Beginning in the late 1800s and lasting until the mid 1900s Romania's culture and arts acknowledged great French influences. Bucharest, the capital of Romania was known in the 1930s as "The Little Paris" or "The Paris of the East" and French was the second language in Romania.
However, Bucharest owes to its German-born king, Carol I, much of the systematization and modernization that occurred during late 1800s early 1900s.
Romania's significant German (Saxon) heritage is obvious in Southern Transylvania, home to hundreds of well-preserved Saxon towns and villages. Saxons came to Transylvania during the mid 1100s from the Rhine and Moselle Rivers regions. Highly respected for their skill and talent the Saxons succeeded in gaining administrative autonomy, almost unmatched in the entire feudal Europe of absolute monarchies. The result of almost nine centuries of existence of the Saxon (German) community in Southern Transylvania is a cultural and architectural heritage, unique in Europe. Transylvania is home to hundreds of towns and fortified churches built between the 13th and 15th centuries by Saxons.
SIEBENBURGEN: A SAXON HERITAGE
This section is courtesy of Ms. Elaine L. Schulte
"To the citadel! To the citadel! The Turks attack!"
Riding bareback, the Saxon guard sped down through the village, shouting and brandishing the dreaded bloody sword. "To the citadel. . . the citadel . . . ."
Alarmed, village men frantically hitched their horses to wagons and women snatched up the children; mounted neighbors hurried past crying out, "The Turks attack! The Ottomans!" Invaders had often come, but were turned back by the Saxon-built fortresses and their defenders.
The Saxons came from the Rhine and Moselle regions of Northern Europe--most from the German state of Saxony. They arrived in Transylvania--"land between the forests" in the mid-1100s, invited by the ruler of this Romanian land. They stayed in this hilly region for 850 years and named their lands Siebenburgen after the seven fortress cities they built to protect themselves and their towns. Over the centuries, the Saxons and their descendants not only farmed and protected the fertile lands between the forested Carpathian Mountains, but formed guilds and became wealthy traders. Respected for their skills and talents, the Saxons gained a degree of freedom previously unheard of in medieval Europe. In their adopted homeland, any Saxon could move up in society based on merit.
Today, nearly two hundred of their citadels stand in Romania as a tribute to their skills and courage. Their fortifications usually encircled churches, villages, peasant refuges, or military outposts. In southern Transylvania, their fortresses dot the countryside, mere minutes or, at most, a few hours apart.
Romania's second largest city, Brasov (Kronstadt in German), is a good place to begin a Saxon trip. The city was protected by its thick, Saxon-built ramparts and, on three sides, by mountains. Because of its impregnable nature, it became a major centre for east-west trade, and outsiders paid tolls to enter the city gates.
Many a merchant donated valuable 17th- and 18th-century Oriental rugs to the city's famous Black Church, grateful for safe trading expeditions to the East, and for peaceful passages through the nearby Carpathian Mountains where lynx, bears, wolves, and wild boar still roam.
Today, some of these same rugs hang in the three-naved Black Church. Its strange name is attributed to a fire set long ago by disgruntled invaders unable to breach the city's walls. Ever since, the church and its red-tiled roof have been ash-stained.
At the 16th century Weaver's Bastion--a corner fort on Brasov's walls--a museum displays a scale model of Brasov, a great help for understanding the unique character of a fortified medieval city.
An old Romanian town huddles beneath Brasov's protecting walls. In its museum compound, located close by St. Nicholas church, visitors can sit at worn school desks to learn about the embattled area's history.
About 18 miles southwest of Brasov, Bran Castle towers from a bluff in the forested Carpathians. Romania's top tourist attraction, this fairytale castle was begun in 1378 by Saxon merchants as a toll station to guard Bran Pass. Later, it served as a military stronghold to support nearby villages. The castle, fictionalized as Dracula's Castle, became a summer retreat for Romania's Queen Marie in the 1920s. Now visitors can see its many rooms and its secret chimney stairway. Within walking distance of the castle, the Village Museum features old Romanian log houses with colorful peasant furnishings, as well as farm buildings with rustic tools.
The extensive ruins of Rasnov Castle are a short drive away. This peasant hill-top fortress suffered fifteen Turkish assaults. It's easy to imagine the guard racing his horse through the village, shouting and brandishing the traditional bloody sword, and the villagers fleeing up to the citadel.
