The Transylvanian triangle

The fairytale-like German Siebenbürgen in Transylvania was comprised of seven towns:

  • Klausenburg = Cluj
  • Kronstadt = Brașov
  • Hermannstadt = Sibiu
  • Bistritz = Bistrița
  • Schässburg = Sighișoara
  • Mühlbach = Sebeș
  • Mediasch = Mediaș

From our base in Cluj we rather spontaneously set out to visit some of them, without determining a precise route. With our daily backpacks we simply arrived to a Cluj bus station and bought the most convenient ticket – to Sibiu. As we had boarded the bus, I opened my iPhone and booked via a room in Sibiu for the same evening – the wonders of having a local sim card!

At that time Romania was in the throes of a presidential campaign. I was there right before the first round of the election, and most of the public spaces were filled with the ads of one candidate – Victor Ponta, the current Prime Minister. In Sibiu however the second candidate dominated – Klaus Iohannis. It was no coincidence that his name sounded German – he was a representative of the local German minority. Moreover, he was the Mayor of Sibiu, which explained why he was so omnipresent there. All polls predicted a victory for Ponta, which did materialise in the first round. We know now that it was Iohannis that prevailed in the second and final round, against all odds. The key factor was the vote of the diaspora Romanians who all went for Iohannis, anointing him as a symbol of fight against corruption, whereas Ponta was perceived as closely associated with “business as usual”.

I remember the evening after the first round. We were sitting in a pizzeria in Cluj and all the Romanian TV channels were beaming the same images of widespread protests by Romanians in various European cities – London, Paris, Munich. So agitated were the protests that clashes with the police happened in many places. The reason was the fact that the Foreign Ministry (probably by design) had installed far too few voting booths in embassies, which prevented many diaspora Romanians from voting. Endless queues of angry voters were shown in a loop. I was surprised then that this was such a scandal, and only after the results of the second round where everyone could vote did I realise its significance.

One of the reasons why Iohannis had such a positive image was the transformation that he managed in Sibiu. No small help was the status of European Capital of Culture that Sibiu won. Indeed when you are there you can hardly believe you are in Romania – it seems like a magic carpet has instantaneously moved you somewhere in Austria or Bavaria. German speech can be heard on the streets due to many German tourists. There are direct flights to a number of cities in Germany. The only thing betraying we’re in Romania are the prices. Even in the restaurants on the main squares they are much lower than in comparable places in Western Europe. If you take the trouble of walking to a side street, super tasty Romanian food can be had for a euro or two – that’s where the locals go.

Sibiu’s main square:

Sibiu very much reminded me of Tallinn. Like Tallinn, it consists of two town – the Upper and the Lower Town. Like in Tallinn, the relationship between the two often turned hostile throughout history – the Upper Town belong to the aristocracy, the Lower Town to the traders. (In Tallinn this dichotomy persists to this day – the Estonian government is associated with the Upper Town whereas the city government led by the main opposition party sits in the Lower Town.)

The contrast between the two towns creates a remarkable cityscape. The so-called Bridge of Liers here above a passage that connects the two towns. It was said that if you said a lie while on the bridge, it would disintegrate underneath you. I didn’t check!

The broad streets of the Lower Town from the Bridge of Liers:

The staircase leading down from the Upper to the Lower Town. A déjà vu of our Lühike Jalg:

A fairytale town – much like Tallinn:

We spent two nights in Sibiu much like in a dream and then headed further. At first we counted on continuing to Sighișoara, but this proved nigh impossible on public transport – it would take a day changing buses in Cluj (!) – pretty absurd. So we changed our minds and decided to go to Brașov instead. This was no easy feat either. In Romania the declared bus routes are often in fact served by minibuses. The tickets can only be bought from the driver. So when we came to the bus station about 30 minutes before the next (mini)bus to Brașov, it was full! We had to wait 2 hours for the next minibus. This time we came very early, and still the minibus was practically taken by siege by a crowd of passengers. Five hours on the road via the Carpathians and we are in Brașov. This is the first impression:

Brașov’s Town Hall Square, Piața Sfatului:

The same square from a high point (read on):

One of the main tourist attractions of Brașov is this street – the narrowest in Romania. It’s only one metre wide, but it’s famous due to its length – over 70 metres. As usual I booked a room right in the minibus. Our small and cosy hotel turned out to be right behind the left wall of this street. I love this spontaneous way of travelling!

