Villages with Fortified Churches
The Villages with Fortified Churches in Transylvania are examples of defensive vernacular architecture made by Saxon settlers.
They date from the 13th to the 16th century. Transylvanian villages were often organised around a fortified church, to protect them from invading Mongols and Turks.
The following six former Saxon villages and one Székely village comprise this WHS: Biertan, Câlnic, Dârjiu, Prejmer, Saschiz, Valea Viilor, and Viscri.
Map of Villages with Fortified ChurchesLoad map
In February 2022, I visited the fortified church in Prejmer on a day trip from Romania’s capital, Bucharest. If you want to stay within Romania, Prejmer is actually the closest World Heritage site from Bucharest (although Srebarna Nature Reserve, the Rock-Hewn Churches of Ivanovo and the Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari are located closer to Bucharest on the Bulgarian side of the border). I stayed a week in Bucharest with my family and convinced my fellow-travellers, who are not interested in ticking off obscure World Heritage sites at all, to rent a car for a day and make the 3-hour drive to Prejmer.
What helped to convince my family (and myself if I’m being honest) that this drive was worth it, is that Prejmer is very close to Brasov, a large city with a well-preserved historical core (in contrast to Bucharest). The first stop on our road trip was “Dracula’s castle” or the Bran Castle, 2.40 hours driving from Bucharest or only 30 minutes from Brasov. We only went for the Dracula hype and were quite disappointed when we arrived. The people in Bran were not nice, the castle was not impressive. Anyways, we even decided going inside was not worth it. I think if you’re even the least interested in Eastern European history, the castle and the Dracula tourism will feel very fake.
From Bran, we drove on to Prejmer, the location of one of the WH fortified churches, which is located on the other side of Brasov. This drive takes about 40 minutes. I had never seen a fortified church before and I was quite impressed with how well it was preserved. I expected a small church with a wall surrounding it, but it actually felt like a small village which the church was only a part of. The inside of the church was not very special, but the walls as seen from the inside provided a very nice insight into the actual function of such fortified churches: to house a high amount of the village population and all of their needs and professions in times of danger. I liked it, it was unique to me, but my fellow-travellers were less impressed. To them, it is just a plain church with a wall around it. To me, it is part of the larger context of Eastern European history, something I’m very interested in. Entrance was cheap, a couple of euros per person if I remember correctly, and no souvenirs are sold on site (which I thought was a shame because I like to buy postcards at every WH site I visit so I guess the entrance ticket will have to do). The actual town of Prejmer itself is not impressive and we did not spend a lot of time there.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in Brasov, which we all enjoyed very much. Especially the main square is worth a visit. If one finds themself in Brasov, I would recommend also visiting Prejmer as it is very close. As a day trip from Bucharest (i.e. 2 times a 3-hour drive) however, I would only suggest this trip to the most hardcore WH travellers. The area surrounding Bucharest (Walachia) is very empty and I was disgusted while driving past cities like Ploiesti, cities that only exist because oil is extracted there. When you enter Transylvania, that is from Sinaia, the landscape gets more interesting.
I would love to return to Romania to visit Transylvania more extensively. Now I only got a glimpse of Brasov and Prejmer, but I’m sure visiting the other WH sites in the region would add to the experience.
On that day I visited Biertan( in german :Birthaelm) and Saschiz (in german: Kreisd).
I couldn't enter the fortified church in Saschiz as it was closed. And to be honest I wasn't impressed at all of what I could see from the outside. According to the locals the church is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
The one in Biertan turned out to be far more interesting. The percentage of ethnic Germans, the so-called siebenbuerger sachsen/saxons is less than 10 % nowadays.
The entire church and its surrounding village can be visited within 45 minutes. A more impatient visitor may only need 30 minutes.
A taxi from nearby Medias to Biertan and return+ 1 h waiting time for the taxi driver costs around 20€.The visit to Biertan is certainly worthwhile and satisfying as one can enrich his knowledge by learning something about this German tribe and its unique culture.
Whoever visits Sighisoara should also visit Biertan. Saschiz can be skipped as it probably doesn't provide any additional information to the visitor's knowledge.
Biertan itself is certainly not the most impressive UNESCO site out there, but it for sure is worth a visit when in that region or visiting Sighisoara.
I visited a few of the churches in November 2022. During my stay in Sebeş I took an early afternoon bus to Câlnic. To my surprise, the church was open and there were a few tourists visiting. Only the church and the central tower could be visited and I found the entrance fee a bit steep for what was visitable. The high tower seemed interesting but it was closed for renovation. There was no return bus and I walked around 6 kilometers to the village of Cut where a bus stopped to pick me up.
I took a morning train from Sighișoara to Mediaş with the intention to visit both Biertan and Valea Viior but, alas, the responsible bus company had gone bankrupt and I found a big bus station without any schedules and busses. At the tourist office I found that the church of Valea Viior was closed for renovations. So I spent the day in the museum of Mediaş, which included paintings made from cobwebs and in the interesting fortified church.
