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.
Hi, Rupert!! Thank you for this post. I have always wanted to visit Sighisoara and all the Siebenburgen. I only know a little bit Sibiu and Sebes. As I am Romanian I found very interesting your point of view about this town. And I hope I’ll get there some day. I agree with you that an important part of what has been built in Romania towns in the last decades is not quite beautiful. But some of this town are doing efforts to improve their look, such as Alba Iulia,http://www.apulum.ro/en/prezentare.htm. They restored the old citadel and in my opinión all the area called as Cetate looks quite well. And there too, you hear more foreign languages. Your post made me want to go as soon as poisible to Sighisoare. Is a pity that I can’t ride a bike. Ciao.
Vassy, I agree with your opinion about Alba Iulia. And there are several other Romanian towns which make us proud. But Sighisoara is a MUST-SEE, take my word!
Rupert, great article, thank you!
I took tourist groups to Sighisoara on a number of occasions and it was ever popular with them and with myself. It is a fascinating place and a remarkable survival – absolutely worth a visit.
I’m not sure whether Sighisoara is absolutely the only inhabited citadel in Europe (Dubrovnik and Biesz come to mind) however it probably is the most impressive.
I agree with the previous commentator that some other towns are doing their bit too – Medias comes to mind, and even Bistrita.
In some ways Sighisoara is a curious place, though, in modern Romania. Simply it wasn’t built by Romanians. The Saxon ethnic group who created the citadel fled post-1989. So Sighisoara is an education to Romanians that they possess some remarkable treasures in their land even if these were left by Teutonic or Magyar groups. Whilst living in Romania I did feel a sense that the people felt less kinship to the land than they might, and that patriotic feeling was invested in ideas rather than places. I hope that a lesson of Sighisoara is not lost – that Romanian can be proud of things that they have inherited, and appreciate, enjoy and protect those things. And if that applies to Sighisoara then why not to other Saxon settlements, old manor houses, narrow gauge railways, wooden churches and who knows what else?
Compared to the richness of architecture the Dracula stuff is a bit of a let down – an unhistorical novel by a foreigner who never visited! It’s a frisson, no more, and only of passing interest to most visitors. If it’s a literary trail we’re after, what about Creanga, Rebreanu, Sadoveanu and – let’s be inclusive – Banffy? (Perhaps uniquely I have ridden a horse to Hanul Ancutei and had lunch there. It was a lot of fun. I have also taken tourists to the Padurea Spanzatorilor, and that taught people a better lesson about history than any amount of Hollywood Dracula.)
Last summer 2010, I discovered the Festivalul Medievala in Sighisoara.
In my home of England I have done many years of “Living History” from the English Civil War period. The audiences have been mainly school children… the most difficult to please.
I am difficult as well. But I loved the Sighisoara festval. OK a lot of it was very light hearted, but clearly a lot of research and training had been done before the event.
I plan to go again, this year. I would not go if I thought it was cheap or vulgar.
The citadel is a photographers dream. My photos from last year, several people now use them as Desktop background photos.
As for the Romanian people in general, I think they treat me and other tourists, like a respected guest.
Imi place Romania. (I love Romania).
“Ye Highlands and ye Lawlands,
O where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl of Murray,
And hae laid him on the green.”
Anonymous. 17th Cent.
Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed. 1919. The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250–1900.
First of all, Rupert, great article, thank you!
You are funny mentioning translation issues, because humorous translation are everywhere, or even in your country. Example:
• Cyclists between Cardiff and Penarth in 2006 were left confused by a bilingual road sign telling them they had problems with an “inflamed bladder”.
• In the same year, a sign for pedestrians in Cardiff reading ‘Look Right’ in English read ‘Look Left’ in Welsh.
• In 2006, a shared-faith school in Wrexham removed a sign which translated the Welsh for staff as “wooden stave”.
Signed: one of Sighisoara’s “peasants”
Thanks for these great comments. Much appreciated. As for chronic translation the real problem is actually bad writing, and the best piece of writing to see about this is George Orwell’s essay Inside the Whale. You can get it for free at http://www.orwell.ru (thanks Russia). Orwell had a campaign against bad writing that resonates until today.
I have in front of me a menu by the Dilmah Tea Company, which I suspect of being Austrian, and some of their writing is sickeningly obtuse. I found it in Romania. The implication is that you need to be a connoisseur to understand it. Fuck you Dilmah. Here are some extracts:
– “Aromatic with a medium bodied floral note…”
– “Gourmet Ceylon tea in a delicious marriage of tea with a creamy and rich English toffee note finishing with sparkling peppermint”
– “The pale yellow infusion is tinged with olive highlights”
I’m sure this was written by someone high on drugs.
My Grandpa was from Ceylon, which no longer exists, and he worked as a tea taster in London. He told me that the tea they have in tea bags is “the dust off the floor in the tea factory”.
An addition to my blog of 8.6.2011:
My first visit to Romania was only for a week to meet a 30 year old girl that I had met on the Internet.
Unfortunately, she was a disappointment. SHE had invited me, but only made herself available for an hour on the day I flew home!
However, she was the exception and I am still grateful to her. I discovered a beautiful city, Bucuresti, full of kind, helpful, almost instantly trustworthy people. Most people under 40 can speak fluent English. Those who do not, use hand signals, penned pictures, what little English they know and whatever else they can, to help get the message across.
They are lovely people.
So, I knew I would return to Bucuresti.
Then I discovered Sighisoara.
The day I arrived there, my camera chip was full of photos. I went to a shop, bought another one and was given a free wallet by the shopkeeper! Empty… but it was a lovely gift.
