By Stephen McGrath
A full moon hangs over the 12th-century citadel of Sighişoara which is white with December snow. As several tourists stroll across the town square between the restaurant bars, the silhouette of the 65m tall medieval clock tower looks like the backdrop to a murder mystery or the setting of a Grimm fairytale.
This is Sighişoara caught off-guard and candid on a regular weeknight in the dead of winter. It’s an enchanting place known predominantly as the birthplace of Vlad Ţepeş, the real-life inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. That fact alone mostly serves as a useful but kitsch marketing tool that has paved the way for lots of Dracula-themed tourist tat but Sighişoara, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has a lot more than that going for it, and you can do it all in a couple of days.
Sighişoara is a treasure trove of history and the place booms with tourists each summer. However, on this rather quiet winter’s night, as I stumble down one of its cobbled snow-covered side streets, it becomes clear that this is a place best experienced in winter. It can make for a perfect two-night getaway.
Not only is Sighişoara steeped in history, it also boasts a multitude of cosy haunts, serving local food and beverages, which just about covers all bases of what makes a winter getaway worthwhile.
Sitting in Alte Post, a large restaurant with equally large stonewall cellars at the foot of the citadel, I opt for a true winter meal: a plate of lamb pastrami served with mămăligă and a side dishes of pickles. The lamb is hearty and warming and pays homage to Romania’s heritage as a nation of shepherds. Washing it down with a small jug of house red (decent and cheap at just 15 lei for half a litre) is recommended. It’s hard to tell whether it’s the setting, the peasant-style grub or the locally-made wine that is most responsible for making me feel as though the medieval period here never ended.
However, the strong wifi connection confirms that we are indeed in the 21st Century.
From Alte Post there are various routes you can take to the top of the citadel and, while walking the typical route passed the old torture chamber and through the bottom of the clock tower is a must, simply walking through the narrow cobbled streets can be equally charming. Sighişoara is one of few inhabited fortified cities in Europe and it is worth passing by the colourful citadel homes to get a sense of this.
When you arrive at the top there are myriad places to rest up to fend off the winter chill.
The Medieval Cafe, a place that is hard-to-miss due to its inviting (and highly decorated) facade, has a small but decent selection of winter beers. (Transylvania has few local beers that are noteworthy, but here they’ve made up the shortfall with some impressive imports). The dark smoked German beer (5% abv) is a personal favourite, but the punchy Italian red ale offers more of a kick at 7% abv. All of the food here is passable but the traditional cheese pie can make for a great beer snack.
Staying in Sighişoara is generally inexpensive: a decent room in the citadel will cost you as little as 23 euro per night; eating out is also cheap and so a short getaway for two is unlikely to break the bank.
A great place to stay is Casa Cositorarului, a boutique guesthouse at the top of the citadel that costs around 28.5 euro per night. The rooms are charming and intimate and some even have four-poster beds. Casa Cositorarului also has an impressive, large tea room which offers a decent array of home-made cakes. It is also a nice spot for a bottle of wine; better still that the rooms are in close proximity.
Right next to the guesthouse is the ‘Scholars’ Stairs’ which leads to the evangelical Church on the Hill. It was dedicated to St. Nicolas and constructed over several centuries starting in 1345; it is a great example of the religious architecture of the early Saxon settlers — ethnic Germans brought to Transylvania from the 12th-14th centuries by the Hungarian Kingdom to protect the region and develop it economically.
If your knees and lungs are in good shape then scaling the 175 steps is a must, and you can enjoy wandering around the church’s adjacent (and scenic) Saxon cemetery. Like all cities of the dead it tells a story of is own, in this case the ethnic heritage of the Saxons.
Transylvania is home to many cities that warrant a weekend trip, but the close proximity of everything in Sighişoara makes for a perfect getaway during the cold winter months — and it is arguably the region’s most picturesque city, especially when it snows.
Stephen McGrath is a British journalist living in Romania. His work appears regularly in the international press, for publications including The Times, BBC, The Guardian, and others.