Romania is one of Europe’s most fascinating and underrated countries. It’s home to beautiful scenery, friendly people, and intruiging history stretching back to the Roman Empire. There are eight World Heritage Sites in Romania, and all eight are definitely among the best places to visit in Romania. One of our favourites was definitely the Fortified Churches Romania, located in central Transylvania.
Officially known as the Villages with Fortified Churches in Transylvania, it’s sometimes referred to as the Transylvania Fortified Churches. First added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1993, it’s a collection of seven churches in Translyvania that were heavily fortified during the late Middle Ages. So if you’re curious to know more about the Fortified Churches Romania, read on for our guide.
Who Built the Fortified Churches Romania?
These villages with fortified churches were built by the Transylvanian Saxons. These Saxons were ethnic Germans, and began settling the area in the 12th century, with the aim of securing the area of Transylvania for the Holy Roman Empire.
Why were these Transylvania Churches built?
For most of the late Middle Ages, Transylvania was on the outer edge of the Holy Roman Empire. It was surrounded by serious threats on several sides: Ottomans to the south, Mongols and Tatars to the east, and Russians to the north. Without rich lords or large armies to protect them, the villagers had to protect themselves. Lacking the resources to build strong city walls or large castles, the best option for defence was to fortify the town’s largest building: the church.
These fortified churches were always built in the centre of town, and usually strategically placed on hilltops and the like. It’s estimated that over 300 fortified churches had been built in Transylvania by the 16th century, though sadly most have been lost or ruined. The World Heritage Site covers the seven best preserved remaining churches, so let’s have a closer look.
Biertan Fortified Church
Biertan Fortified Church is located in the village of Biertan. Originally known in German as Birthälm, the church here is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and is decorated in a Late Gothic style. Interestingly, it was one of the last fortified churches built in Transylvania, between 1486 and 1524.
Biertan church itself is built of stone and brick, and has three naves, beautiful rib-vaulted ceilings, and plenty of interesting decorations. But surrounding the church are the bristling fortifications – three layers of defensive walls with nine separate towers.
The outer-most wall is mostly square, with four of the towers, and it actually pre-dates the current church. Although the battlement inside the wall has since disappeared, you can still see the arrow slits located high up on the walls.
The centre wall was built concurrently with the church, and is oval in shape. It has multiple guard towers, and it’s also reinforced with arched stone buttresses on the inside.
The inner-most third wall was built much later, in the 16th and 17th centuries. Here you’ll find multiple towers, plus the four-storey high clock tower, armed with parapets and battlements. It commands an excellent view of the the church, the village, and the surrounding area.
Overall, it’s a very impressive sight. The church and fortifications sit on a hill in the centre of Biertan village, and absolutely dominate the area. In addition to the tall clock tower, there’s also the Gate Tower, the Bell Tower, the Prison Tower, and the oddly-named Bacon Tower. Their red square-pyramid spires shining in the sun is just a magnificent sight.
Unusually, the Prison Tower often served a “marital counselling” role! Couples wishing to divorce were locked in the tower for two weeks, to either solve their issues, or confirm their decision.
Know Before You Go – Biertan Fortified Church
Admission to Biertan church costs 10 Lei (approx $2.50 USD). It’s open 10am – 1pm and 2pm – 7pm, Tuesday through Sunday (closed Mondays and public holidays). Note that the gates are often locked during the winter months. You’ll need to ask for help at the adjacent restaurant, and they should be able to find the person with the keys.
If you’re interested to see more Gothic architecture, check out World Heritage Alternatives to Notre-Dame.
Valea Viilor Fortified Church
Next of the Fortified Churches in Romania is Valea Viilor. It’s located about 40 kilometres west of Biertan, but still in the same general area. Valea Viilor was constructed between the 14th and 16th centuries. It’s built in the Gothic style, and the church is dedicated to Saint Peter.
Unlike Biertan Fortified Church, which is essentially a stronghold built around a church, Valea Viilor is basically a fortified church. It’s a large, relatively plain stone church, without much decoration on the inside. And on the outside, rather than ornate windows, intricate paintings or detailed sculpture work, Valea Viilor bristles with menace.
Arrow slits exist instead of windows, the nave area is a tall brick tower with 1.5 metre thick walls, crowned with battlements and parapets. There’s also towers on either side of the main church entrance, plus another battlement tower in the belfry.
Surrounding the church is a single oval-shaped defensive wall, roughly 6-7 metres high and 1.5 metres thick. There’s a wooden battlement running along the inside of the entire wall, allowing access to the many defensive positions.
The walls are also home to several storerooms, where villagers could stash large amounts of supplies to wait out a long siege. And fascinatingly, inside the actual church is a deep well so that beseiged villagers could access fresh water!
Know Before You Go – Valea Viilor Fortified Church
Admission costs 5 Lei (approx $1.25 USD). It’s open 9am – 12pm and 2pm – 5pm Monday through Sunday during the summertime. Outside of tourist season, you’ll need to call or email in advance to schedule a visit.
