Cycling the Medieval Fortified Churches of Transylvania
One of the three historical provinces of Romania, Transylvania features a vast tableland dominated by undulating hills covered with orchards, vineyards, and huge untouched forests. In this picturesque scenery, countless fortified churches tucked away in side valleys create a unique architectural style present only in this part of Europe. A fast way to visit a few accessible key sights requires only a car, but you will get a better understanding of the region’s history and traditions if you cycle between villages. Here’s why you should cycle to the fortified churches in Transylvania.
There’s more to Transylvania than Dracula.
Vlad III, better known as Vlad the Impaler, may have been the inspiration for the fictitious Dracula character, but Transylvania has an intriguing history that goes well beyond a bloodthirsty 15th-century prince. The region has always been at the crossroads of various ethnic groups and nations. Eight hundred years ago, the Hungarian King Géza II invited Saxon settlers to populate the southeastern part of Transylvania for religious, economic, and defensive matters.
The newcomers built around 300 settlements — the most important of which later developed into cities — each one centered around a church gradually fortified with tenable, high walls and defense towers. In some regions, Saxon villages with fortified churches alternate with Romanian shepherds villages and create a unique cultural mix.
If you cycle through the countryside surrounding the medieval city of Sibiu, you’ll discover a diverse scenery punctuated by both defense towers of the fortified churches and scattered shepherds settlements at the foot of the mountains. The region is called Mărginimea Sibiului, which means “At the margins of Sibiu.” You can explore Cristian, Orlat, and Sibiel villages, key stops in this region, as a cycling day trip from Sibiu.
You can choose from a wide range of routes.
Nowadays, over 160 Germanic Saxon villages with fortified churches still exist in the southeastern part of Transylvania. With so many churches to choose from, you can create your own unique cycling route. Likewise, if you have already been in the region, you can easily explore alternative routes and discover new places.
In terms of planning, you can set your base camp in one of the big cities where German settlers lived hundreds of years ago — like Mediaș, Sighișoara, Sibiu, or Brașov. From there, you can cycle on different day trips throughout the surrounding countryside. Or you can embark on a longer cycling trip of two, three, or even seven days and stay overnight in lesser-known, more remote villages.
One of the popular routes crosses the Transylvanian tableland from Sighișoara to Sibiu, following asphalt roads and passing hidden peaceful settlements such as Bârghiș, Pelișor, or Richiș. As an alternative, from Richiș you can pick a more demanding dirt track that crosses the forests surrounding Alma Vii village; once you reach Metiș village, continue towards Sibiu on an asphalt road passing the villages of Alțâna and Nocrich.
Routes are suited for pleasant cycling.
Transylvania’s terrain alternates between gentle valleys and hills filled with a dense system of villages and hamlets. When the Habsburg Empire ruled over Transylvania in the 18th century, numberless roads were constructed to connect all the Saxon villages. Away from heavy traffic, many of these roads have remained unpaved and create an ideal network for cycling enthusiasts, with pleasant and easy ups and downs. Only in some rare cases, you might have to push the bike uphill for a few hundred meters — but the views you have along these routes will eventually compensate your efforts.
A few old roads have been opened as official cycling trails, as is the case with the Viscri Cycling Trail. In many other cases, all you have to do is to follow tarmac or dirt roads between villages. Unless you download GPS tracks from specialized sites, roads connecting neighboring villages usually follow the course of the valleys or they climb up to a pass from where you can see and descend to the next village. Locals don’t usually speak English, but if you show them the name of the village you want to go to, they’ll point you in the right direction.
Discover remote sites and have them to yourself.
Sheltered by the high peaks of the Carpathian Mountains, Transylvania has a unique geographical position. Each valley and settlement is in a captivating setting. Pedaling between the bigger Saxon villages, you will inevitably pass smaller, hidden ones. In more remote and isolated settlements, you may discover well-preserved frescoes inside ancient fortified churches or old gigantic bells in mighty defense towers.
Depending on the route you choose, expect to be the only visitors in the area. Many of the fortified churches are fairly remote and difficult to reach even by car, so fewer cyclists will set off to explore this totally unspoiled countryside.
Photography enthusiasts won’t be disappointed either. Transylvania’s varied scenery features arresting views at every turn, so no matter which village you choose to go to, the setting will be unique and absorbing. Add extra time for shutting sessions, especially at dawn and dusk, and climb the churches’ towers for expansive views.
Stay with locals and maybe milk a cow.
Tourism infrastructure in the region includes only traditional homestays and, in some cases, guest rooms refurbished in the parish house next to the church. Several community projects have started during the past decade, and local people are now welcoming visitors to their houses. In Apold or Pelișor villages, small NGOs manage the process on the ground, but you can also book a few online in advance by searching “homestays” on sites like booking.com (less charming for sure, but definitely more convenient). In these places, old houses have been rehabilitated to accommodate guests, but expect small rooms and shared bathrooms.
Even though locals don’t typically speak English, body language can get you a long way in communicating. Staying in these houses, you will witness the slow pace of the local lifestyle, how people work in the village and the household, and maybe you will even milk the cow in the evening. Show to them that you are curious and you might get more authentic experiences than you could have hoped for.
Eat traditional Saxon dishes.
There are no restaurants in most of the Saxon settlements, so during the day, you will have to buy and eat cold food from the only shop available in the center of a village. But in the evenings, staying in homestays comes with traditional meals included in the price of the room. Locals will cook a lot of dishes for their guests, maybe more than you can eat. Try potato dumplings called knodel, sausages, or liverwurst, and don’t miss the traditional Saxon cake called hencleș.
If you are cycling during the weekend, many local communities organize brunches in the center of the village or the courtyard of a traditional household. Stop and take part in these locals events. It will add a genuine dimension to your experience in Transylvania, one completely different from that of most tourists.
And don’t forget to listen to a true organ concert.
Even though the majority of the fortified churches feature medieval architecture, their current furniture, altars, and organs date back to the Baroque period — also known as the “Golden Age” of the organs. Many organs have been restored, and organ concerts take place regularly in the churches, especially during the weekends in the summer months.
If you are not so fortunate to visit the fortified churches during a concert, ask the key-keeper or the administrator of the church if they can play a sample for you. For example, the church in Dupuș is pretty small, but the sound of its organ will hypnotize you. The acoustics inside the fortified churches are incredible, and you’ll remember them always.