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The Best UNESCO Sites of Romania

The Best UNESCO Sites of Romania

As a tour guide, I can say that during my tours of Romania, I’ve noticed that the word “UNESCO” captures the attention of my tourists every time I utter it. They seem to be interested in “UNESCO” sites all over the world. Perhaps few of you are aware that this organization was conceived during the Second World War as the allied countries were trying to reconstruct their educational system after the war. At the end of WWll , 37 countries signed the treaty which marked the foundation of this institution as we know it today. By the way, UNESCO stands for United Nations of Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

In 2012, 190 states were part of UNESCO, South Sudan and Palestine being the last members accepted. Romania joined UNESCO in 1956. However, only in 1991, was the Danube Delta accepted to become the first Romanian UNESCO site. In 1993, the Convent of Horezu and the remote Saxon villages with their stunning fortified churches were also accepted on the world wide heritage list. The year of 1999 was most prodigious for the Romanian UNESCO sites as 3 more were accepted as part of the heritage list. These are the Dacian fortresses of the Orăştie Mountains, the old town of Sighişoara, and the wooden churches of Maramureş. In total, there are 7 Romanian UNESCO sites found in 32 different locations. Transylvania, Maramureş and Bucovina each have 8 UNESCO locations. There is another site in Wallachia (Tara Românească ), and one in Dobruja (Dobrogea). Out of 32 UNESCO locations, only the Danube Delta is a natural reservation, all other being anthropic sites.

It would be ideal, however almost impossible, to visit all these historic sites during one tour of Romania. Therefore, I will try to let you know which are Romania’s most important UNESCO sites. The following presentation is based on my opinion as a licensed tour guide and includes my tourist’s most memorable impressions. Please feel free to recall on Romania’s UNESCO sites that you have visited and add your comments on our facebook page.

VISCRI

The southern part of Transylvania is definitely one of the most beautiful areas of Romania. It is here were the Germans built more than 800 years ago a stunning world. Unfortunately, their civilization came to a close because of the WWII and communist years. Out of 800000 Germans today there are around 35000 left only. Luckily, their heritage, a real testimony of the former Saxon civilization, survived even today.

The Saxons had been invited by the Hungarian kings to colonize Transylvania in the 12th and 13 centuries. They received many privileges in order to protect the borders against invaders, and in addition, to enclose the local Romanian population and to develop the economy of Transylvania. Initially, they founded 7 cities. Even till the present time, this area is known in German as Siebenburgen. Later on, additional towns were founded. Among them, the town of Viscri.

There are just two roads leading to Viscri, and both of them happen to be quite bad. Actually, I find this good, as these bad roads help preserve the medieval atmosphere of the village.  One of the two roads starts from the town of Buneşti.  In this little town, along the European road E81, you will see a road sign pointing to the UNESCO village of Viscri. As you are driving through Buneşti, you will be struck by the huge difference between the past and present. Today, the town is inhabited by many poor gypsies. Their shabby houses have nothing in common with once striving life of the Germans.

Continue to drive through the rolling hills of Transylvania and after 8km (5mi) you’ll reach the famous village of Viscri. There is no asphalt in Viscri, just 2-3 dirt roads, the main one being quite wide. It also serves as a thoroughfare for cows heading out to pasture. This road is lined on both sides with beautiful and unique houses, of Saxon-like style. They stand proud of their heritage, like immortal soldiers of the past, almost telling a medieval history. What further makes this forgotten world interesting is the sight of local women who have learned to crochet woollen socks, hats and slippers. The medieval atmosphere is broken just by two small capitalist convenience stores where you can purchase the ubiquitous chips or a bottle of Coca Cola.

Although the residents of this town are either old or poor families with many children, their houses are neat and recently renovated. The secret lies in the activity of the “Mihai Eminescu” Trust, which is under the royal patronage of HRH, The Prince of Whales. It is this trust that saved tens of old medieval churches and many other Saxon houses. In fact, Prince Charles is a great fan of Transylvania and the greatest promoter of rural tourism in Romania.

