Our guide Colin approached the window of a traditional Saxon house in the village of Viscri, Romania. Slowly an elderly woman's head emerged, adorned in a traditional colored scarf tied just below her chin. They bantered back and forth in Romanian,and I stood in the background wondering what was going on. Five minutes earlier in the Land Rover as we were bumping over some authentic Romanian rural infrastructure, Colin had informed us of a surprise.
"I won't tell you what it is. It depends on if my contact is home. It could be a good surprise or an incredible surprise, but we won't know til we get there."
My eyes widened. I love surprises. I hate suspense.
The conversation between Colin and the elderly woman continued for a few moments, and I shivered as the light snow fell and the temperature dropped. An hour or two til sunset. The woman disappeared, and I turned to head back to the Land Rover, assuming our job here (whatever that may have been) was done.
"Wait!" Colin said. I turned. I waited.
The covered head reemerged out the front window holding the biggest wad of keys I had ever seen and handed them to Colin with special care to one gargantuan key. It looked as if it opened a medieval dungeon!
"Dayna, you are the key holder while I drive us. Don't lose track of that specific key or we'll spend hours looking for it later."
I gingerly took the ball of keys, wondering how in the world an old woman could keep track of what exactly these dozens of keys opened! That would be a full-time job in itself. We wound our way through dirt streets in the village, passing turkeys, chickens and other livestock on the way. The Land Rover pulled to a stop beside a low wall with a single gate, presumably protecting the church at the hilltop, barely visible through the trees. I inwardly scoffed at this meager defense, having become well acquainted with huge, impressive fortified churches throughout Transylvania the week before.
Regardless, I was still happy holding the keys. It made me feel important.
We meandered up a stone path through thick trees, and at the top of the hill, the view literally stopped me in my tracks. The fortress loomed across a small field, looking ominous and intimidating. That tiny wall at the bottom of the hill was probably just to get invaders' hopes up; I imagine that when they reached the view from where I was standing, most would have wet their pants.
"THIS is what I am holding the keys to?!"
I was ecstatic already, and I knew nothing about it.
It turns out Viscri's Fortified Church is arguably the best preserved in all of Transylvania. In 1993, UNESCO added it as a World Heritage Site, and it deserves the title. As all fortified churches, it arose from necessity. The settlers in this swath of land were of Saxon descent, meaning of German ethnicity. Around 1000 AD, the Hungarian King Geza II intentionally began colonizing this area with immigrants from Germany, promising them fertile land and high status in then-Hungarian society. It sounds like a great deal! What the settlers didn't know ended up hurting them. King Geza II strategically placed them along the mountains in the south of Transylvania to provide a buffer when the Mongols attacked, slowing down their progress while conquering the region.
The result of this? Villagers were slaughtered. In an effort to protect themselves, communities began to center around their churches for not only spiritual guidance but also their very lives. Across Transylvania, they turned their simple peasant churches into the centerpieces of fortresses. In times of war, the entire village could find refuge within the walls. Today, hundreds of Saxon fortifications still stand, though many are in disrepair.
Viscri is not.
The church today is rarely used for services; most Saxons today have moved back to Germany to claim their citizenship, and villages are dwindling and sometimes abandoned. There is no longer need for a clergy that speaks German.
This medieval church was ours alone to explore, if only for one day. We began in the courtyard.
Colin explained the two monuments with names inscribed - one represents villagers who lost their lives in World War I, the other World War II.
Once inside the church itself, we found hidden hallways, rooms that were never completed, and trap doors leading to the pipe organ.
I found the pews from the 1700's charming in a rustic, worn way.
In one moment when I was particularly overwhelmed trying to take in every curve of the architecture, Colin came to stand beside us.
"Are you afraid of heights?"
For the second time that day, my eyes grew wide.
"Uh... sometimes?" (True statement, it's always a toss-up.)
After he explained that some with this particular phobia may not enjoy what was coming next, I swallowed and told him we would follow. Colin led us through a dark stone hallway, up a narrow staircase with no light, into a room filled with precarious makeshift 'floors' held together with rickety ladders. I looked upward. It was at least four stories high. We were going up to the heart of Viscri's tallest tower.
It was worth it.
The view from the top was blissful. The snow falling was a light powder, and it made the moment that much more surreal, looking out at the village and the Transylvanian countryside. We lingered for twenty minutes, creaking our way around the tower to get every angle possible.
Night was creeping in, and we had to go. I tried to soak in everything, and snapped one last shot as we left. It was one of the most memorable days of my life.
My take on visiting Romania? Forget Bran Castle (the one that people associate with Dracula for no reason). Head to Viscri's Fortified Church.
Have you been to Romania? Tell us about it!