“I rubbed my eyes in amazement,” wrote Walter Starkie of SIBIU (Hermannstadt in German and Nagyszeben in Hungarian) in 1929. “The town where I found myself did not seem to be in Transylvania, for it had no Romanian or Hungarian characteristics: the narrow streets and old gabled houses made me think of Nuremberg.” Nowadays, the illusion is harder to sustain, in a city surrounded by high-rise suburbs and virtually abandoned by the Saxons themselves, but the Old Town’s brightly painted houses, with “eye” windows to ventilate their attic grain stores, are still startling. Sibiu has many fine old churches and some of Romania’s best museums, as well as the remains of the bastions and fortifications.
Founded by 1191, Sibiu was the Transylvanian Saxons’ chief city, dominating trade with Wallachia through the Olt gorge. In 1241 their citadel was destroyed by the Tatars, leaving only a hundred survivors; the townsfolk surrounded themselves by 1452, with four rings of walls, which repelled the Turks three times but were largely demolished in the nineteenth century. Now, the wheel has turned, and Sibiu has stronger trading links with Germany than any other Transylvanian town, and even elected a Saxon mayor – so successful that he was elected president in 2014. His greatest coup was Sibiu’s nomination as European Capital of Culture for 2007, which brought a million visitors to the city.
CISNĂDIE, 12km south of Sibu, was known to the Saxons as Heltau and to the Turks as the Red Town, both for the colour of its walls and the blood that was shed attempting to breach them. Piaţa Revoluţiei (more a long wide street than a square) leads to the largely Romanesque church.
A formidable bulk protected by a double wall (1460–1530) and a moat, Cisnădie’s church is still home to an active Lutheran congregation. You can ascend the massive thirteenth-century tower, climbing through lofty vaults linked by creaking ladders to the belfry. The view of red rooftops and angular courtyards is superb, with the tiny Romanesque church (dating from 1223) overlooking the village of Cisnădioara just visible below the Cindrel mountains. The church grounds are the unlikely setting for a small Museum of Communism containing newspaper clippings, a calendar used for bread rationing, and objects belonging to former party members. Upstairs in the tower facing the church door is the new Museum of Ten Centuries, displaying a precious object from each century of the town’s history, such as a thirteenth-century processional cross, a fourteenth-century missal, a fifteenth-century chalice, a sixteenth-century Lutheran bible, and postcards sent home during World War I.
Southern Transylvania was the Saxon heartland, and the landscape is still marked by the vestiges of their culture. In 1143, King Géza II of Hungary invited Germans to colonize strategic regions of Transylvania, their name for which was Siebenbürgen, from their original “seven towns”, of which Hermannstadt (Sibiu to the Romanians) became the most powerful.
Around them, hundreds of villages developed a distinctive culture and vernacular style of architecture. Although the Székely, just north, put low walls about their churches and the Moldavians raised higher ones about their monasteries, it was the Saxons who perfected this type of building; their churches were initially strengthened to give refuge from raiding Tatars, with high walls and towers then added to resist the more militarily sophisticated Turks. Some also had warrens of storerooms to hold sufficient food to survive a siege.
Alas for the Saxons, their citadels were no protection against the tide of history, which steadily eroded their influence from the eighteenth century on and put them in a difficult position during World War II. Although many bitterly resented Hitler’s giving Northern Transylvania to Hungary in 1940, others embraced Nazism and joined the German army. As collective punishment after the war, all fit Saxon men between 17 and 45, and women between 18 and 30 (thirty thousand in all), were deported to the Soviet Union for between three and seven years of slave labour; many did not return, and those who did mostly found their property confiscated.
Most Saxons left the area for Germany after 1989, but most of their villages still have fortified churches and rows of houses presenting a solid wall to the street – hallmarks of their Saxon origins. They’re now largely populated by Romanians and Gypsies, but church restoration and cultural projects are gathering pace.
Sibiu has one of Romania’s liveliest and most varied festival rosters. The best is the superb International Theatre Festival (w sibfest.ro), over ten days in early June – there are nightly performances (including music and contemporary dance) on an open-air stage on Piaţa Mare, plus a multitude of different events (installations, films, plays and art/photography exhibitions) elsewhere around town. There’s also a Jazz Festival at the beginning of May, the Cântece Munţilor “Songs of the Mountains” folklore festival in mid-August, the Potters’ Fair on the first weekend of September and, in mid-October, the excellent ASTRA International Festival of Documentary Film (w astrafilm.ro). Finally, CibinFest (w cibinfest.ro), on the last weekend of September, is Romania’s version of Oktoberfest, a beer festival in a huge marquee on Piaţa Mare.