The fortified churches

The fortified churches found in the countryside around Sibiu are another legacy of the Saxons. They originated from very simple basilica-style buildings and became enriched with more complex architectural elements during the centuries, such the apse, the belfry and buttresses to support forms that gradually evolved into the Gothic. But these religious buildings owe their fame and name to the ramparts and watch towers they were equipped with when the Turkish threat started to sweep into Transylvania along its expansionist move to the west.

The villages that were menaced by raiding troops responded by fortifying the building that usually stood at their centre and represented the community united around the common religious faith. Thus in case of need the church doubled as a citadel providing refuge to the inhabitants who could take shelter within circles of high walls barred by iron doors.

I have a long day before me and I’ve decided to live it all under the sign of the fortified churches. Cisnădie lies just outside Sibiu and has got an interesting church, although the texture of the village doesn’t give you the idea of a little centre as it must have been once, being rather a satellite town connected to the provincial capital by a highway scattered with depressing sheds of modern supermarkets and retail chains.

The next stop is Mediaş, which at long last I am pleased to find separated from Sibiu by a long green stretch of undulating fields. I mistakenly get off the bus at the beginning of the town, which forces me to walk a long way towards the historical centre. However the walk gives me the chance to appreciate another side of the place: the terrifying series of dismissed industrial installations that look gloomy despite the bright sunshine and the verdant background of fields and woods. High chimneys, tall buildings with shattered or no glass at all, the charred skeletons of what were once factories, look as dreary as the infamous ones in the nearby town of Copşa Mică.

I leave my bag at a shipping agency in the bus station, wondering how long still this will be possible before the security-risks-hazards psychosis will make havoc in spontaneous human relationships even here. The railway station building has a peculiar architecture: two-storeyed, topped by a concave roof, now a little out of repair, it looks like a failed designer experiment. The most surreal space is the waiting room, completely deserted like the rest of the building, fitted with funny high-back plastic seats.  The only living person must be the toilet man on the ground floor who springs into action from a lethargic state when I push the door open and I slap the coin down on a professional-looking teller window. In exchange I am handed a stripe of pink toilet paper that makes me smile.

Surrounded by the drab suburbs, the historical centre of Mediaş is a surprise. Nevertheless it’s the end of the day that keeps in store the biggest revelation. After the long wait for the 7.30 pm minibus and a 40 minute ride I get to the village of my dreams, Biertan. Its fantastic fortified church sits on a knoll, steeped in authentic countryside atmosphere, only traditional houses around.

The structure of the church is remarkable. It looks like a fairytale castle in this hilly countryside scattered with little villages. This is exactly the scenery I was hoping to find in Maramureş. Spending the night here will let me enjoy the country sounds and the tranquillity of rural life and I’m so elated I’d like to experience other times in this place: winter, summer, storm, hail, frost, heat, not just these few hours.

On the second day I cross the hill to Kopşa Mare after getting over repeated uncertainties about the way because the path is not clearly traced and I know the direction only roughly. The tops of the hills are usually still covered by forests, formerly an important part of the village economy, a source of timber and wood for cooking and heating. The sloping surfaces, on the other hand, were tilled in terraces, probably used for vine growing, but now mostly abandoned and starting to be invaded by shrubs.

This other church is not so grand, but the village is very nice too. A group of people, one man wearing the typical tiny straw hat, passes on a horse-drawn cart, marking the slow rhythm of country life.