Next day, I walked a pretty road from Ațel train station to Biertan, about 10 kilometers. After visiting the church, it started to rain but a friendly couple drove me back to Sighisoara.
Last, I visited the church of Prejmer by Regio Calatori local train from Braşov. The premises look a little bit like a tiny village, with all the walls and doors and ladders. It was nice to be able to explore also the outer ring walls high up under the attic. I took the bus back to Braşov.
The church of nearby Hărman is also recommended even though it is not part of the inscription, as it has similarities to the one in Prejmer but it’s restoration is more recent and well done. I actually liked it most of the fortified churches. It is also connected by frequent busses from Braşov.
On a summer quest through Romania, I visited Biertan, the most prominent of the villages with fortified churches. Biertan is a small, colorful village and the fortified church in the center overshadows everything. It's built on a rock and has multiple layers of walls. The massive defenses feel a bit out of place, but it just goes to show how contested the area was in the past. The church itself is rather barren.
Best parts of my visit was strolling around the village and getting to experience the Romanian country side.
Being villages, these places are not trivial to get to. I think there is the occasional (daily) bus, but best option is to take a cab from the closest nearby main town (Sighisoara, Mediaș, Sebeș).
In my case, I took the morning train from Sighisoara to Medias and a cab from there to Biertan. I had agreed on a price with the cabbie up front and he waited for my return. Honestly, I think the fixed rate wasn't required, meter would have been just fine.
Train schedules were tricky (infrequent), so my visit was cut short (1h on site). It's not a huge place, but 30min more would have been nice. One word of advice: If you are short on time, get the train ticket before heading to the site. When I came back to the train station, there were long queues at the station ticket office and I nearly missed my train.
While You Are There
A visit to Sighisoara and the Dacian fortresses should be part of your trip. Nearby Iulia Alba (T) is also a nice stopover. All sites are fortified pointing to the strategic importance of the region.
Both this site and the city of Sighișoara owe much of their existence to King Géza II of Hungary who, in the 12th Century, invited Saxon settlers to migrate to the southern edge of his realm to solidify his territorial claims in what is now Transylvania. The churches of these villages were fortified in the wake of the Mongol invasions in 1241-42 and repeated Ottoman Turkish incursions from 1395 until as late as the 18th Century. Seven of these villages with fortified churches built by the Saxons are inscribed on the WHS list (Biertan, Câlnic, Dârjiu, Prejmer-Tartlau, Saschiz-Keisd, Valea Viilor, and Viscri) but there are around 150 villages with fortified churches in various states of repair in the region. Many Saxons converted to Lutheranism during the Reformation like their Germanic brethren, forming an exclave of Protestantism inside the Catholic lands of what would become the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire but the Saxons retained their ancient status as a privileged class of merchants and craftsmen until the 19th Century. Following World War I, the Treaty of Trianon transferred Transylvania to the Kingdom of Romania. When Romania joined the Axis powers in World War II, local Saxons signed up or were conscripted into the Nazi military and, after their defeat, many survivors fled to Germany as Romania joined the Soviet Bloc. Under the Ceaușescu regime, there was a scheme with the West German government by which Transylvanian Saxons were allowed to emigrate in exchange for money to the Romanian government. The return of freedom of movement after the fall of the Iron Curtain led to a further exodus and, today, there are only an estimated 12,000 Saxons left in Transylvania compared to 240,000 or so in 1910.
Today, these villages are mostly populated by ethnic Romanians or Hungarians with a sizable Romani minority. As I remember from my time there in the early 2010s, the main roads through the area of a good standard but the surface quality varies quite significantly once inside the villages themselves. The villages follow a similar pattern with rows of coloured houses, behind which stretch long gardens, along the streets that converge on a central church. Historically, the churches served not only as defensive structures and places of worship but also as the centre of cultural life in the village, with the walled complex often also housing the village hall and school. In modern times, some of the churches still function whilst others are well-preserved tourist attractions – of the inscribed churches, I have only been to Viscri (picture attached) but imagine the rest are of a similarly good state of conservation. I cannot comment on the best way to reach the site, having been driven there by minibus after spending the day directing traffic for a cycle race stood outside another (unlisted) fortified church in the village of Meșendorf. I was rewarded for my efforts with an entire spit-roast bull and small concert in Viscri along with the rest of the race organisers and contestants. Whilst there I visited the fortified church for a small fee, I think about 10 lei (~€2). This granted access to the courtyard, where there was a small museum with some local crafts on display, and the chapel, which featured an organ, chandelier, and various frescoes and paintings. I also took the opportunity to climb the tower, which was a precarious affair up steep rickety wooden stairs and ladders but offers an excellent view of the church complex and surrounding village.
