Saxon villages in Romania

The church in Viscri is built for battle. Tower-topped walls have watched out for invaders since the 12th century. With each century that’s passed, another layer of armour has been added – bastions; a second wall; labyrinthine corridors – to shrug off marauding armies.

The houses along the single dusty road seem to know that Viscri’s time of war is long over. Cows sip peaceably from troughs hollowed out of toppled trees and a woman in a floppy sun hat leans on the gate of her vegetable garden. The sign outside lets you know that it’s a B&B, but otherwise you’d think it was just another of the low-slung pastel houses that are the tell of medieval Saxon villages all over Transylvania.
Or perhaps not just another village. The houses in Viscri are impeccably restored. While other Saxon villages in Romania are crumbling as residents struggle for income and government investment, Viscri has been the pet project of the Mihai Eminescu Trust (MET) – a NGO on a mission to carefully conserve the remote communities of Transylvania.

Much like southern Transylvania itself, Viscri stands at something of a crossroads. Coaches have started trundling through, slowing so that 50 tourists can snap pictures from behind glass. To Sana Nicolau, who works for MET, those tyres rumbling through the village are like the warning grumble of thunder.

“Transylvania is very much in right now,” Sana says. “So many people choose it as their holiday destination without really knowing what to expect, how to approach this part of the world, or what is to be cherished here. One of the first things responsible tourism aims to regulate is the large number of incoming tourists travelling by big buses.”

Last of the Saxons

Transylvania – or “the land beyond the forest” – is where fable mixes with fact. Many holidays here start in Brasov, the original Saxon city. It also stars in the origin story of Saxons in Transylvania. Once upon a time (or the 12th century, if we’re being precise), the ruling Hungarian king, Geza II, invited Saxon traders to defend the borders of Transylvania against invaders. In the end, whole Germanic communities took up sticks and left for Transylvania. It’s said to be the origins of the Pied Piper of Hamelin tale, where children were tempted from Hamelin and emerged in Council Square in Brasov city, right in the centre of Transylvania.

Beyond Brasov’s city gates, the mountains, meadows and gnarled oak forests hide away some of the last living Saxon villages in Romania. Called Siebenburgen in their native tongue, Transylvania eventually became a trading crossroads that gathered together some of the most fortified villages in Europe. There aren’t many other places where you’ll find tiny villages with churches built like Fort Knox.

Beyond Viscri

Local guides will show you how life is lived in these Saxon villages. They’ll take you to meet the shepherds, carpet weavers, charcoal makers, bee keepers, barrel makers and pastry makers, and root out B&Bs owned by a cultural mash-up of Saxon Germans, Romanians (including Roma communities) and ethnic Hungarians. You’ll get to know the countryside from the inside.

You might stay in a manor house in Malancrav, where you’ll chat with women who still use looms to weave curtains and carpets. Floresti (or Deutsch Branndorf in Saxon German), meanwhile, is famous for its barrel makers – an essential ingredient for the tuica plum brandy. Meet the men who have learned the art from their fathers and grandfathers, or lunch in the garden of a woman known village-wide for her homemade pastries.

The best holidays invite you into even smaller villages – perhaps 13th-century Archita (AKA Arkeden), where some of the last Saxon descendents in the region run a tearoom piled high with herbs and jams. Or perhaps to an organic farm in Mosna (Meschen), where the family milks the cows by hand for herby cream cheeses.

Sana explains MET’s plan: “The idea is to show local people that authentic, well-kept houses and their traditional way of life is something both Romanians and tourists from around the world appreciate a lot – and travel for. In this way, we help change perceptions in communities towards cultural heritage.”

MET hopes to protect the villagers’ way of life without making an exhibition of them. “We’re interested in developing the communities from an economic point of view whilst encouraging communities to keep their lifestyle,” Sani says. “At the same time, we’re offering travellers a unique Transylvanian experience. We invite tourists to visit craft workshops, try farm produce and see Transylvania from the back of a horse, in a horse-driven cart or hiking as opposed to from big buses. This way we are directly involved in sustaining other local initiatives too.”

