A forbidding silhouette of battlements and needle spires looms over SIGHIŞOARA (Schässburg to Germans and Segesvár to Hungarians); as the sun descends behind the hills of the Târnava Mare valley it seems a fitting birthplace for Vlad Ţepeş, “The Impaler” – the man known to so many as Dracula. Now on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, Sighişoara makes the perfect introduction to Transylvania, especially as Budapest–Bucharest trains stop here.
The Old Town or citadel is unmissable, dominating the newer quarters from a rocky massif whose slopes support a jumble of ancient, leaning houses, overlooking the steps leading up from Piaţa Hermann Oberth to the main gateway.
Some 21km from Sighişoara and 17km from Medias, a turning by the fortified church of Şaroş pe Târnave leads 9km south to BIERTAN (Birthälm). The best known of all the Saxon fortified churches sits high on a hill within two-and-a-half rings of walls linked by a splendid covered staircase, not unlike that in Sighişoara. Built as late as 1493–1522 and now on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, this was the seat of the Lutheran bishops from 1572 to 1867, and their fine gravestones can be seen inside the Bishops’ Tower – one of seven. It’s a classic Late Gothic hall church, with intricate stone-ribbed vaulting, as well as the largest triptych altar in Transylvania (1483–1512), comprising no less than 28 panels, and the extraordinary sacristy door, with no fewer than nineteen locks. A small museum displays winemaking tools and a replica of the room where couples wanting to divorce were supposedly shut up together for three weeks with just one bed, one plate and one knife, fork and spoon (as a result, there was only one divorce here in the three centuries up to World War II). There are also monthly organ recitals (usually around the second Thursday of the month).