Calnic Fortified Church
Calnic Fortified Church is a bit different to the other Romanian fortified churches, as it was originally designed and built as a stronghold. A local nobleman, Count Chyl de Kelling, started construction in the 13th century to keep his family safe from Mongol raids. In 1430, the last count moved on and the local Saxon villagers took over the citadel. They turned it into a fortified church by constructing a small chapel in the centre.
The fortifications here at Calnic Church consist of two large defensive walls. The inner wall is oval shaped, and stands almost 20 metres high. It’s reinforced with a guard tower in the south facing the town, and another tower directly over the main gate. As expected, there’s wooden battlements and firing positions along the walls, along with storerooms and living quarters too.
The outer wall is lower, and was constructed much later, after the local villagers had taken over Calnic Fortified Church. The walls were originally surrounded by a moat which has since been filled in, and the wooden drawbridge was replaced by an iron portcullis.
But the real start of the whole complex is the massive Siegfried Tower. Originally the Count’s living quarters, it’s a full five storeys tall and looms over the entire citadel. Inside are a series of defensive corridors, firing positions, and of course battlements at the top. These days there’s an interesting medieval museum on the lower levels with various objects from Calnic Church’s history.
Know Before You Go – Calnic Fortified Church
Calnic Citadel is open 9am – 6pm every day. The entrance fee is 5 Lei (approx $2.50 USD), though there’s an extra 7 Lei camera fee if you want to take photos.
Darjiu Fortified Church
Darjiu Fortified Church is one of the more unusual Transylvania Fortified Churches. It’s located in the small town of Darjiu, about 50 kilometres east of Biertan. The fortified church here was first built in the 14th century in Romanesque style, though it was replaced about 200 years later with the Gothic-style church we can see today.
It’s quite a striking sight too, with brightly white-washed walls and a tall single spire sticking up above the town. There’s only a single defensive wall here, a square shape that surrounds the entire church. A defensive bastion guards each corner of the wall, while a squat square tower dominates the southern side. There’s also another small tower located over the main gate.
Aside from the dazzling white church, the highlight here is actually the church interior, where a series of medieval frescoes have been partly preserved. Best preserved is Conversion of Paul the Apostle, but there’s also an impressive section of paintings depicting Saint Ladislaus, an 11th century knight-king of Hungary.
Know Before You Go – Darjiu Fortified Church
Darjiu Fortified Church is open most days, though it’s closed for tourists during Sunday services. Entrance fee is 6 Lei (approx $1.50 USD). Be aware that the roads leading to the town are quite rough (and unpaved in areas, particularly to the west of town), so be confident in your driving skills before you set off.
Prejmer Fortified Church
Prejmer Fortified Church is the largest fortified church in south-eastern Europe. It was founded in 1212 by the Teutonic Knights, who completed its construction by around 1240, which is quite an impressive feat for the era. The Teutonic Knights also built the impressive Malbork Castle in Poland around the same era.
Prejmer is located near the strategically important Buzau Pass, a mountain route that was often used by invading Turk and Mongol armies, and so the fortress was built to be very strong. The original church was built to a Greek Cross floorplan with Gothic style elements, though later occupants converted the shape into a Latin crucifix.
Prejmer Church sits at the centre of enormous rectangular walls, five metres thick, twelve metres in height, and surrounded by a water-filled moat. The only entry to the fortified complex is via a 30 metre long tunnel, garrisoned at both ends with portcullises and heavy doors. There’s also guard towers and a barbican adjacent to the entry.
There’s a couple of fascinating features inside too! The high walls are packed with 270 rooms, where up to 1600 people could shelter in relative safety. Every family in the village had a designated room, and there was also storage space for supplies and a well for fresh water. The church was so heavily fortified that although the town of Prejmer was destroyed more than 50 times between the 13th and 17th centuries, the fortress was only captured once.
Know Before You Go – Prejmer Fortified Church
The admission fee for Prejmer Fortified Church is 15 Lei (approx $3.70 USD). It’s open weekdays 9am – 6pm in the summer months, with slightly shorter hours on weekends (and closed Sunday mornings for services). During the winter, opening hours are 9am – 4pm Monday through Saturday, 11am – 4pm on Sundays.
Saschiz Fortified Church
Saschiz Fortified Church is possibly the most beautiful of all the Romanian Fortified Churches, and it’s certainly the most striking. Located about 15 kilometres east of Sighisoara, Saschiz was founded in 1493 and completed in just three years.
Saschiz Church is dedicated to Saint Stephen of Hungary, and is designed as a hall church with a long and thin nave. It’s quite tall, and built of locally quarried grey stone, while the interior decorations are mostly Baroque style from the 18th century.
Outside, it was originally surrounded by a large fortified wall which has sadly been torn down. A small stone and ironwork fence from the 20th century marks out the original plan of the walls.
