Eastern Europe has not yet been discovered by American visitors. Romania's Sighisoara is one of the best-preserved medieval hilltop towns and it's still inhabited.
Photography by the authors
The Bucharest train station bustles with activity.
Our English-speaking guide has suggested we meet at the ticket booth and once we buy our tickets she leads us, like children, to the correct gate and even into the train and into the compartment! She talks in emphatic Romanian to the few travelers sitting there, apparently, asking them to tell us when it’s our destination. We protest we really don’t need to impose on her this much. She smiles.
“If you haven’t made this train trip you do need those people to help, and warn you, for instance, when your destination is coming up,” she says.
Our guide accepts our thanks and says goodbye. We nod to the others. They give us toothy smiles. The train moves out.
The countryside passes by. A woman gathering firewood by the train tracks. A couple in a cart seen as the train crosses a roadway. A farmer behind a horse-drawn plough. A man riding a bicycle across an endless field.
We fall asleep.
An announcement from overhead “Sighisoara!” wakens us. It wakens the others, also. They grin at us and go back to sleep. We grab our bags and hurry down the corridor. Just as we bend to open the door the train starts to accelerate.
“Jump!” one of us shrieks. “No way!” screams the other.
The platform whizzes by.
Now the train is heading west into the wilds of Wallachia. If the train doesn’t stop we’ll end up in Transylvania. We wish geography had been a stronger influence for us in school.
When the train finally stops, we stumble out. As we look around we feel like characters in the movie Deliverance. The sign says Dumbraveni. Our cell phone isn’t working, but we notice a young woman in a dark suit with an attaché case ... and a phone!
We have a bar of chocolate. Trade? A few moments later she’s munching Lindt chocolate and we’re talking to Adam Marius our B&B landlord, who, though perplexed, is still waiting for us at the station as he had promised. The next train takes us back. Adam is still waiting, bless his heart.
He takes us to his B&B Pensiunea Lia Sighisoara at Number 6 Strada Tamplaritor. It still doesn’t have its own website today, but it has great comfortable rooms for less than $30 a night (I think we paid $22). Adam’s sweet, dear mother still seems to just hang around (in our case, late in the day) in case she might cook for us.
While contrasting between an unexpected railway station in the boonies and the charm of Sighisoara, Adam pours us a glass of Vampire wine. Rooms are simple but comfortable.
As the internet expands, websites become easier to use and more accurate. Some in Romania are still a bit clunky, but now they show many hotels and B&Bs in Sighisoara. The town is such a thrill, yet so relatively unvisited by Americans that we feel obliged to suggest our readers take a trip there.
Adam’s B&B where we stayed is within the walled city. Everything is walkable.
Sighisoara lies slap in the middle of Transylvania, a historical region of Romania.
Romania is a country that is separated from Serbia and Bulgaria to the south by the River Danube. On the north and a small part of the southeast is Ukraine; Moldova is east; and to the southeast, just below part of Ukraine’s border, lays the Black Sea, on the shores of which sits the historical region of Dobrogea, the land of the Danube Delta (part of which is a vast UNESCO wildlife reserve).
We have added a red dot to Bucharest and Sighisoara, and a blue dot on the Danube, just above Bulgaria, bottom right. And, always, loom the mountains to the north.
Most importantly Romania’s western border is Hungary. Later Hungary was an Imperial power, but 900 years ago it was a country whose ruler, King Geza II, was concerned about Mongolian enemies to his East. He thought to use Romania as a buffer state to protect his flank and in the middle of the 12th century (he reigned from 1141 to 1162) he encouraged German workers and guild members to colonize Transylvania. Some were miners from Saxony so the colonists ultimately became known as the Transylvania Saxons.
The Saxons spread across this part of central Europe creating 7 hilltop citadels, of which three in Transylvania are thought to be the best-preserved medieval hill towns in Europe. One is Sighisoara, now a UNESCO World Heritage Centre. A Saxon settlement was documented in Sighisoara in 1191.
Sighisoara is one of the few European hilltop cities still inhabited and during our visit we saw more locals than tourists. The town somehow escaped destruction during the communist era and, fortunately, subsequent crass commercialization has been avoided.
The blend of architectural styles is delightful.
Some of the colors in the Main Square are kindergarten bright. The colors make you look up, a reminder that people are delightful, too.
We have stood in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museum where mobs of tourists destroyed its charm. We have been trampled in French railway stations by similar masses and almost knocked over by belligerent cyclists in Amsterdam as we crossed their bicycling lanes. And we’ve each suffered pickpocketing: one in Belgium and the other in Italy.
You see locals everywhere: dragging their bikes up interminable stairs. Hurrying along centuries-old cobblestone streets, unaware that Americans sometimes call those “physical therapy for the feet.” And, in the few shops in the lower part of town, you see them fastidiously sweeping the sidewalk in front of their shops, to give them an edge in business.
But those incidents were less to do with national characteristics and more to do with the explosion of what every country wants: “the clean industry,” tourism. And crowds.
Rural Romania and Eastern Europe have not yet been discovered by American visitors. Today’s American cheerfully monolingual travelers need to buy good guide and phrase books, decent maps, see if their smart phone has a translation app, and, maybe, explore the Rail Europe website. That’s work, of course!
The reward is meeting a gracious welcoming people and, if you avoid midsummer, enjoying a relatively uncrowded vacation in lands where everything looks so different.
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.