This article was also published in Romanian on Hotnews.
Anyone who knows Romania is aware that Sighisoara is a pretty amazing place. Guidebooks describe is as the only medieval citadel in Europe that is “lived in” and the old centre is one of the “must sees” on the Romanian map. But I have avoided the place for about 5 years for a number of reasons: I was seriously put-off after visiting a so-called “Medieval Festival” (a grotesque combination of kitsch and heavy metal); and it takes so long to get there by car from Bucharest (over 5 hours) and the train doesn’t exactly hurry.
But now I am a convert. I recently visited Sighisoara and was stunned by the old town, the citadel, the medieval fortress that sits on a little hill above the rest of the town (which, like most Romanian towns, is pretty ugly). What really impressed me was the high quality of the restoration work. All the buildings up there seem to have been restored using original materials and this is very unusual in a country where owners of ancient buildings tend to grab modern paint from the local supermarket and destroy their heritage with it (not to mention the plague of blue rooves, plastic windows, chrome railings, bathroom tiles on the outside and kitsch signs.) In the citadel they even ensure the shop signs are tasteful, which is the only place in the country I have seen this. The place has been gentrified, rather like what happened to Covent Garden in London (a scruffy fruit n’ veg market became a European cultural centre.)
And it has something of a festive atmosphere. Music was pouring out of the church, the music school and the main square, where a student band was tuning up for an outdoor performance. It is the only place in Romania where I heard more foreign languages than Romanian and the cafes, bars and restaurants up there seem to be of pretty high quality. I hung out in the “House on the Rock” which is owned by a Scottish lady and carries out all sorts of good deeds in the local community (I wasn’t interested in this, but I was fascinated by their cakes).
The reason I say Sighisoara needs your help is that it seems to lack customers. I was there on a summer weekend (going on a brilliant bike tour with www.blog.cyclingromania.ro) and the cafes and bars seemed a bit empty. They could use some punters coming up from Bucharest for the weekend. They need your money so that the businesses up there can survive. If people from Bucharest and the major cities of Romania were to visit Sighisoara at the weekend, at least once a year, the place would boom. It shouldn’t have to depend only on foreigners.
I also found out that getting there wasn’t as hard as I had assumed. You can get the 6am train from Bucharest, which has a special bike wagon, and get there at midday. Or you can get the sleeper to Tirgu Mures which is only 50km to the north (or you can drive).
Dinner with Dracula’s peasants
If I was in charge of Sighisoara I would organize a Dracula Festival, as that would surely attract thousands of avid visitors (and countless screaming teenage Twilight fans). Vlad Tepes was apparently born in Sighisoara (there’s a house with a brass plate on it saying this, so it must be true!).
The trouble with Sighisoara, as with most Romanian tourist spots, is that there’s not much to do after you’ve seen the sights. And there is the usual lack of information. But I can assure you that the best thing to do around Sigisoara is visit the Saxon villages, many of which are within cycling distance. For more information contact Mircea on http://blog.cyclingromania.ro/ Not only does he know the area but he can tell you where to hire bikes, cars, horses or rooms.
For me the high point of my visit to this area was staying at Dracula’s Inn (there are two of them; the huge Domeniul Dracula on the main road to Medias and the more intimate and remote Hanul Dracula in the woods above Sighisoara – where I stayed.) I can’t tell you how the rooms are as I slept in a tent in their backyard, which met with some rude stares by the waiters. But it’s worth a visit for the menu.
You’ve probably come across some funny menus in your time in Romania, menus which were translated by the owner’s 16 year old daughter or by Google Translate, but this one was the best I’ve seen in years. At Hanul Dracula you can have: Peasant Potatoes, Peasant Snack, or Coastal Peasant; Mush with Sour Bread, Pastrami Sheep, Brine Crap, Snack Shepherd, Pork Neck and my personal favourite: Ridden Cheese.
We had a long debate about the menu and never worked out if “Ridden Cheese” is a fiendishly clever translation of an ancient practice in Romania when horsemen would stuff a piece of cheese under their saddle (the 16 year old waiter didn’t know). All I can say is that Dracula Inn is a darned nice place to stay and it has a pool, horse-riding and all sorts of activities on offer.