Braşov: Medieval heritage and gateway to mountain resorts

By Holger Wermke and Anca Ganscă

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.
Before  having  a  closer  look  at  this  landmark,  stroll around the lively old town’s streets. 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  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 Schei 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 Schei 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 Braşov 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. Braşov’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 Braşovians 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 Tepeş (Vlad the Impaler) there are definitely more au- thentic 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.  Some 50 kilometers  west  of  Braşov  is another  gorgeous  hiking challenge – a trail up to 10 days long along the ridge of the Făgăraș Mountains.
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 Braşov. 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.