Romania's collection of castles and fortresses perhaps best illustrates the rich medieval heritage of the country. While castles built from the 14th to the 18th centuries are strong and austere fortresses built mainly for defense against invaders, those erected beginning in the late 1800s are imposing and luxurious. The most popular include the 14th century Corvin Castle, built on the site of a former Roman camp, the elegant 19th century Peles Castle with its 160 rooms filled with priceless European art and, of course, the Bran Castle, built in the mid-1300s and legendary home to Bram Stoker's Count Dracula.
As a result of almost nine centuries of Saxon presence, Transylvania, located in central Romania, claims a cultural and architectural heritage unique in Europe. This region is home to nearly 200 Saxon villages, churches and fortifications built between the 13th and 15th centuries. Seven of the fortified Saxon churches (in Biertan, Calnic, Darjiu, Prejmer, Saschiz, Valea Viilor, and Viscri) were designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. A visit to these quaint villages, placed amidst lush farmland and green rolling hills, will give you a taste of the long-gone medieval times.
Explore some of Romania's best-known castles and fortresses:
Where: Biertan, Transylvania – Central Romania
Nearest large towns: Sighisoara, Medias
The village of Biertan (German: Birthalm), first mentioned in an official document in 1283, is home to one of the largest and most impressive medieval strongholds in Transylvania.
Surrounded by quaint streets and vineyards, the 15th century fortified church at Biertan is perched high on a hill in the middle of the village. Three tiers of 35-foot-high defensive walls, connected by towers and gates, encircled the complex, making the church impossible to conquer during medieval times.
Featuring late-gothic architecture with heavy doors and double exterior walls, the church boasts the largest Transylvanian multi-paneled wooden altar and a remarkable wooden door which once protected the treasures in the sacristy.
Visitors can also admire the towers surrounding the church, namely the Clock Tower, the Bell Tower, the Gate Tower and the Bacon Tower. Within the grounds are several other interesting buildings, including the Prison Tower - which once served marital counseling purposes.
From 1572 to 1867, Biertan was the seat of the Saxon Evangelical bishops of Transylvania; their fine gravestones can be seen inside the Bishops' Tower.
Surrounded by an aura of mystery and legend and perched high atop a 200-foot-high rock, Bran Castle owes its fame to its imposing towers and turrets as well as to the myth created around Bram Stocker's Dracula.
Built on the site of a Teutonic Knights stronghold dating from 1212, the castle was first documented in an act issued by Louis I of Hungary on November 19, 1377, giving the Saxons of Kronstadt (Brasov) the privilege to build the Citadel.
Although Stoker never visited Transylvania, the Irish author relied on research and his vivid imagination to create the dark and intimidating stomping ground of Count Dracula, leading to persistent myths that it was once the home of Vlad Tepes, ruler of Walachia. While the association with Dracula is sketchy at best, the castle continues to hold a strong attraction for all fans of the Count.
Narrow winding stairways lead through some 60 timbered rooms, many connected by underground passages, which house collections of furniture, weapons and armor dating from the 14th to the 19th centuries.
Built in the 13th century by Count Chyl de Kelling, the Fortified Church at Calnic (German: Kelling) is one of the most imposing defensive structures in Transylvania. First documented in 1269, the fortress served as a residence for Saxon nobility until 1430, when it was sold to the peasant community of Calnic.
Enclosed by one and a half rings of high walls fortified with a defensive tower to the south and a gate tower to the north, the fortress withstood several Ottoman sieges.
The five-story-high Siegfried Tower, the landmark of the fortress, is endowed with defensive corridors and firing windows. An on-site medieval art museum displays various artifacts.
Where: Cetatea de Balta, Transylvania – Central Romania
Nearest large towns: Blaj, Medias, Alba Iulia
The Bethlen Castle was built in the 16th century in the French Renaissance style and restored in the 17th and 18th centuries when Baroque elements were added.
The Reformed Church, situated next to the Castle, is a 13th century structure.
The Jidvei (Bethlen-Haller) castle, with its eclectic combination of architectural styles, is located on the outskirts of Cetatea de Balta and it ofers its guests with quaint views of the village.
Jidvei, one of Romania's premier white wines wineries is a five-minute drive from Cetatea de Balta.
The Jidei (Bethlen-Haller) castle can host business meetings, conferences, private dinners or wedding receptions.
Various exquisite local wines and original menus, that include traditional dishes prepared by local chefs, will, most likely, please even the most discerning palates.
Where: Cisnadie, Transylvania
Nearest large town: Sibiu
The fortification process included the construction of fortified towers over the two side entrances and the choir, the building of a double structure of defense walls, a moat and several defensive towers along the walls.
The clock installed in the 195-feet high (bell and clock) tower has been working since 1868; no repairs were ever needed !
The greatest Gothic-style castle in Romania, Corvin was built by the Anjoufamily on the site of a former Roman camp. The castle served as a fortress until the mid-14th century when it became the residence of Transylvania's ruler, Iancu de Hunedoara. Iancu upgraded the fortress transforming it into the most stunning castle in Transylvania.
The beautifully preserved structure features a sumptuous Knights' Hall, an impressive drawbridge, high buttresses, inner courtyards, a chapel and some 50 rooms resplendent with medieval art.
Location: Cristian, Transylvania – Central Romania
Nearest large town: Brasov
The gothic-style Evangelical Church (1495) in the village of Cristian stands on the site of a 13th century Roman basilica.
Built in the 16th century, the church is enclosed by two rows of walls guarded by towers.
Two underground tunnels allowed villagers to flee from the fortress to the forest or to an old monastery in times of siege.