Some of the other churches not on the WHS list are sadly neglected and crumbling (I recall Daia as one such example) but hopefully can be revitalised with increasing interest in this unique area of Europe. Indeed, the villages of Transylvania have attracted attention from such figures as the future King of the UK, Prince Charles, who bought a house in the village of Viscri. His interest lies in the sustainable farming practices still practiced in the area as agriculture continues in a traditional manner using techniques largely unchanged since the Medieval period with the horse and cart still a regular sight on the roads. Arable farming occurs in the flat bottom of valleys around the villages with pasture and hay meadows for livestock on the sides of the valley whilst the ridges between valleys remain forested. Ploughing, planting, and harvesting are all done by hand with only basic machinery and no artificial fertilisers or pesticides, having successfully resisted attempts to make farming more industrial under Ceausescu. This non-intensive agriculture provides a haven for wildlife that is otherwise threatened in the rest of Europe, such as brown bears and a wide variety of bird, small mammal, flowering plant, and butterfly species. I saw no large mammals besides red and roe deer but did spot bear and wild boar tracks on walks in the woods. The area has been likened to England in the Middle Ages, hence the Prince of Wales’s interest, and was a fascinating place to visit, full of friendly people, good food, and a unique collection of fortified churches, each with its own idiosyncratic design.
I reached five of the villages to visit the fortified churches :
Calnic - by taxi from Sebes station
Prejmer - by train to Ilieni, returning by bus direct to Brasov
Saschiz, Viscri and Biertan - by taxi from Sighisoara
Of the five I found Viscri to be the most interesting and attractive, although I also liked the bottle glass windows of the Biertan church.
I saw three on a recent visit, and the best one was in Viscri. Although the road to the town is now paved, it is still a bit of a pain to get there. Once there, especially during the low season, one has to look for the old lady who keeps the keys to the church. Inside is fantastic: a modest church, a neat fortress layout, and a creaky tower/lookout. The hunt for the old lady was the best part as we were able to interact with locals, and she also showed a few things here and there we would have missed.
It is true that the area is littered with fortified churches. The ones listed bu UNESCO are fine, but I suggest really hiring a car and going out to explore. Copsa Mare, for example, is only 2km from Biertan, and has a creaky old church in a nice compact little town right in a middle of a small valley.
There are 200-250 villages with fortified churches in Transylvania. You'll pass several of them on your way to one of the 7 WHS designated villages. They are scattered along the main roads between Sibiu and Sighisoara, and Sighisoara and Brasov. Every village has the typical small, brightly coloured houses and a bulky and sometimes oddly shaped church. The names of the towns are posted in German too. It's a pleasure just driving around and looking out for them.
First I visited Valea Viilor (Wurmloch). There's a big sign to it on the main road. Four km along a winding country road took me to this town, original in its Saxon layout with one long street ending at the church. Construction workers were busy with the tower. Their head man doubled as museum/church keeper (or is he the keeper who needed to oversee the reconstruction?) and welcomed me in German. There's an oval compound here within the walls (6-7 m high). There's lots of room for storage behind these walls. The interior of this church is relatively simple. All Biblical quotes displayed are in German.
Biertan is the best known of these villages, and the one originally inscribed in 1993. It's also the most popular with tourists; it has souvenir stalls and a book shop. The entrance is 6 Lei (1.5 EUR). The structure here is large, like a citadel. You enter via a long wooden staircase. At the top of the hill, there are a number of towers, each with its own design and function. The church here has a more elaborate interior, including a prize piece altar. Lovely site, with good views over the surrounding countryside!
P.S., in answer to Solivagant's observations from 1999 below: the horse-drawn carts are still a common sight here but all the main roads are paved now.
This site is strictly described as “Villages with fortified Churches” rather than purely the churches themselves. In all honesty the Churches are the main attraction although some of the villages possess a rural charm. The Fortified Churches of Transylvania are not as impressive in my opinion as the Painted Churches of Bucovina but are still well worth seeking out whilst you are in the area seeing the WHS town of Sighisoara and the Dacian Fortresses of the Orastie Mountains. (This is a great “hot spot” area for WHS! In fact Romania as a whole is greatly undervalued I feel as European destination which is full of interest and, apart from the Danube Delta possibly, its 7 WHS are relatively easily accessible).
Between Sigishoara and Sibiu there is an area which was settled by Saxons in the 12th century. Facing threats from the Turks in 15th and 16th centuries these people fortified their churches into veritable castles with high walls around them. The area in fact remained primarily Saxon until as recently as the demise of communism when many took the opportunity to emigrate to Germany and this has placed the churches in a parlous position which WHS inscription might assist.
In fact only 7 churches are actually inscribed although many more are in existence. It is part of the “fun” of a tour of the area to search them out. Many are in poor condition and seemed to be unused behind their enormous walls. Biertan (photo) is possibly the most impressive/famous and was the only one we actually managed to get inside. It is cavernous and a bit stark but there are fine views of the village and the walls from “up there”! When we were there in 1999 the village was still wonderfully rural. Its dirt track gravel streets, flanked by solid Saxon houses, were busy with horse drawn carts and waddling geese – a time warp which, no doubt, is already changing as Romania emerges from the ravages of Ceaucescu’s era and prepares for membership of the EU.
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Includes former TWHS L'eglise fortifie de Dirjiu
As Biertan: Bureau -pending better protection. Mission to be sent to Romania to help
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