Worth a Trip: Saxon History in Mălâncrav

Many Transylvanian villages boasting fortified Saxon churches have emptied of their original inhabitants. But little Mălâncrav, 13km south of the Mediaş–Sighişoara highway, has the highest proportion of Saxon people of any village in the region.

Villagers still greet each other with Grüß Gott (in German, ‘God greet you’) and most buildings are faithfully maintained in Saxon style. The fortified church houses vast frescoes that are among the finest in Transylvania (some dating from 1375 to 1405), plus a well-preserved altarpiece dating to 1520.

For full immersion in Saxon flavour, book a stay at 15th-century Apafi Manor House, painstakingly restored to its 18th-century layout. It’s now a heritage guesthouse with a princely air: rooms are decorated in a palette of bright white and pastel blue, and as you slide into baroque-style chairs and snooze in shuttered bedrooms, it’s all too easy to dream of the splendour of centuries past.

Worth a Trip: Mighty Churches of Mediaş

A road trip from Mediaş leads to truly impressive fortified churches. Just as enchanting is the sense of rolling back the clock into Transylvania’s past. In some of these tiny villages, horses and carts outnumber cars. Vendors sit by the roads, peddling crates full of fruit (and bottles of cheap homebrew).

Mediaş is your starting point; roads extend from here into the villages, and you will have to backtrack through Mediaş to avoid offroading between churches. Though Mediaş may initially seem unappealing, its industrial sprawl conceals a magnificent (if minuscule) medieval core. Stroll the 17th-century walls and round bastion before entering the medieval old town from Str Johannes Honterius. Here you can visit 1488-built St Margaret's, whose splendid Gothic spire rises above a church filled with 15th-century frescoes and Romania’s second-largest collection of Anatolian carpets. Note the two-way seats, allowing a priest to preach from both ends of the church, and a bronze altar shaped from a huge bell.

Drive 10km south along route 141 to Moşna. The 14th-century Moşna Fortified Church has impressive defence towers and high walls. You may need to call, or indeed wake, a caretaker to let you in.

Continue south for 16km until a right-hand turn-off towards Alma Vii village; after 3km this charismatic village and its superbly restored fortified church will come into view. In September 2016 the ribbon was cut on fresh restoration works in Alma Vii, and this charismatic village and its centrepiece fortified church have never looked finer. The stocky sanctuary dates to the 16th century, though the church vault was given a Gothic makeover in the 19th century. It's flanked by four watchtowers, which reveal Transylvanian traditions through innovative, kid-friendly displays. If you’ve booked ahead, you can end the trip in one of Alma Vii’s rustic guesthouses or even a room within the fortification itself.

Otherwise, jump back in your car and drive back towards Mediaş. Veer west along route 14 until Copşa Mică, where you’ll take a south turn-off to Valea Viilor (31km in total). Standing proud in this whisper-quiet village is Valea Viilor Fortified Church, an 18th-century sanctuary with weighty protective walls. Once in (you may need to call a caretaker), you can climb stairs to walk the perimeter of the old walls and peep at the church’s fine 17th-century altar. After your visit, drive back north to route 14, turning east back to Mediaş.

If you’re staying a second day, tackle some churches north of Mediaş. Drive north out of town along route 14A for 10km, taking the turn-off after Blăjel to the 142B. Five kilometres after the turn-off you’ll find Bazna Fortified Church, with hefty wooden gates and walls enclosing a 14th-century Gothic church. Entering the church relies on a caretaker answering your call; the phone number is posted outside the door.

From Bazna, retrace the same road back to route 14A and continue north until the 142D turn-off towards Băgaciu. On our visit, the early 15th-century Evangelical Church here was in need of a revamp, with a rusty clock face peeling from its tower and birds swooping in and out. It’s an impressive photo-op nonetheless. From here, return to the 14A where you can zoom back south to Mediaş (and perhaps on to Sighişoara east of here), or press north to Târgu Mureş.