways that graduate in the upper levels to wood platforms and ladders.

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Careful!

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The bell came about 400 miles from the Seltenhofer foundry at Odenburg, in Hungary just south of Vienna. How? Good question.

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Brickwork clads the top of the nave.

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Pity about the chickenwire, but you get a good sense of the clay tiles in general use here, as well as of the linearity of town streets. We'll see more of that, too.

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Two miles west of Cisnadie, and on its own little knob before the much bigger mountains beyond, the 12th century church of St. Michael rises about the town of Cisnadioara, Michelsberg in German.

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There's a path up.

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Poke around in the neighborhood and you'll see lots of new houses. Many locals work in Germany so they can retire here.

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The gate to the hilltop church.

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Fabini calls this the oldest Romanesque church in Romania.

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He believes that the master builder had been trained either in France or by French.

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The church, rarely used for services, has hardly been modified since it was built. One exception: the square tiles around the apse identifying villagers lost in the first world war.

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On a warm autumn day it's easy to forget the fear that created these walls.

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Here's the fortress church of Valea Viilor, "vineyard village," 30 miles north of Sibiu and fortified about 1500. The slender tower on the west has bells. The more massive east tower is for village defense first, second, and third.

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The narrow end of the choir tower.

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The bell tower.

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Another view.

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The encircling wall's storerooms were demolished in the 1960s, but the wall-walk was restored.

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The interior is simple, except for the altar, added about 1779 by a craftsman from Sighisoara.

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There are a few other fine touches, including the font and the choir stalls on the right.

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The columns supporting the galleries have the entasis or taper passed down from antiquity.

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The organ is from 1708.

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Here's the forest above the nave. Under the beams you can see the roof of the nave.

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Up you go.

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An old ladder.

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See any nails? Screws? Iron bolts?

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A pyramidal tower cap. Want the re-tiling job?

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The view from the choir tower toward the bell tower. The village street-pattern is T-shaped, with one main road following a creek and another coming down a tributary. The view here is downstream from the confluence.

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Another view in the same direction but taken from the other tower.

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The view up the tributary valley. That's a cemetery on a mid-distance slope. The view also gives a good idea of the typical house layout, with a wagon-ready door into a a courtyard and, next to the courtyard, a house that grows as needs be. The building on the left appears to have been part of the church property, which included farm land.

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And up the main stream. The vineyards are mostly gone but were only a 19th century introduction. For a time they made the village one of the wealthiest in Transylvania--and the first to get electricity.

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A dozen miles to the east, this is Biertan, German Birthälm.

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If it seems too big for its boots, that's because it was a bishop's seat from 1572 to 1867, when the bishop moved to Sibiu.

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The interior seems pretty bleak.

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The exception is the golden altarpiece with panels illustrating the life of Mary. The web vaulting at this end gets a sprinkling of stars, too.

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One of the fanciest bits is this vestry door, which, with its intricate lock, was hauled off to Paris and put on display at the 1889 World Exhibition.

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The door to the church itself stayed put.

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We're popping east two miles and over one hilltop to Copsa Mare.

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Tucked into this narrow valley with a few hundred people is this very big fortress-church.

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Parts of it are in rough shape.

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Even the restored bits are sometimes coming apart.

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The nave and altar are in good shape.

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So is the font, on a new floor.

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On the other hand, organists have bad dreams about things like this.

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Missing anything?

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Try not to have nightmares about that poor organ. Instead, we'll go southwest half a dozen miles from Biertan to Alma Vii.

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Most of the corn has been harvested. (Don't tell anyone, but when the Saxons arrived in the 12th century, nobody in Europe had ever heard of the crop. They owe it to the Turks.)

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Production is partly mechanized.

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But only partly.

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The fields are kept in good shape with manure.

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Back to Alma Vii. The church was begun in the 1300s but the fortifications are from the 1500s. Unusually, the towers are on the wall, not on the church.

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Here's one of those towers. The windows hardly deserve the name.

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Here's how you close them.

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Simple as can be.

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The Saxon houses are neatly lined up, though the Saxons themselves left decades ago for Germany.

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Here's the church.

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The entrance is more primitive than most.

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The interior was heavily modified about 1800. The altar is even later, from 1852.

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The organ arrived in 1791.

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We've jumped northeast to Saschiz, which is on the E60, the main road from Sighisoara to Brasov (or, if you prefer, Schässburg and Kronstadt). That's good for the townsfolk, right? Well, in the past it wasn't always so good.

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They built a big church.

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They also built a fortress up top, to which they could retreat in times of trouble. There's a path up.

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It doesn't have much traffic.

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The size of the thing is a good indicator of the degree of fear that people lived with.

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There are outer walls and inner walls.

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Not up to Roman standards, but it's held together since the 1300s.

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This one, too.

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A dozen miles to the southeast, this is the fortress-church of Viscri, or Weisskirch.

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It's postcard ready.

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The church itself is simple.

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The pews are cleverly built to foil people moving them around.

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People of status could lean back.

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Here's the door leading up into the tower.

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Viscri gets visitors, so the stairway is illuminated.

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The walkway is built to last.

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View over the nave and the town, neatly lined up.

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Wonder how the tiles stay in place?

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There's your answer.

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As usual, the main gable of each house faces the street, and additional rooms are added in a line back from the street. There's a courtyard next to the house and often a barn at the back.

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The main street is straight and surprisingly wide. Houses were numbered.

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A horse trough.

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The church wall holds a list of the village's World War II losses. How are they identified? By house number.

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There's a museum set into the wall around the church, and one of the displays is this map from the 19th century. You can see the main street, of course, and the church set back from it. The main access is from the road running from the top center to the center right. Until the E60 came along, this road was the main road between Sighisoara and Brasov.

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The museum contains several grain chests.

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There's a loom, too. Nagelbach says that women spent countless hours spinning but not weaving, which instead was usually the occupation of men who did not own land. Given the endless labor of farming, being landless may not have been such a hardship, though it presumably implied poverty and low social status.

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The museum contains this Saxon bed, with a handy drawer for children. "Don't cry, or else!"

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Speaking of children: education, or at least literacy, was a high priority for the Saxons, and their church was usually paired with a school. Here's a good example. It's Jacobeni, about twenty miles west of Viscri. The school is obviously abandoned. In 2018 the church was permanently closed, too, and was locked behind a gate with a private-property sign.


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