Slow travel – the Saxon way

Romania’s Saxon villages need visitors who will take the time to get to know the area. As eternal as the villages and their fortified churches might seem, rural Transylvania is on the cusp of change. One step left, and it’s back to bleak poverty that spurs on residents to evacuate the villages – and even the country – for work. One step right, and mass tourism turns living villages (and villagers) into living museums. What Romania really needs is travellers who are willing to tread slowly and softly.
Laura Vesa is a co-founder of the Association of Ecotourism in Romania (AER). She’s passionate about fostering close partnerships between holiday companies, communities and conservation associations. She also doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to rural tourism in Romania. “The quality of tourists visiting this area is of paramount importance,” says Laura. “This region is not for mass tourism; it is for small scale tourism and the discerning traveller in search of real travel that will be a rewarding, enriching experience.”

The truth behind the fairy tale

At first, the time-warp villages, gingerbread houses, bear forests and wolf valleys of Transylvania seem like a fairy tale vision of Romania. But don’t get too carried away with the fiction. The best holidays pair you up with a guide who’ll reveal the reality behind the horse and cart rides and bumpy roads. They won’t treat the villagers like exhibits, but get you chatting with the farmers, shepherds, villagers and restaurateurs able to reveal the realities of living in the remote rural Saxon villages of Transylvania.

Rural Romania is one of most impoverished places in the EU. The quality of infrastructure like transport and power supplies rank 102 out of 137 countries studied in 2017-18, and access to education and healthcare can be limited. It falls well behind the swiftly developing towns and cities that young folk escape to. The farms that you see will likely be small, traditional set-ups that feed themselves and the village. You’ll discover welcoming people who live hard lives; it’s a good way to peel the romantic gloss from the horse and cart rides and lonely sheepfolds.
Deserted villages sit like a warning. Without stable employment opportunities or community support, young rural Romanians run for the cities. Some of the Saxons you meet will be the last of their line.
“There is a huge problem in Romania today because many people are leaving the country to reach for better opportunities in Western Europe,” says Laura. “There is a huge lack of workforce, especially in the countryside. The semi-subsistence farming proved to no longer be a strategy for many people in this region. This led to emigration, land abandonment and poverty.”
But tourism in rural Romania could be a lifeline – if done right. “The continuous development of sustainable tourism will bring more income opportunities and maintain the cultural and natural heritage,” says Laura. “It’ll bring economic development that will sustain populations in the remaining pristine environments.”

Into the Carpathians

Centuries-old oak, pine and hornbeam forests are a berry-table buffet for brown bears, hare and roe deer, plus the spirit-quick lynx and wolves that prey on them – those elusive predators that have been hunted to extinction in much of Europe. Far up above, buzzards surf the air currents of the Transylvanian Alps.

In fact, rural Transylvania’s cup runneth over with a biodiverse medley of plants and wildlife – largely thanks to the prevalence of traditional small-scale agriculture. Sheep polka-dot high pastures of daisies, orchids and purple knapweeds. You’ll meet the shepherds and sheepdogs who still guard their flocks against wolves and the changeable Carpathian Mountain weather.
Balance brings beauty.
- Laura Vesa, co-founder of the Association of Ecotourism in Romania
“The wildlife is one of the highlights of this region,” says Laura, “but land abandonment, agricultural intensification and exploitation of forest are considered to threaten the biodiversity of the region. Responsible tourism can prove to be one of the tools to prevent this happening. It’ll bring balance to Transylvania’s rich ecology, unique cultural heritage, and its people who know and understand the local landscapes. And balance brings beauty.”
Go on a holiday that visits Saschiz to see this case in point. This trio of villages decorates a Natura 2000 site – an EU project designed to safeguard villagers’ futures through community development, all the while promoting sustainable agriculture that encourages biodiversity.

