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:
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. The altar was built by artisans from Vienna (Austria) and Nurenberg (Germany) between 1483 and 1513. The door, a true marvel of engineering, has a particularly ingenious locking mechanism with 15 bolts that can be simultaneously activated by a key. The mechanism stirred quite an interest at the Paris World Expo in 1900.
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.
From 1920 to 1957 Bran served as royal residence, a gift of the people of Brasov to Queen Marie of Romania. The castle is now a museum open to tourists, displaying art and furniture collected by Queen Marie.
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. The castle overlooks the picturesque village of Bran, which offers an open-air Ethnographic Museum consisting of old local-style village houses complete with furniture, household objects and costumes.
Nearby attractions: Rasnov Fortress (7 miles); Brasov (16 miles); Peles Castle in Sinaia (35 miles); the ski resorts in Poiana Brasov (10 miles) and Predeal (15 miles); the medieval cities of Sighisoara (88 miles) and Sibiu (96 miles); Bucharest (110 miles).
Accommodations near Bran Castle
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. Its defense system was completed in the 16th century when a small Romanesque chapel, surrounding walls and a water ditch were added by the Calnic community.
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.
Location: Cetatea de Balta, Transylvania – Central Romania
Address: Str. Libertăţii FN, Cetatea de Balta, Alba county
Nearest large town: Blaj (15 miles W), Medias (15 miles SE), Alba Iulia (38 miles W)
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.
Jidvei ((Bethlen-Haller) features 14 guest rooms and four luxurious suites decorated in a variety of styles, several meeting and event spaces and a beautiful garden with panoramic views.
EVENTS & DINING: 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.
Transport to / from the Castle can be arranged by the castle's concierge.
For reservations please call +4 0722 458.987.
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.
The castle's courtyard features a 100-ft. well dug into stone, in the 15th Century.
Legend says that the wheel was dug by three Turkish prisoners. It took them 15 years and 28 days to reach water.
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.
Throughout the years, Fagaras Fortress functioned mainly as a residence for various princes and their families. Transylvanian Prince Gabriel Bethlen (1613-1629), strongly influenced by the Italian Renaissance, brought architects and glassmakers from Italy who rebuilt the fortress, bestowing elegance and beauty to the construction. During the rule of Georg Rákóczi (1630-1649), the castle's fortifications were doubled and the moat was enlarged. Ráckózi had the bastions bridged and covered, the moat paved with stones, the bridge and the casemates repaired and a guardhouse built.
Records show that the interior must have been luxurious in the 17th century; unfortunately, little of its former grandeur has been preserved. The castle was deprived of its decorations and fancy furniture when it was turned into a military garrison in the 18th century.
Today, the beautifully preserved fortress houses the Fagaras County Museum, displaying Roman artifacts, a collection of medieval weapons and traditional folk crafts. The museum also hosts a beautiful collection of icons painted on glass.
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.
The south chapel has been preserved in its initial state while the north chapel was rebuilt in the 15th century. The exterior vaults of the chapel are sculptured in stone and have a human face at each end.
Location: Sinaia, Walachia – Southern Romania
Address: Str. Pelesului 2, Sinaia
Nearest large towns: Brasov (40 miles north), Bucuresti (80 miles south)
Nearby main attractions: Bran (Dracula's) castle (30 miles north-west),
Brasov (40 miles north)
Nearest train station: Sinaia
Telephone: 0244 310.918
Peles Castle Hours & Admission
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.
The furniture in the Music Room is carved of teak, a gift to King Carol I from the Maharajah of Kapurtala in India, while handmade silk embroideries adorn the ceiling and walls of the Turkish Salon. The ceiling paintings and decorative frescoes in the Theater Hall were designed by the renowned Austrian artists Gustav Klimt and Frantz Matsch.
Over 4,000 European and Oriental pieces dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries are on display in the armories.
King Ferdinand, who succeeded Carol I, commissioned the smaller, art nouveau-style Pelisor Castle nearby. Pelisor's 70 rooms feature a unique collection of turn-of-the century Viennese furniture and Tiffany and Lalique glassware.
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.
Attractions not far from Peles Castle: Rasnov Fortress (28 miles); Bran Castle (35 miles); Brasov (40 miles); ski towns of Predeal (14 miles) and Poiana Brasov (35 miles); Bucharest (78 miles); medieval towns of Sighisoara (88 miles) and Sibiu (105 miles).
Endowed with bastions, drawbridges and a secret, subterranean passage through which food supplies could be transported, the church's most famed war device was the "death machine," made of several weapons that could shoot simultaneously, causing the enemy severe losses.
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.
The church, built in a cross-like plan, was completed in 1225 and later adapted to the Cistercian style. The nave features late-gothic vaulting.
The defensive system included nine towers, two bastions and a drawbridge. Surrounded by 500-foot-slopes on the north, south and west sides, the fortress was obliged to surrender only once, in the year 1612 when invaders managed to find the secret route that supplied the people inside the fortress with water. With the location of their water supply no longer a secret, the need for a well inside the fortress became a must.
The last siege of Rasnov Fortress took place in 1690 during the final Ottoman invasion of Transylvania. Damaged by fire in 1718, it was rebuilt the following year. The next major damage occurred as the result of an earthquake in 1802. The fortress was last used as a place of refuge during the revolution of 1848 and was abandoned after that.
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.
The inner rooms are maze-like, with several wooden ladders linking them and a few so-called secret passages which should keep you busy for quite awhile.
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.
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. In the 14th century, the eastern section was rebuilt and around 1525, the first fortification walls with towers were added. In the 18th century, the church was endowed with a second defensive wall. Inside, you can admire a classic 19th century altar featuring a Blessing of the Children centerpiece by the painter J. Paukratz from Rupea. During 1970-1971, the fortified church underwent major renovations.