I will always holiday in Romania… until either I die or they are invaded again by yet another unwanted guest. I wrote a Potted History of the invasions for some friends who wanted to know why I loved Romania!
I would love to live in Bucuresti.
Apart from Romanian Royalty being direct decendents of British Queen Victoria, I feel the attitude of the people is similar to us true British people. They had to suffer the Soviet / communist regime for 40+ years, but they treated them with the same contempt that we British would! The tried to ignore them and got on with life.
Unfortunately, a lot of the Soviet ways are still prevalent. Like the business laws and the incessant paperwork…! But the new EU paperwork is as bad!
Interesting article and many of your observations are quite correct. As you mentioned above, after visiting the citadel with all it’s attractions, there is hardly anything to do in Sighisoara.
This is why we recommend the villages surrounding it. Please take a look at http://www.discovertarnavamare.org – there are plenty of things to do in the rural area! We are a biodiversity conservation NGO (www.fundatia-adept.org) but do a lot more than smelling the pretty flowers, including tourism development and promoting this fantastic region.
Here’s one example http://www.freerider.ro/noutati/traseu-mtb-crit-mesendorf-15602.html
-the first ever mountain bike trail built in lowland Romania, and many many other activities.
My email address is above – i would love to get in contact with you and maybe collaborate on promoting Tarnava Mare further with your help!
Sighisoara was one of the first places I stayed when I came to Romania for the first time, before I started living here in Romania, and I fell in love with it immediately. It was very different then; there were only a handful of hotels and very few bars/restaurants.
I still visit regularly, but with mixed emotions. On one hand, I rejoice when I see that the renovations have been completed, the number of places to stay have increased, and that there is a little more for visitors to do.
On the other hand, I do feel a little sad that ‘Sighisoara – the lived in citadel’ has all but disappeared. I remember on Piata Cetatii there was a little shop selling regular grocery items, alongside a small ‘gogoserie’ (doughnut shop). It was nice to buy a loaf of bread, some cheese and ham, and a few ‘gogosi’ and head off up the wooden stairs to church on the hill and down the other side through the cemetary to sit on a bench overlooking the valley and have a picnic. I think it’s now a souvenir shops selling kitchy Chinese tat. No need for a grocery shop in the citadel there days.
Down the hill on Piata Oberth there was classic 1980s style cafeterie. It was excellent, right down to the purchasing system which entailed ordering from one short-haired battleaxe, paying another, and picking up your cuppa from a third! It’s now the Perla pizza place.
Piata Cetatii itself used to be closed to cars and in the summer generally hosted a few ‘pop-up’ beer gardens. After letting more cars into the citadel the ancient cobblestones started coming loose and the town hall commissioned a project to tarmac the roads in the citadel (luckily, one of the mayor’s family had a tarmac company and could take on the job for just twice the normal price). A local NGO protested and the mayor finally agreed to re-surface the old town with granite blocks. Fortunately another relative of his had a company that could do this… Not sure what happened to the old cobblestones.
It’s still an interesting place, but I wouldn’t call the citadel ‘lived in’. Most of the houses there now are either hotels, guesthouses, bars, restaurants, summer houses, or souvenir shops. I think there are very few genuine residents. I know of one old house where Sighisoara’s oldest resident lives (or lived, last time I heard, about two years ago, she was still going at 102 years of age!).
The old wall is mostly inexistant now, but about nine of the original towers remain, each dedicated to one of the maedieval guilds. I think a really nice ‘festival’ for Sighisoara would be to hold a ‘Guild Day’. Each of the towers can be opened up to the public (those that can be entered, at least) and then local craftmen and artizans can be brought in to demonstrate that guild’s trade with practical demonstrations, visitor participations, and naturally offering some of their wares for sale.
For example, the ‘Turnul Macelarilor’ (Butchers’ Tower) could showcase local meat products and demonstrate, if not butchery itself, at least how salamis and ‘carnati’ are made. ‘Turnul Cizmarilor’ (Cobblers’ Tower) should demonstrate bootmaking techniques through the period. And so on…
Daca imi permiti doua cuvinte in romana. Nu stapanesc engleza cat sa fac un comentariu in engleza.
E normal sa se intample asa ceva in Sighisoara pentru ca nu exista un plan urbanistic unitar. Si nici un plan unitar de dezvoltare locala, in turism.
Astfel fiecare localnic si-a renivat fatada, proprietatea cum l-a dus capul. Exact asa s eintampla si cu fenomenul anveloparii ( izolarii) blocurilor. legea spune ca nu ai voie sa modifici elemente de constructie si arhitecturale insa toti o fac.
Celalat aspect legat de Sighisoara. Majoritatea romanilor cred ca Sighisoara este unica si minunata. este minunata dar NU unica. Unica in Romania. Da.
Cati s-au plimbat prin Italia, Spania, Franta.
Am dormit in capite de fan in Catalania, am inoptat in in casele localnicilor din burgurile din centrul Italiei. Cetati medievale, umbrite doar unele de altele, ca sunt inghesuite pe suta de kilometri.Minuni incarcate de istorie.Te plimbi pe ulitele racoroase neatinse de soare din cauza zidurilor si traiesti parca cu sute de ani in urma. Acolo esti invitat la o cana cu lapte in casa, esti servit cu o dulceata. Totul acolo miroase a istorie transpusa la timpul prezent. Daca romanul ar scoate putin capul din ignoranta si din fals patriotism ar intelege multe.
Dar EI se ocupa de valorile lor, noi nu o facem.