A short drive away, the walled church citadel of Harman (Honigberg) stands over its surrounding moat. Once, Harman's storerooms held food, water and other supplies for the nearby villagers. The four small towers on the main church tower indicate that this was the seat of the local Saxon judge.
In the Harman sanctuary, backless benches fill the mid-section--backless for the women and their flaring skirts. And, against the walls, high-backed seats placed men and older boys near the doors in case of sudden attack.
I took the Saxon heritage tour with the hope that I might find the villages where my maternal grandparents had once lived. We knew the villages' Germanic names--Katzendorf and Bogeschdorf--names unmentioned on Romanian maps. Could we find the villages and, if so, did anything of Saxon days remain?
Our first answer came at the Harman fortress gate. The caretaker's table held maps showing Saxon church and village fortresses with names in German, Romanian and Hungarian.
Wonder of wonders, Katzendorf was not far away!
My grandfather had grown up there and emigrated to America in 1903, nearly one hundred years ago. It seemed impossible that I might find evidence of his life there.
We drove onward. Suddenly, at the edge of the dusty road, a sign spelled out CATA, the Romanian name for KATZENDORF! A hopeful sight. Next, we glimpsed an amazing sight: three storks nesting on the church tower. We stopped to take pictures. Another sight appeared: a horse pulling an overflowing hay wagon replete with lively gypsies, who struck hilarious poses for the camera.
My grandfather must have seen similar scenes, I thought. Storks have long dwelt on the towers and chimney-tops of Central Europe, and gypsies arrived from India in the 14th century.
In the village, my English- and Romanian-speaking guide inquired about the local Saxons and, before long, we found the centuries-old Lutheran church.
Deteriorating walls stood near the church, but two white courtyard walls still bore bright scenes of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and other Biblical scenes. Like most villages, each house had a vegetable garden, and their apple and plum trees held plump fruit. Here, an old grapevine flourished against the school wall.
We knocked at the church caretaker's door.
A sweet, white-haired woman responded.
In my rusty German, I told her that my grandfather had once lived here. I gave his name. "George Mathiae." Excited, she pointed across the way. "Mathiae Haus." His family's house right there! We were astounded.
She asked us to call her Tante (Aunt) since everyone in the village did, and invited us in to meet her 88-year old husband, who lay sick in bed. Herr Mueller remembered the Mathiae family and reeled off names of their descendants. My grandfather's niece, the last Mathiae in the village, had died just a month ago.
Before long, Tante Mueller led us through the weed-choked churchyard and unlocked the church door.
The sanctuary was like that of Harman: backless benches in the middle for women, seats for men around the outer edges for fighting off invaders. But in this sanctuary I noticed more.
In front and to the left side of the altarpiece stood a long bench for boys; opposite it, a long bench for girls. The pastor in the raised side pulpit would have had a perfect view of the boys' bench, where my lively grandfather would have sat. Nearby stood the baptismal font, where he had been baptized. Surprising tears burst to my eyes. I could hardly speak. Tante Mueller took my hands.
At length, she told us there had been a thousand church members when she was a girl; now only five Saxons lived in the village, and three would soon leave soon for Canada. Many had emigrated to Germany and Canada when Communism was overthrown. Only this white-haired woman and her sick husband would remain.
We talked and prayed together, and when it was time to leave, exchanged
"Auf wiedersehen," she said sadly.
"Auf wiedersehen in Himmel," I replied. We'll see each other again in Heaven!
She brightened, then stood at her doorstep, waving like a girl while we climbed into our car and rode away.
We drove through the green countryside into the heart of Siebenburgen - Sighisoara (Schassburg)--a 13th century fortified town. A European treasure, Sighisoara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Located on the Tarnava Mares River, the town was built by Saxons between the 12th and 17th centuries. Eleven towers guard Sighisoara's walls, among them Tailors' Tower and Shoemakers" Tower.
From the top of Clock Tower, visitors can look down on the red-tiled roofs of the Old Town and see intact 16th century Saxon houses lining the narrow cobblestone streets. Today, merchants and craftsmen still go about their business, as they did centuries ago. Sighisoara's charming hotels, restaurants, and historic attractions make it one of the few citadels in the world where life still goes on within its walls.
Other high places include an enclosed wooden staircase, the Scholars' Stairs, which rises 175 steps to the Church on the Hill. The church is known for its 500 year-old frescos, beautiful Renaissance pews, and Romanesque crypt.