To all of this, add one of the oldest fortified churches of Transylvania. Located on a hill at the outskirts of the village, this 16th century fortified church stands tall and proud. Its thick walls and tall towers are reminders of the many invasions the Germans had to endure. The walls encircle a stunning Evangelical church built in 12th century by the Szekelys of Hungarian origins. As soon as you enter the church, you will be shrouded by a peaceful feeling. Sit down on a pew and admire the tall and simple nave of the church, the 19th century altarpiece, or the upper galleries where children and apprentices used to attend services.  Encircled by the silence of the church, you will come to realize that something is missing. The German people are missing. Today, they represent a small minority. Only about 25 of them still are inhabitants of the village. The Romani people form the majority and the rest are Romanians.

The simple but amazing local architecture, the almost medieval rural atmosphere, and the impressive fortified church, make this off the beaten track destination the best UNESCO site of Romania.

There are several little guest houses where you can overnight and eat. One of them belongs to Prince Charles of Wales. More details here.

THE DANUBE DELTA

The Danube River, the second longest European River after the Volga, changed both the history and geography of the continent of Europe. Napoleon used to call it “the king of all rivers”.

Known in the Romanian language as Dunărea, the Danube flows from Germany all the way through 10 countries – Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Republic Moldavia, Ukraine, and into the Black Sea. The Danube, like no other river in the world, flows through 4 capitals  -Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade.  The total length of the river measures 2860km (1777mi); In Romania, the Danube flows for 1075km (668mi).

The Danube River first divides into 2 branches, and the southern arm branch divides again in 2. The 3 branches are known, beginning from north to south, as Chilia, Sulina, and Saint George (Sfântul Gheorghe). These 3 branches form the last European sanctuary and the largest marshland of the same continent. It seems that the Danube Delta boasts the largest bed of reeds in the world. They act as a purifier, thus making the water drinkable. The total area of the Danube amounts to 58000ha (143321 acres). The entire area consists of lakes, virgin forests, natural or manmade channels, and a few human settlements. There is no other better European destination for bird watching, taking into consideration that the Danube Delta hosts more than 320 species of birds, such as pelicans, ibises, egrets, cormorants, etc. There are 45 species of fish, catfish and pike perch being the most common. The city of Tulcea is considered to be the gateway to the Danube Delta. It is here where during many tours of Romania, travelers stop before exploring the Delta in depth.

Excluding Tulcea, the population of the Danube Delta is less than 15,000 people. The main ethnic group of this area if formed by the Romanians, while the Lippovans represent the most important minority. Sulina is the only city of the Danube Delta, aside from Tulcea. It has a population of 3900 people (2012). Sulina  was once a prosperous free port. Other important settlements include Sfântu Gheorghe, Mila 23, Murighiol, Crişan, Maliuc, and Chilia Veche.

Besides the known facts, the Danube Delta also offers remote, wide beaches of fine sand.

SIGHIŞOARA

Located in the center of Romania, in the province of Transylvania, Sighişoara is a famous tourist destination, included in many tours of Romania. Founded by German colonists in the 12th-13th centuries, on the land of a once former Hungarian settlement, this medieval citadel became one of the most important German cities of Transylvania. With its medieval towers, walls, and cobblestone alleys, Sighişoara looks like a fairy tale town, a place where you can wonder about with never ending pleasure. And if you are tired after so much walking, have a seat in the old square and enjoy a local meal and a good unfiltered German beer. At the same time, imagine how life might have been like here some 200 years ago.

There are two major tourist attractions in Sighişoara. The first one is the Clock Tower transformed today into a museum of Transylvanian crafts. At the same time, it offers the best view in town. The second tourist attraction is the house of Vlad Dracul, the father of the infamous Dracula. It is said that Dracula was born in this very house. Have I told you that this house dates back to the beginning of the 18th century? By the way, Dracula lived just 250 years earlier. But who cares, let’s keep the legend alive.

