Transylvania was settled by Saxons in the C12th. Their villages are characterised by single story houses with small yards and garden attached. At the centre is the church, usually built on the highest ground and fortified in the C15th in response to Tatar invasions. At the threat of attack, the villagers with their belongings and animals retreated into the church until the invaders had left.
“Biertan”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/otherholidays/romania/day_three/three_one/index.html is a typical unspoilt Saxon village surrounded by woodland and pasture. It is very much on the tourist itinerary as it is a convenient stop between Sibiu and Sighisoara. Apart from the main square and road into the village, roads are unpaved with wide grassy verges. Houses are well cared for and were built of wood covered with painted plaster. The main road into the village is lined with larger more splendid houses. There is a small general shop, police station and several restaurants aimed at the tourist trade.
Tourists arrive for the “fortified church,”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/otherholidays/romania/day_three/three_two/index.html built on the highest part of the village and dominating its surroundings. It is now a World Heritage Site and one of the best conserved churches in the area.
The church was built between 1482-1524 and is late Gothic in style with a few Renaissance touches. It was one of the last of the fortified churches to be built in Transylvania and one of the few that still has services. When it was built, it was a Roman Catholic church but became Lutheran after the Reformation. The beautiful wooden triptych with the crucifixion and scenes from the life of Christ is a survival from the Roman Catholic church. The Roman Catholics were allowed to keep a small chapel in one of the wall towers for worship, which still has the remains of frescoes on the walls.
It is surrounded by three walls and had two gateways – one for pedestrian use and a larger one for carts. A steep covered pathway leads up to the church. It is a typical German Gothic ‘Hall Church’ with a very high ceiling and long thin windows. Its size reflects the size of the Saxon population. There are three naves of equal height separated by tall hexagonal columns. Hanging from the galleries along the side walls are examples of Anatolian rugs (Muslim prayer mats) brought back by wealthy merchants trading with the Ottoman Empire around 1700 and given to the church.
The sacristy off the chancel was used to store church valuables and has the most impressive locking system, which was displayed at the Paris World Fare in 1889.
The church is also unusual for the ‘matrimonial prison’ in the grounds. Couples wanting to divorce were confined for two weeks, sharing a single bed, plate and spoon to be sure they did wish to end their marriage. During the three centuries that it was in use, just one couple ended up divorcing.
There is a small shop selling post cards and books off the covered stairway. The church is open 9-5 Monday to Saturday and is free to enter. It is well worth visiting.
We visited during a ten day trip to Romania. My detailed trip report with all my pictures is “here.”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/otherholidays/romania/index.html