The Towers of Sighisoara, Romania

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In Sighisoara, the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, or Vlad Dracula, the 14 towers built centuries ago tell the history of Europe's hilltop towns and the monopoly of the guilds.

Photography by the authors

We talked about the Transylvania Saxons last week. How they were sent East about the year 1150 by the king of Hungary to protect his flank from barbarian tribes, and how his colonists erected 7 citadels across the land, creating the greatest collection of fortified hill towns across Eastern Europe.

The continent was constantly at war. Danger lurked everywhere, outside and from within. It’s quite edifying and somewhat depressing to read about the continent’s monarchs and note how few died of natural causes in bed. Kings were killed in battle, or poisoned by wives or executed by relatives (even sons) or guillotined in Paris by commoners or thrown out of high windows often enough in Prague that they had a delightful Latin name for it: defenestration.

The colonists worked with enthusiasm funded originally by the king. They represented laborers, miners and many, many guild tradesmen. Towers rose up as they did in every important European town of this period.

The 15 guilds in Sighisoara put up 14 towers of which 9 have survived. The towers were still not enough to protect against raiders. The churches themselves were fortified. The Dominicans came and in 1289 made their monastery here their seat.

Each tower is different because none was made by the same guild. The buildings stood about 50 feet tall and many feet thick. They contrasted with the simplicity of the town’s church interiors. The tower at top is the Rope Makers’ Tower.

The guilds were financially secure: they had a favored position in the country with generous tax benefits plus the monopoly all the guilds had across Europe. They could afford to build big.

A guide book helps to identify which guild erected any particular tower. The plaques identifying the guild are in Romanian without English translation, a reflection perhaps on how charmingly unprepared the country is for world tourism.

The towers, an integral part of Sighisoara for tourists and photographers, might be even more interesting to social anthropologists. What a perfect way to understand the cultures of the Middle Ages. Other towers erected and named for their guilds are: the Tinsmiths’ Tower, the Blacksmiths’ Tower, the Tanners’ Tower, the Coopers’ and the Locksmiths’ Towers.

Top Row Left: The Butchers’ Tower, Turnul Macelarilor, was incorporated in the town wall itself.

Top Row Right and Row 2: The Furriers’ Tower, Turnul Cojocarilor, defended the west wall’s Torl gate, through which the town’s cattle herds were brought to safety each night.

Row 3: The Tailors’ Tower, Turnul Croitorilor, was partly destroyed by a fire in 1676 when the town’s gunpowder reserves exploded.

Row 4 Left: The Cobblers’ Tower, Turnul Cizmarilor, was built in the mid-1500s and rebuilt in 1650.

Row 4 Right: The celebrated Clock Tower, Turnul cu Ceas, was erected by the city council in the late 1300s. The 1676 fire damaged it, too, but Austrian artists rebuilt its ornate baroque roof.

The history of the Shoemakers’ Tower is somewhat typical. Built in 1521, it was rebuilt and strengthened in 1603, damaged in 1606 and rebuilt in 1650, burned in the fire of 1676 and rebuilt in 1681. Some towers were never repaired such as the Fishermans’ Tower outside town, the Weavers’ Tower, whose stones were used for street paving, and the Goldsmiths’ Tower, which ultimately became a cemetery.

The architecture in town varies from solid homes that survived the passage of time to the 17th century elegance of the “Transylvanian Renaissance style of Casa cu Cerb.” Bottom right is the “Stag House” (notice high up a stag’s head straddling two corner walls).

The Clock Tower is the signature image of Sighisoara. It is visible from anywhere in the town center. Visitors will not finding their way to it a problem.

The Clock Tower is also the main tourist attraction. Visitors can get a panoramic view of the town’s terra-cotta roofs from its wooden balcony or a glimpse of history in the museum below. On display are tin mugs from the 17th and 18th century, and surgical textbooks and obstetrical instruments from a similar era. A weapons display and a torture room complete the museum collections.

Everyone sticks a head into the clock interior to see how this 17th century device works. The figures, carved from linden wood, are rotated by the clock’s mechanism. They represent different characters: Justice supporting a set of scales, Law wielding a sword. Peace holding an olive branch and so on. An angel symbolizing the start of the day appears at 6 am and at 6 pm another angel appears with two candles for the start of night!

Yes, it’s a bit of a hike to get up to the top of the tower, but you’ll be walking uphill a bit in this hilltop town that spreads over 3 square miles. The elevation is said to be 1,140 feet, but it’s hard to know if that’s at the bottom of the hill or the top. And you’ll be walking, too, if you decide to visit the Church on the Hill.

The covered wooden staircase, known as the Scholars’ Stairs, (originally with 300 steps, then reduced to 175) were built in 1642 to connect the main square with the school at the top and the Church on the Hill. People particularly appreciated the stairs in winter.

Construction for the Church on the Hill began in 1345 and was finished in 1525. It took 180 years to build—they must have had trade unions then, too! The church was placed on a former Roman basilica.

Roman presence isn’t really a surprise. This hill has been inhabited since the 6th century BC. The church cemetery shows its age.

It’s an easy walk down the covered stairs to the main square and sit with a coffee surrounded by the colorful homes, each different. Even as evening approaches no one is in a hurry. Why would they? What was there to hurry for in the Middle Ages?

Tourists walking along historic cobbled streets learn to look around, look up, and, especially, look down. Sometimes a bonus is you catch an eye and get a cheerful wave or a smile. And sometimes you can hear a story with impromptu sign language.

There’s so much to see in a small town, even one as small as Sighisoara with a population of about 33,000. It’s all so captivating with its window ledges bursting with flowers and even its reflections in windows that it’s easy to forget why we came—but when we walk past the Church of the Dominican Monastery we suddenly come face to face with a statue of the prince who was born here: Vlad Tepes, who ruled Wallachia until the year 1473.

He was also called Vlad the Impaler, but, named after his father, his other name was Vlad Dracula, and his life makes quite a story.

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.