Where: Darjiu, Transylvania – Central Romania
Nearest large towns: Sighisoara and Odorheiu Secuiesc
The fortified church at Darjiu was initially built in Roman style in the 14th century, and later rebuilt in gothic style. It was fortified in the 16th century when locals drew inspiration from the fortified churches of neighboring Saxon villages.
The Gate Tower preserves its initial form, with openings for shooting missiles; wooden shutters provided protection against incoming projectiles.
The original interior frescoes, some of the most impressive Transylvanian medieval works, have been preserved.
Built in 1310 on the site of a former 12th century wooden fortress (burned by the Tartars in 1241), Fagaras was enlarged between the 15th and 17th centuries and was considered one of the strongest fortifications in Transylvania. The fortress was surrounded by a deep moat which, in times of war or social unrest, could easily be filled with water from a nearby mountain brook. A bridge over the moat provided the only access point. The fortress boasts three floors and five towers.
The beautifully preserved fortress houses the Fagaras County Museum, displaying Roman artifacts, a collection of medieval weapons and traditional folk crafts.
Located in the heart of Harman (Honigburg in German, meaning Honey Castle) village, this fortified church dates back to the 13th century when Saxons built the original structure. Strong walls and bulwarks surrounded the church and on its sides, massive towers were added.
The choir was built in a square shape with a vault resembling a cross. It was surrounded by two chapels, indicating the influence of the Cistercian style. This influence can also be observed in the still-standing original round windows with four lobes in the upper part of the church. The fortified church boasts two chapels...
Nestled at the foot of the Bucegi Mountains in the picturesque town of Sinaia, Peles Castle is a masterpiece of German new-Renaissance architecture, considered by many one of the most stunning castles in Europe.
Commissioned by King Carol I in 1873 and completed in 1883, the castle served as the summer residence of the royal family until 1947. Its 160 rooms are adorned with the finest examples of European art, Murano crystal chandeliers, German stained-glass windows and Cordoba leather-covered walls.
Also worth exploring in town is Sinaia Monastery, founded by Prince Mihai Cantacuzino in 1695, and named after the great Sinai Monastery on Mount Sinai. The monastery served as the residence of the royal family until Peles Castle was built, and now is home to a monastic establishment.
Sinaia, a well-known ski resort, and the surrounding towns of Busteni, Azuga and Predeal provide many facilities for an active vacation – from ski and hiking trails to wildlife viewing.
The ruins of Poienari Fortress stand high on a cliff overlooking the Arges River, at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Built at the beginning of the 13th century by the first Walachian rulers, the castle changed names and residents a few times over the decades; eventually, it was abandoned and left in ruins.
Vlad Tepes ( Vlad the Impaler) recognized the potential of the location and upon taking over the throne, he ordered that the structure be repaired and consolidated, turning it into one of his main fortresses. When the Turks attacked and captured the castle in 1462, Vlad escaped via a secret passageway leading north through the mountains. Although the castle was used for many years after Vlad's death in 1476, it was eventually abandoned again in the first half of the 16th century and left to the ravages of time and weather. In 1888, a major landslide brought down a portion of the castle which crashed into the river far below. The castle underwent repairs and the remnants of its walls and towers stand to this day.
The largest fortified church in southeastern Europe, Prejmer
(Tartlau in German) was built by Teutonic knights in 1212-1213.
The powerful surrounding walls are 40 feet high and 10-15 feet thick. Historical records attest that in its 500 years of existence, the fortress was besieged 50 times. However, it was only captured once, in 1611 by Gabriel Báthori, Prince of Transylvania; the fighters defending the fortress have surrendered after not having no drinking water available for several days.
Access to the building was through a 100-foot-long arched passage fortified with two rows of gates. Each village family had a designated room for shelter in case of attack. The red-roofed wall accommodated 272 rooms, stacked over four stories and linked by wooden staircases.
Rasnov Fortress (Rosenau in German), is located on a rocky hilltop in the Carpathian Mountains, 650 ft. above the town of Rasnov. First mentioned in an official document in 1331, the fortress was built by Teutonic Knights as protection against invading Tartars and was later enlarged by the local Saxon population. Strategically located on the commercial route linking the provinces of Transylvania and Walachia, Rasnov differs from other Saxon fortresses in that it was designed as a place of refuge over extended periods of time.
Recently, the old fortress has been restored to its former glory and today, you can visit the impressive remains. There is also a museum here, hidden behind the ancient walls, where you can find a skeleton buried beneath a glass floor, as well as some other interesting artifacts.
Saschiz is renowned not only as home to one of Transylvania's finest fortified churches but also as a carpentry and wood-painting center. It was here that Saschiz blue pottery was born in 1702.
The Evangelical Church of Saschiz was built between 1493 and 1496 by Saxon colonists. The monument is very impressive due to its sheer size and the way the fortifying elements have been adapted to the shape of a church building. From the outside, the church appears to be a bulwark, but its defensive role is surpassed by the beauty of its gothic elements: huge arches, massive buttresses and decorative stone and brick aspects. Due to the significant distance between the center of the village and the hill on which a Saxon fortress was built in 1496, the fortified Evangelical church became the main refuge for the inhabitants of Saschiz during invading raids.
Located in the Vineyards Valley, this fortified church was built in 1263 in gothic style and was enlarged and fortified in the 15th and 16th centuries by adding a range of 26-foot-tall and five-foot- wide walls. A unique element is the well in the center of the church choir that provided water for the locals during sieges. Inside, you can admire Saxon furniture and decorations dating from the 16th century.
One of the most interesting Saxon fortified churches is located in the village of Viscri (Weisskirch in German).
The name comes from the German Weisse Khirche, meaning white church.
Unlike other Transylvanian fortified churches, Viscri was built around 1100 by the Szekler population and taken over by Saxon colonists in 1185. This explains why this unique gothic church displays a plain straight ceiling rather than a traditional vaulted one