Fortified churches & painted monasteries

Romanian Saxon villages might be tiny, but the churches are mighty. After all, the Saxon villages in Transylvania doubled as outposts used to defend trading routes through the countryside. Most of the churches are big enough to house villagers fleeing from invaders – sheep flocks, cow herds and family dogs included.

One of the oldest fortified churches is preserved in the remote village of Mesendorf; climb the tower for views of the village, plum orchards and forests. Watchtowers and fortified walls entirely encase the cemetery. Most of Romania’s Saxons live in Malancrav, however, where you can stay overnight in a manor house that sits in the shadow of a walled Lutheran church with 15th-century frescoes. Prejmer (Tartlau) is a three-village commune – so of course the church is fitted out with a 19th-century Gatling machine gun. Another all-guns-blazing church rises above Biertan.

Some villages go one step further, cracking out a whole monastery dressed in intricate murals. Sucevita village’s painted 16th-century monastery is famous for its blue and green hues, while Humor Monastery is known for its blood-red paintings.

Our top Transylvania Holiday

Carpathian Mountains holiday, conservation & culture

Carpathian Mountains holiday, conservation & culture

Wolves, bears and sightseeing

From £1399 to £1449 8 days inc UK flights
Small group travel:
2021: 1 May, 22 May, 29 May, 12 Jun, 3 Jul, 24 Jul, 7 Aug, 14 Aug, 21 Aug, 11 Sep, 18 Sep, 2 Oct, 9 Oct
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Transylvania or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Tips from our travellers

“May is an excellent month to visit – not too hot – and the countryside, especially the magnificent beech forests, are at their best. Also, be aware of your own limitations and don't try to pack too much in (especially if you're elderly, like us). It’s very easy to be distracted (and our guide was very accommodating when we suggested fitting extra things in) but that was usually at the cost of missing out on time somewhere else, or getting exhausted.” – Sheena Boddington

“Be ready to immerse yourself into rural Romanian life. Go with an open mind and be ready for some spectacular experiences. Go soon! The nature of this trip puts you right into rural Romania. You stay with locals in their guest houses, eat locally sourced food with much of it homegrown. You put back into the economy by buying from local producers and eating in local restaurants. Staying with hosts in their traditional rural homes helps to sustain a way of life so removed from your normal experience.” – Colin Bingle

“Travel light and learn some basic Romanian if you are going to visit more remote areas.” – Jill Meighen

“We found the train trip back from Suceava to Bucharest a long journey and there’s no first class option for more comfortable seats... However, the unfolding scenery was the upside.” – Jo Heaton

“Be aware of the high temperatures in August (e.g. 32°C) and the gravel and potholey roads in the more remote areas.” – Lindsey Tester
Get a guide – this is a country with a rich and complex history and culture. You will miss most of that if you are not helped.
– Hamish Prince

practicalities

Most holidays visiting Saxon villages in Romania are tailor made, so you can tweak them to your liking. Around 7-9 days is recommended to get the most out of visiting the more remote Saxon villages. You’ll probably fly into Sibiu and trace a right angle to Bucharest via some of the prettiest Carpathian landscapes in Romania. Transport will be included – whether that’s a hike through vast mountain meadows or a horse and cart ride to the villages. Accommodation tends to lean towards cosy three-star hotels in city centres and even cosier guesthouses and B&Bs in the villages. Think homemade cheese and bread, garden vegetables and plum brandy. English isn’t spoken much in the countryside; learning a few words of Romanian – even if it’s just hello (buna ziua) and thank you (mersi). Summers can sizzle in central Romania. Go in May for not-too-hot temperatures and wildflowers, autumn for forests taking on a burnished shine, or December for snowy villages and carollers straight off a Christmas card. Think twice about calling Roma gypsies. Some communities self-identify as gypsy, while others consider it a slur.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Discover Romania] [Top box (horse and cart), slow travel (local handicratfs), truth behind the fairy tale: Discover Romania] [Into the Carpathians: Marek Slusarczyk]
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