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Sarah Wigglesworth: Postcard from Transylvania

Sarah Wigglesworth

Sarah Wigglesworth’s trip to Transylvania launches this summer’s collection of news and impressions from architects on their holiday period travels

Saxon village street scene with fortified church.
Saxon village street scene with fortified church. Credit: Sarah Wigglesworth

Our desire to visit Transylvania was stimulated through film, in particular, by Agniewska Holland’s Spoor. Spanning the Apuseni Mountains to the west, and encircled by the Carpathians, this place of beautiful landscapes is at the crossroads between Europe and the Middle East, and is consequently rich in varied cultural influences.

While its cities are modernising and its economy has flourished in the aftermath of the Communist era, many rural areas still practise farming in the old manner, with an organic, mixed agricultural base.

Walking the long distance Via Transilvanica, distinguished by orange Ts’s inside a circle (see image below, right), you can smell the aromas, observe the widest variety of butterflies and insects and hear the song of myriad birds we no longer witness in Britain.

Voronet painted church. Credit: Sarah Wigglesworth
Desesti Paraschiva church. Credit: Sarah Wigglesworth

Bordering Ukraine in the north, the prevailing churches are Orthodox Christian, and every surface is decorated inside and out with cartoons of Biblical stories. Masonry monasteries are cloistered by high walls with lookout towers.

In the north-west, closer to Hungary, the architecture is wooden but no less highly decorative. Even the smaller, village churches are painted inside. Above right, carpenters are shown in great detail building the cross that will end Jesus’s life.

These people know about wood working, as the forests thereabouts are the source of many crafts and food. Warnings about bears proliferate! Churchyards are also left to grow as meadows (below left).

Barsan wooden church. Credit: Sarah Wigglesworth
Via Transilvanica view across meadow. Credit: Sarah Wigglesworth

In central Transylvania, Saxon farmers were invited to establish communities in the 15th century and here German is still spoken. They built villages, practising crop rotation, and they were self-sufficient, making everything at home. Subject to repeated Ottoman raids, communities established the fortified church, one of which you see here above a village. When threatened, people retreated into the compound where food was laid aside, schools set up and temporary accommodation was provided in the thickness of the surrounding walls (below 1/ 2).

The Saxon town of Sibiu (below 2/ 2) is one of the best preserved in the region, and hosts a dozen cultural festivals a year. Being eco-conscious, we tried to get to Transylvania by train. Our journey was sabotaged twice, once by Austrian Railways and then by Romania’s national rail network. This is a pity, since overnight trains are fun. It is possible, however, to fly direct from Luton.

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  • Prejmer fortified church.
    Prejmer fortified church. Credit: Sarah Wigglesworth
  • Saxon town of Sibiu.
    Saxon town of Sibiu. Credit: Sarah Wigglesworth