Another intriguing church in the historic centre is the Former Leper Hospital's Church, a Gothic chapel with an outside pulpit for lepers.
Another: the Monastery Church, built and rebuilt for 800 years. It is known for its Transylvanian Renaissance carved altarpiece, baroque painted pulpit, Oriental carpets, and 17th century organ. Begun by Dominican friars, it became Lutheran during the Reformation.
In the 15th century, the infamous Vlad the Impaler was born in one of Sighisoara's more stately houses; near his house is the Torture Room Museum. The churches counter his torturous image, however, as does the town's motto: "The name of God is the strongest tower."
In the nearby countryside, another UNESCO World Heritage town, 13th-century Biertan, stands high on a hill, enclosed by walls more than 35 feet high. The most famous of the fortified churches, Biertan was the seat of the Lutheran bishops from 1572 to 1867; their fine gravestones can be seen inside the Bishops' Tower. A local guide said that a room in the church was kept for couples who wished to divorce; they were locked up together for two weeks so that they might discover the folly of their ways.
We drove on toward Bagaciu (Bogeschdorf), my grandmother's village until she was 17.
Dusty roads led through green hillsides, then through an indolent flock of geese and, finally, to her walled-in church. We quickly found the caretaker, who unlocked the door for us. Its sanctuary was similar to the one in my grandfather's church, but featured a fine four-panel altarpiece and, in case of raids, a hidden room for community treasures.
The village's oldest Saxon, Herr Holman, was summoned. He was 92, spry and lucid, but knew nothing of Katharina Bogeschdorfer, nor any in her family. Moreover, the church records had been taken away for translation. But in the sanctuary, I could imagine the young Katharina sitting on the girls' bench between the pulpit and the altarpiece, fanning herself on a warm summer Sunday.
Seeing her like that was a triumph in its own way.
We drove on to Sibiu (Hermanstadt), another picturesque walled city. Destroyed by the Tartars, the Saxons rebuilt it with stronger walls to fend off future attacks. Its Old Town is one of the largest and best preserved in Romania.
Medieval fortifications include the defense wall, city gates, and guild towers--Drapers', Potters', Carpenters--as well as the Powder Mill Towers, Thick Tower, and the Haller and Soldisch Bastions.
Council Tower stands over the old town, whose houses have sleepy-eye windows peering down from their attics; Stairs Passage leads under fortified arches to the lower town, its steps worn down by walkers ranging from emperors and composers to today's tourists.
The Old City Hall now houses the Museum of History and the Brukenthal Museum, once the palace of Baron Samuel von Brukenthal, Transylvania's governor and a favorite of Empress Maria-Theresa during Austro-Hungarian Empire days.
Sibiu's famous Lies Bridge has its own stories. Nearby, the Saxon merchants' shops were on the first floor of their houses, and they lived upstairs. It seems that after closing their shops, the merchants congregated on the bridge and swapped stories. Lies. Time has changed the legend; now it's said that if anyone tells a lie on the bridge, it will collapse. Sibiu's magnificent old churches, many still in existence, have had their work cut out for them.
St. Mary's Evangelical Church, 14th century, is known for its valuable murals and tombstones. The baroque Roman-Catholic church, 18th century, for its outstanding fresco of "Virgin Mary and the Holy Infant." The gothic Ursulines' Church, 15th century, for its baroque elements. Cross Chapel, 15th century, for valuable gothic carvings. The Orthodox church, begun in the early 20th century, resembles Haghia Sofia in Istanbul.
Sibiu's Romans'Emperor Hotel has hosted Emperor Joseph II, as well as composers Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms. Sibiu is still a city that beckons visitors, thanks to its old squares and walking streets, and its remarkable Saxon history.
Our last stop was Cluj-Napoca (Klausenburg), a leisurely three-hour drive from Sibiu, our longest drive of the Saxon tour. The city of Cluj is now mainly known for its history and university.
The Saxons arrived here in 1183 and, after the Tartar invasion of 1241, replaced the medieval earthen walls with stone. The location, however, was not easily defended, and the Saxons stayed only a comparatively short time--not 850 years. Over the centuries, invaders damaged the fortress towns, churches, and military outposts, but never conquered them entirely.
Today most Saxons are gone, but at their citadels one can still imagine a horseman galloping down to the village, brandishing the dreaded bloody sword and shouting, "To the citadel! To the citadel! The enemy attacks!"