Sighișoara, Europe’s last inhabited medieval citadel, draws tourists from far and wide with its fairy-tale charm, which it owes to its German-speaking founders from centuries ago.
While its Dracula connections are well-known (as the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, the partial inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s gothic horror character), for those of you wanting to immerse yourselves a little deeper in the town’s distinctly medieval vibes, read on.
By James Donaghy
Standing tall over the historic centre is Sighișoara’s best-known landmark, once a meeting place for the town council and a key defensive point, from which the citadel’s cast-iron gates could be slammed shut whenever invaders were at large. Nowadays it houses the town’s history museum, and the entrance fee will allow you to climb the steps up its 64 metres, enjoy the finest views Sighișoara has to offer, and become closely acquainted with its Swiss-made clock mechanism and colourful clock figurines. On top of the tower you’ll find five turrets in an appealing arrangement, their fairy-tale appearance belying their original meaning – in the Middle Ages this design feature warned travellers that the town had the right to impose the death penalty on visitors who weren’t on their best behaviour.
Piata Cetății (Citadel Square)
Once the site of Sighișoara’s bustling market, Citadel Square has also witnessed some bizarre medieval punishments, including the practice of tying thieves up for the whole day with a six-kilogramme weight around their neck (the weight can now be seen in the Medieval Torture Museum, a few steps away). Its pastel-coloured houses have long since been converted into cosy hotels and restaurants. Of note is Casa cu Cerb (the House with the Stag), its emblematic animal featuring in the bronze stag’s head on the façade, and in the restaurant, where you can feast on venison, a throwback to banquets of old.
Just around the corner, don’t miss Pivnița lui Teo (Teo’s Cellar), where you can sample a range of homemade liqueurs, including plum, apple and pear palinca, as well as its piece de resistance, the sublimely velvety Teo’s Forest Fruits Liqueur, made from seven types of berries, following a three-hundred-year-old family recipe.
Nearby Citadel Square is another unmistakable Sighișoara landmark, the Scholars’ Staircase, sheltered by its quaint wooden roof. The scholars in question were the pupils at the school you’ll find at its upper entrance, for whom the staircase was built. The walk there was so difficult that students had to put their climbing skills to use, regularly arriving for class covered in mud, or worse, injured from falls. The situation was remedied in 1654 when this picturesque staircase was built, since when Sighișoara’s schoolchildren have been getting to school in comfort, ease, not to mention in idyllic surroundings.
There’s no better place to let Sighisoara’s medieval allure cast its spell than on a walk around the town’s towers, named after the guilds once responsible for their upkeep. Coming in an appealing array of geometrical shapes, some bear battle scars of more turbulent times, one example being the bullet holes that pepper the Tinsmiths’ Tower, the result of an Austrian onslaught in the 18th century.
Thankfully, Sighisoara’s towers offer us more than historical musings, with some of them now serving cultural purposes. The Tailors’ and Blacksmiths’ Towers host exhibitions, while the Furriers’ Tower houses a leather workshop, offering visitors the chance to watch a master craftsman in action and buy traditionally made wares.
Sighisoara is unusual among Transylvania’s Saxon towns for having not one, but two medieval Lutheran Churches built by its burghers of old. One of them is the imposing Church on the Hill, located next to the Evangelical Cemetery, where you can wistfully wonder around its tombstones, its inscriptions revealing the town’s German heritage. By the Clock Tower you’ll find the Monastery Church, where you can browse Turkish rugs, a reminder of Sighisoara’s former links with trade routes leading to the exotic east. And for a fun distraction from the regular medieval fayre, look out for the 17th century painting inside, which some claim depicts a UFO, suggesting the town once witnessed encounters of the intergalactic kind. As the medieval Saxons were known to say – just google it.
James Donaghy is a content provider for Orang-Outan, a soon-to-be-released mobile phone app that aims to enhance your travel experiences in Romania.
Photo credit: Corneliu Rosu