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New Europe

Day Sixty: Sighisoara, Transylvania

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The skyline of Sighisoara, the Saxon town in the heart of Romania.
Michael Palin - New EuropeThe night sounds of Sighisoara are surprisingly soothing. As I lie in my superior garret at the Casa Cu Cerb, 'the House with Stag', the clock on the massive medieval clock tower strikes, with great restraint, every quarter, and every now and then celebrates the top of the hour with a rolling peal of bells, none of which intrudes, but rather enhances the atmosphere of this handsome little town, a day's drive from the northern borders.

The hotel, which numbers Prince Charles among its previous guests, looks out over a pretty cobbled square of painted houses with peeling stucco and tiled roofs with curving eyebrow windows set into them. It looks like a background to a Grimms' fairy tale. This isn't as fanciful as it sounds because Sighisoara was once one of the Siebenbürgen, seven towns fortified by Saxons from southern Germany in the thirteenth century.

Rudi Fischer, mentor of the great European traveller Patrick Leigh Fermor, described the Carpathians as 'the end of Europe, and the beginning of the Near East'. As it is now, so it was then. The Magyars, terrified of the Tartars streaming in from the heart of Asia (as they themselves had done), gave the Saxons this corner of Transylvania to defend, and here they remained until the end of the twentieth century. They certainly took their task of fortifying seriously. Having organised themselves into guilds, each guild was charged with providing money for a tower. In a period of 200 years, sixteen towers were raised, of solid stone with red turreted roofs. The remains of nine can still be seen, including those of the Ropemakers, Butchers, Furriers, Shoemakers, Tinsmiths and Tailors.

My guide to Sighisoara, or Schassburg as the Saxons called it, or Castrum Sex as the Romans called it, or Segesvár as the Hungarians called it, is Ioana, and she has a cold. Swathed in sweaters, a green and red velvet coat and a voluminous knitted scarf, she does her best to show me the town in which she grew up.

I ask her how she remembered it.

'It was a place to play. Play with my friends. I was a princess here. I used to walk around in my grandmother's underwear and high-heel shoes.'

It must have been a wonderful stage set for a young girl with a vivid imagination. The Old Town, or Citadel, is a mouth-watering collection of medieval, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century buildings. One of the finest is not a house but a covered stairway, the Scholars' Stairs, built to protect students climbing up from the lower town to the school. The broad stone steps are laid out in flights of six, corresponding to the days of the week, and the seventh step, as befits Sunday, the day of rest, is a landing. Ingenious and effective and, as people have been climbing up here for 380 years, pretty sturdy too.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Sixty: Sighisoara, Transylvania
  • Country/sea: Romania
  • Place: Sighişoara
  • Book page no: 142

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