But the most impressive feature is definitely the tower. It’s the only genuine defensive work still remaining on site, but it’s absolutely fantastic! It towers over the church and the town, with the usual battlements and firing slots. On on top is a heavily decorated spire, gracefully reaching skyward above the church. It’s a beautiful sight, and surprisingly ornate for a defensive fortification.
Know Before You Go – Saschiz Fortified Church
Saschiz is open 10am – 6pm Wednesday through Monday, closed on Tuesdays. If you’re coming via public transport, be aware that Saschiz train station is located five kilometres north of the town itself – about an hour’s walk! A much better option is to get a taxi from Sighisoara.
Viscri Fortified Church
Our final Romanian Fortified Church is located in the village of Viscri, about 25 kilometres to the south of Saschiz. Unusually for these fortified churches, Viscri was founded in the early 12th century and fortified much later. The name is German in origin, Weisskirch, or in English: white church. And when you arrive on site, it’s easy to see why!
The splendid church is still painted in a brilliant shade of white, along with the large oval fortress wall and the four defensive towers around it. It’s a very impressive sight, standing on top of a hill and naturally dominating the nearby village.
The wall surrounding the church is seven metres in height, while the connecting towers and bastions are slightly higher again. There’s just a single gate in the wall, also heavily fortified with a tower and gatehouse, and as usual there’s battlements, parapets and firing slits all over the fortifications.
Know Before You Go – Viscri Fortified Church
Viscri Church is open 10am – 1pm and 3pm – 6pm, Monday through Sunday. If you arrive outside of these hours, the manager lives in a house just opposite the main gate and is usually happy to open the church up – the locals can point you in the right direction. Admission is 5 Lei, approx $2.50 USD. Be aware that some roads to Viscri are still unpaved.
Video Guide: Romania Fortified Churches
BONUS! Corvin Castle
Corvin Castle is one of Europe’s most impressive castles, and absolutely one of the highlights of Romania. Also known as Hunedoara Castle, Corvin Castle is located in the town of Hunedoara in the south-western area of Transylvania.
Construction began on the castle in 1446, and although it was mostly finished by 1480, work carried on intermittently over the next few centuries.
Corvin Castle is designed in a Renaissance-Gothic style, and is a remarkably striking building. It stands on a huge rock above the Zlasti River, and dominates the surrounding landscape. With imposing walls, bristling fortifications and towering spires, the castle is an incredible sight.
Inside, the castle is just as impressive. There’s the impressive Gothic-style Knight’s Hall, several courtyards, a chapel, and lots of medieval art on show. It’s also surprising to see how much marble was used in the construction. Another highlight is a 30-metre deep well in the central courtyard, allowing defenders access to fresh water.
However, it should be noted that Corvin Castle is unlikely to gain World Heritage status any time soon. By the late 19th century, neglect and fires had taken a heavy toll on Corvin Castle and it was largely in ruins. So a lot of what’s visible today is a modern “interpretation” of what it was thought to look like – and with many modern flourishes.
So is it impressive? Yes! Beautiful? Absolutely, yes! Genuine and authentic? Not so much. But it’s definitely still 100% worth a visit.
Know Before You Go – Corvin Castle
Corvin Castle is open 9am – 5pm Tuesday through Sunday, and from 12pm – 5pm on Mondays. Ticket sales close 45 minutes before closing time. Admission is 31 Lei for adults (approx $7.50 USD), with an extra 5 Lei to take photos. Concessions for students and pensioners are available. Guides are also available: 31 Lei for Romanian-language, 63 Lei for other languages.
Getting there – Bucharest to Transylvania
So what’s the best way to get from Bucharest to Transylvania? There’s several ways to travel between Bucharest to Transylvania:
Bucharest to Transylvania – By Air
Tarom, Romania’s national airline, has daily flights from Bucharest to both Sibiu and Cluj-Napoca. Prices are quite affordable, and usually include generous baggage allowance.
Bucharest to Transylvania – By Train or Bus
Most of the large and medium cities in Translyvania are connected to Bucharest by either train, bus, or both. There’s daily services to Brasov, Cluj-Napoca, Sebes, Sibiu, and Sighisoara. Services are generally reliable and inexpensive, though times and prices can vary. Be sure to check the official train website and the official bus website for the latest timetable.
Bucharest to Transylvania – By Car
For exploring some of the remote Fortified Churches listed above, it’s probably best to hire a car. All of the major international chains operate in Romania, and prices are quite good. It’s an excellent way to get out and see the countryside, and experience the real Romania away from touristy areas.
However, the road infrastructure in many parts of the country isn’t great. Roads can be in quite poor condition, or completely unpaved. Locals often treat road rules as vague suggestions, and horse-drawn carts are very common in rural areas. Drive defensively, and be very careful!
We hope you enjoyed our guide to the Romania Fortified Churches! If you’re interested in other religious history, why not check out our guide to Martin Luther World Heritage Sites? These Transylvania Churches are also not far from the World Heritage Sites of Eastern Czechia.