The Brașov synagogue:

By the wall of the so-called Black Church there is a memorial to a local personage. In 16th century he was the leader of Reformation and had founded the first school and book print in Brașov. The Black Church derives its name from a fire that blackened its walls in 1689. Today the walls are cleaned and no longer black. It is the most important church in Brașov. I was surprise by the local habit of hanging numerous carpets on the balconies surrounding the main hall – something distinctly Ottoman about it. The Germanised Transylvania was a key base of the Reformation. Virtually no Catholic churches had persisted there and all old churches are Protestant. The Catholic Cathedrals had only made a comeback during the later Austro-Hungarian control.

My favourite experience in Brașov was by far the cable car that takes you to the Tampa hill overlooking the town. You see the hill on the very first photo of Brașov above, as well as the cable car station up above and the giant letters spelling “BRASOV”, obviously inspired by the famous “HOLLYWOOD” sign. Going up was incredibly easy. Although the lower cable car station looks abandoned at first, a Soviet-looking lady soon appeared to sell us tickets. The cable car goes up every 15 minutes. The breathtaking views from the car:

I’m too lazy to make a panorama of the following three images are a continuation of each other. Nr 1:

You can see the main square in the middle and a giant Black Church slightly to the left. Nr 2:

Nr 3:

These photos were made from the observation platform right next to the BRASOV sign.

Which can be approached after a 10 minute walk through an idyllic forest on top of the hill.

Brașov to me appeared magical, relaxed, remarkable. It’s larger than Sibiu (250 vs 150 thousand), it feels less strict and more cosy. Definitely worth a detour!

In Brașov finally we found a way to get to Sighișoara – which had kind of been our objective from the start. There is an international train that passes through both Brașov and Sighișoara – it takes only two hours to get on the train. We shared the ride with several other obviously foreign tourists, including a couple from Hong Kong in explosively bright wind jackets who looked increasingly lost as we approached our stop in the typical post-Soviet nothingness of the Romanian countryside. As we all disembarked on the Sighișoara station – a small and semi-abandoned outpost in the middle of the forest – they looked bewildered. This is UNESCO world heritage?

Sighișoara indeed is the smallest of the three tips of our Transylvanian triangle. Only 26 thousand people, and yet it’s the only one that UNESCO included in its list. And while there, somehow you realise why this is so. The fortress of Sighișoara is both undoubtedly authentic and emphatically alive. I can still see in front of my eyes the jumping happy children running out of the school located right inside the fortress – we happened to walk by at the very moment the lessons finished – it was on this very street on the photo. The yellow house in the middle is special in a different way – it is the birthplace of Count Dracula, or rather his historical prototype – the prince of Walachia Vlad III the Impaler.

As you may know, most of the myth around Dracula is an outright fantasy, mostly fuelled by the imagination of Bram Stocker who wrote the horror story in 19th century. His vampire count lived in Transylvania; the real Vlad III had only spent about 5 years of his life in Transylvania, in his early childhood when his father was in the service of the King of Hungary. Later his father became the Prince of Walachia. Young Vlad was living at the Sultan’s court, and later became Prince in his own right – thrice, owing to the ever-changing political landscape of the Balkans. He had no immediate connection to Transylvania in his later life. Also the stories of his incredible cruelty appear to be long tales of his enemies, however they did become entrenched particularly in the Western historiography. The Romanians’ view Dracula as a strong and patriotic ruler. But nothing stops them from earning on the tourists drawn by his dark fame.

The streets in the lower part of the fortress.

The fortress has many levels, you find yourself climbing from one level to the next all the time. One of the most interesting staircases is this one – several centuries old, no less. With its strict minimalism it wouldn’t be out of place in Kyoto.

The exit at the very top of the citadel:

The top of the fortress hill is occupied by an old German cemetery. A watchtower by the cemetery:

And the principal church at the top of the citadel:

Walking down the citadel hill. This is the spirit of Sighișoara.

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