While in Sighişoara, you can overnight in one of the many old buildings which had once belonged to famous nobles of the town. Today, they are small hotels with great character. Casa Cositorarului beside nice and comfortable rooms offers a great home-made breakfast.

ŞURDEŞTI

For the Romanians of Maramureş, an area located in the northern part of the country, faith in God played a central role, a way of maintaining their traditions while under the control of the Hungarians for so many centuries. It is here where the most beautiful churches of Romania were built. Even today, there are many of them. With tall, slender silhouettes, and with great attention paid to each and every detail, the wooden churches of Maramureş are famous all over the world, several of them being part of the UNESCO list.

The world of Maramureş, to this day, is quite different from the rest of the country. It is here, in these mountain villages, that the Romanians remained attached to their traditions, the costumes, and their faith in God. It is quite common, while you visit the wooden church of Şurdeşti on a Sunday morning, to see young girls dressed in the amazingly beautiful traditional costumes of Maramureş.

Once you have reached the little wooden gate entrance, you’ll be able to see the stunning slim silhouette of the church. The wooden church of Şurdeşti was built in 1721 by local masters. It is 54m (177ft) tall and made entirely of wood. This Greek-Catholic church has a roof made of shingle and an elegant porch.

The interior looks like a symphony dedicated to the local crafts. Woollen carpets cover the floor, while the pews, simple wooden benches, are covered by other woollen carpets as well. The original frescoes are framed by colourful embroideries. Frescoes still cover the entire interior of the church. They were painted in 1783 by local artists. The paintings and colourful embroideries at the altar immediately attract the attention of any visitor. Even the chandelier is made of wood.

The whole place, the wooden church with the little entrance gate, it’s little cemetery, the trees which surround the  church, the landscape, all these features make the travellers want to spend more time here than at any other tourist destination in Romania. It is definitely one of the most peaceful UNESCO sites of Romania.

The town of Şurdeşti is located in the northern part of Romania, about 15km (9mi) from the city of Baia Mare.

SUCEVIŢA

There is no doubt that the Orthodox faith represents a major factor in the existence of Romania as a nation. That’s why even the cruelest princes of the Romanian provinces either built an Orthodox church or at least, took care of an older one. No other Moldavian prince built more churches than Stephen the Great of Moldavia. Despite this, the climax of religious art in the province of Moldavia was reached in the 16th century, pretty soon after the death of Stephen the Great. It was then, when paintings on the exterior walls of several monasteries began to appear, in order to transmit messages of a religious or political nature to the masses. The former monastery of Suceviţa, today an active convent, was built circa 1586, at the request of the archbishop Gheorghe Movilă. Work continued under the reign of Prince Ieremia Movilă. In 1595, he added side porches and had the church surrounded by defensive walls and watch towers. Even today, the monastic complex, seen from outside, looks more like a medieval stronghold than like a religious institution.

However, the main attraction of Suceviţa lies in the exterior painted frescoes. By the time the Suceviţa Monastery was painted, local artists have already learned to obtain the most vivid and long-lasting colours. Of all other similar sites, till this day, the Suceviţa church is the most colourful and best preserved monastery. It is only here, that the entire northern wall is fully preserved. Image after image, saint after saint, and story after story represent the main events of Christianity. As soon as you pass through the gate tower, you’ll be welcomed by a stunning fresco known as the “Ladder of the Virtues”.  It represents the virtues that each monk is required to have in order to achieve perfection. Other major frescoes represent “The Prayer of all Saints, “the Genesis” and The Annunciation”. The town of Suceviţa is located in the north-eastern part of Romania, about 55km (34mi) from Suceava.

The meals in Bucovina might be in total opposition with the austere life of the nuns. Try to see how much you can resist to these temptations at Popas Bucovina, a very good traditional restaurant. There are several small hotels and guest houses in Suceviţa.

About the author: Daniel Gheorghita is an experienced Romanian licensed tour guide living in Bucharest and manager of Covinnus Travel. He is very passionate about photography, hiking and biking. His motto is "Life must be fun". That's why his hobbies are part of the daily work.

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