Brașov: Medieval heritage and gateway to mountain resorts

Founded by Teutonic knights at the beginning of the 13th century, until the 18th century Brașov was still predominantly inhabited by Transylvanian Saxons – a heritage that gives the city its distinctively German feel.

Through the ring of communist blocks, at the heart of the city lies the old town, framed by the steep slopes of the surrounding valley. At its end soars the 65 meter high tower of the so called Black Church, which got its name after a devastating fire swept across the town in 1689 leaving it with soot-blackened walls. The largest Gothic church in Romania, it was built between 1385 and 1477; after several renovations the interior became mostly baroque. The large collection of Turkish carpets inside the church give an impression of just how close the connections between Transylvania and the orient have been over the centuries.

A walk up the pedestrian precinct Republicii Boulevard reveals shop after shop, numerous cafés and restaurants, usually with plenty of inhabitants and tourists. A little further on is the fan-shaped Town Hall Square (Piața Sfatului), a wide space with the Town Hall in its middle, lined with red-roofed merchant houses. The building dates from 1420 and for centuries hosted the Saxon town council. The Town Hall hosts the city’s tourist office, which provides plenty of information about accommodation, sights and events.

Visible from some places at the city’s entrance and unmissable from the center is the town name in Hollywood-style lettering, high above the city’s roofs atop the forested peak to the east. The mountain is called Pinnacle (Tâmpa), and is 955 meters high. There is a funicular (cable car) on Aleea Brediceanu, which is also the starting point for a marked footpath up to the top.

Through the Șchei gate, situated some 300 meters behind the Black Church, is the traditional Romanian district. Up until the 17th century Romanians were not allowed to acquire property within the city walls, which was a privilege of the Saxon population. Thus, Romanians settled in areas outside the fortifications, such as the Șchei District, which is one of the oldest. Here houses are smaller, huddling together, streets are narrower. In the midst of this quarter at Unity Square (Piața Unirii) stands a pretty Orthodox church, and alongside, the oldest Romanian school.

At the end of the narrow valley a forest road leads through the woods to the Poiana Brașov ski resort, 12 kilometers outside the city. It is accessible by car via Stejărișului St. or from the small town Râșnov. Eight ski-slopes are available ranging from 300 meters to three kilometers in length. Brașov’s surrounding regions also offer some interesting places. Pretty much everyone has heard of Bran Castle, the legendary home of Count Dracula. Let’s get rid of this myth. Since Bram Stoker’s novel was published well over one hundred years ago, Western tourists have come searching for the vampire’s castle. At some point, somebody decided to sell them Bran was the one. Anyway, the castle looks nice, but actually was built by the Brașovians to control a toll collection point. Yes, there are stories that Vlad the Impaler, the historical Wallachian prince who inspired at least in part the Dracula legend, stayed a night or two here, but it was definitely not his castle. In the case of Vlad Tepeș (Vlad the Impaler) there are definitely more authentic places.

Still, the castle lies at the edge of the Bucegi Massive. A recommendable natural site is the National Park of King’s Rock (Piatra Craiului). Lying along the 25 kilometer long limestone ridge are a number of peaks, the 2,244 meter Piscul Baciului being the highest. The area is a hideaway for rare plants and animals, among them wolves and bears – a paradise for nature lovers and hiking fanatics.

You must not miss the fortified church of Prejmer. The monolithic white colossus dominates the wide square of the village that is about 15 kilometers outside of Brașov. Ten meter high walls repelled the enemies that came, which was often bad luck for the inhabitants across the mountains. The village was sacked more than 50 times over the centuries, but the holy fortress resisted. In 1999 UNESCO put it on their world heritage list. Any of the former Saxon villages in this region has its fortified church, as you will see if you drive through the country; in contrast the peasant fortresses are a rarity.

By Holger Wermke

Holger Wermke is a native German who has been living in Sibiu for three years, where he is a journalist for the Allgemeine Deutsche Zeitung für Rumänien, a German-language newspaper. He also founded pluspole, an agency for communication and marketing.