The Saxon Churches of Transylvania
Fortified churches were the norm in medieval Europe, with the architectural form reaching its apotheosis in Transylvania under Saxon architects. Although there are scores of Saxon villages, many of which are worthy of a visit, Biertan (Birthälm) is home to one of the finest and largest of the Saxon churches. Situated within sylvan surroundings -- low hills carpeted with orchards and vineyards -- this UNESCO-listed church was built in the late-Gothic style during the first part of the 16th century; the village itself dates from 1283. The church occupies a hill in the center of town, its solid periphery walls and four watchtowers a reminder of how these religious buildings served a dual function as places of worship and defense against marauding enemies. At the foot of the hill, walls and archways and towers mark out further protective fortifications. A covered stairway allows access to the church, most of which is made of brick, plastered and painted throughout; 20th-century restoration work has revealed frescoes that have been partially restored. The stone pulpit, probably carved by a Brasovian named Ullricus, suggests a transition between Gothic and Renaissance periods. Between 1572 and 1867, Biertan was the residence of Transylvania's evangelical bishops, many of whose tombstones can be found inside the church. Biertan comes to life once a year in September when it plays host to a Saxon reunion, drawing a festive crowd of Transylvanian-born Germans.
The most convenient way to get to Biertan -- or any of the Saxon villages -- is on a guided tour with a knowledgeable expert; make arrangements through Sighisoara's Cultural Heritage Info Center, Str. Muzeului 6 (tel. 0788-115-511), or contact Peter Suciu (tel. 0721-245-195) of the new guiding organization Wunderlust directly. You'll spend a day traveling to three or four different villages (definitely request that Malâncrav is included in your itinerary). Expect to pay around 30€ ($38) per person.
Hiking & Climbing in the Fagaras Mountains
Between Brasov and Sibiu lie the lovely Fagaras Mountains, a popular Carpathian hiking region, studded with glacial lakes and soaring peaks. Reachable during peak summer months from Wallachia along the high-altitude Transfagarasan Highway, there are other, less daunting routes accessed via Hwy. 1, running between Brasov and Sibiu. The region has plenty of overnight "cabanas," making the massif well suited to independent hikers. The main towns in the region are Fagaras and Victoria, the latter the principal starting point for most hikers; it's just 10km (6 1/4 miles) south of the highway. There are great hikes toward Mount Moldeveanu (Romania's highest point at 2,543m/8,341 ft.), which is popular with climbers who can settle in for the night at Cabana Podragu. About 10km (6 1/4 miles) east of Victoria is the 17th-century Brâncoveanu Monastery; from the monastery, you can hike south, more or less along the Sâmbata River, to reach Cabana Valea Sambetei (tel. 0269/31-5756).
From Cabana Bâlea Cascada, there's a cable car to take you up 1,968m (6,560 ft.), where you can explore glacial Lake Balea, where Villa Paltinul (tel. 269-524277; www.balea-lac.ro), once a small hunting lodge for Nicolae Ceausescu, is a convenient stopover for hikers; try to book the main bedroom. From the lake, you can also follow a trail to Negoiu Peak, the region's second-highest mountain.
Bear in mind that hiking in the Fagaras Mountains can be challenging and technically difficult; you'll need to set aside several days to them justice. If you're looking for easier -- although no less beautiful -- hiking opportunities, make inquiries in Sibiu, and then head off (preferably by car; there are two daily buses, however) to the chair lift at Paltinis (32km/20 miles away); from here there are seven different waymarked trails through shockingly lovely forested mountainside. The longest route follows a 12km (7 1/2-mile) path that takes you Cindrel, where you'll discover glacial lakes and blissful peace and quiet. It's possible to get there and back in a single day; set off early, though, as the walk alone should take roughly 10 hours. The shortest walk from Paltinis takes about 2 hours.
En Route to Maramures -- There's a long stretch between southern Transylvania and the northern frontier region of Maramures; consider cutting the journey by stopping in Transylvania's capital city, Cluj-Napoca. A smart university town believed to be the most expensive place in the country to live, it's a cosmopolitan place, best measured by the popularity of its cafe culture; grab a seat at a venue around Piata Unirii and you'll find the place filled with supercool posers wearing D&G apparel and tearing around in sports cars, their faces hidden behind massive sunglasses. The best place to stay is Déjà Vu, Str. Ion Ghica 2, Cluj-Napoca (tel./fax 0264/35-4941/61; www.deja-vu.ro; 67€-95€/$85-$121 double with breakfast), a great little Art Nouveau-style hotel in a quiet residential neighborhood near the historical center. The restaurant here is one of the best in town, and the staff extremely helpful.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.