Tourist guide to Brasov by David Hill


Written by David Hill.  Brasov, Romania, is a Transylvanian city with an outstanding historic center. Founded by German settlers in the 13th century, the city is known in German as Kronstadt, meaning “crown city.” The crown in question is made up of the lovely central square, Piata Sfatului, and the streets that lead off its northern side.

The square is a great place to promenade or people-watch while also taking in the historical significance of the surrounding buildings. In the middle of the square stands the Council House. It was originally a watch tower but was converted into a city hall starting in 1420. The bottom floor of the building retains an original Gothic design, but the upper floor and tower have Baroque or Renaissance elements, due to various reconstruction efforts up to the 18th century. On the facade is a big, painted relief that shows Brasov’s city crest: a crown with tree roots sprouting out of the bottom. Today, the building contains a history museum that has good displays about the city’s crafts between the 15th and 19th centuries. There are also wooden chests, copper pans, weapons, medicine bottles, and folk art.

A lot of the houses around the four sides of the square are typical of the historic center of Brasov – narrow houses topped with steep, tall, red-tiled roofs. They used to be inhabited by craftsmen and merchants, who would sell their goods on the square, and those spacious lofts were designed for storage. The city was always an important trading place because it was at the crossroads between Transylvania and two other principalities that are now parts of modern Romania – Moldavia and Wallachia. As time went by, certain crafts became strong traditions in the city: pottery, woodwork, furs, leather, linens, and metal goods such as locks.

The main square has a few buildings that deviate from the norm – none more so than the one on the north side with a tall, Byzantine-looking facade and a tower topped by a cross. Step through the door and you enter Brasov’s Orthodox cathedral, a complex dating from 1895-96 and based on a Greek church found in Vienna.

Turn to the eastern side of the square, and the big, southernmost building is the Hirscher House. It contains eating and drinking establishments and a shopping center. That is not all that different from the purpose it originally served after its construction in 1539-1545, when it housed wares created by the city’s craftsmen, ready to be brought out onto the square on market day. It was named after a city judge, Lukas Hirscher, whose widow, Apollonia, had the building constructed in his honor. What you see today is not the original building as it was reconstructed in 1840-42. But, the inscription over its entrance gate is an original feature. It shows the Hirscher family blazon, Apollonia Hirscher’s name, and Brasov’s city stamp.

The street that leads off the northeast corner of the square is the pedestrianized Bulevardul Republicii, a good street for strolling and shopping. The street leading off the left corner, Strada Muresenilor, boasts Brasov’s main Catholic church, a Baroque construction with 18th century stained windows, as well as an imposing green building in Art Nouveau style, dating from 1912. It now houses a bank. Between these two streets, a more subtle route leading off the north side of the square starts as a small walkway, before emerging onto a beautiful and peaceful square, Piata Enescu.

Brasov’s historic center has some great places to eat, including several that are directly on the square or overlooking the square. Some have out-door tables in summer. Gustari is the classic restaurant, comfortable and homey and serving Romanian specialties including some very filling desserts. Altstadt serves German food, such as traditional sausages and sauerkraut. Cerbul Carpatin, inside the Hirscher house, is a long, tube-shaped cellar with thick wooden tables and chandeliers made from wagon wheels. It serves hearty things like sausages, pork chops, and chicken wings with garlic sauce. Entering the same building from its south side brings you to Casa Hirscher, a nice modern establishment offering good Italian food.

On Strada Muresenilor you’ll find Sergiana, a restaurant whose interior imitates a traditional inn, with folk ceramics and sheep skulls, while its wait-staff wear breeches and tunics. It has a very extensive menu of classic Transylvanian recipes, all very well prepared in generous portions. There’s a good selection of wines from the region, as well. And on the quiet little square, Piata Enescu, there is Bistro de l’Arte, a pleasant café-bar with comfortable couches and a nice choice of coffees, cocktails and wines, located in a building from the 14th century that was once a granary.

Brasov is home to a very pointy Orthodox church and one of the narrowest streets in Europe. But to find those attractions, you need to venture a few blocks south of the historic town center, into the winding lanes and ramshackle houses of the Schei district, home to Brasov’s Romanian community from the 12th to the 17th century.

Brasov may be in Romania, but the fact that it had a Romanian quarter at such an early period is a surprise nonetheless. That’s because it is in Transylvania, a region whose major cities were dominated for centuries by German and Hungarian speakers, while the Romanians were mostly rural. Brasov was a bit different because, situated in southeast Transylvania, it was a center for trade with the neighboring Romanian-speaking principalities, Moldavia and Wallachia. Brasov’s Romanians acted as go-betweens for local German-speaking traders, and conducted trade in their own right.
As time went by, Brasov became a leading place within Transylvania for Romanian-language education, culture and, from the 1500s, printing. But the Romanians had to live in Schei, just south of the city walls, because only Germans were allowed to live in the orderly streets of the historic town center.

It was thanks to the local residents’ contact with Moldavia and Wallachia that they were able to build such a sumptuous church. Funding came from those areas’ governors or princes (their title in Romanian was voievod), for which reason it’s sometimes called Brasov’s “voievodal church.” The first benefactor of that type is thought to have been Vlad Calugarul, voievod of Wallachia, who aided the locals in starting work on a stone church in 1495, to replace the wooden one that had been here since 1292. Thanks to later occupants of his throne like Ioan Neagoe Basarab and Petru Cercel, the church was largely finished by 1583.

Subsequent work continued up to the 1700s, which explains why the church’s Gothic and Renaissance styles mingle with Baroque elements. The bright murals on the outer walls are from the 18th century. So is the spindly, pointed top portion of the tower, which was funded by Russia’s empress Elizabeth (sometimes misreported as a later empress, Catherine the Great). The existence of the tower is earlier, though, and there is even a secret chapel inside it, finished in 1651.

For a period, beginning in 1761, this church was the Orthodox Episcopal seat for the whole of Transylvania. Nowadays, it is not even Brasov’s Orthodox cathedral – just its most historic and striking Orthodox church.  The church is as beautiful inside as outside, with dozens of icons, old and new, jostling for space on the walls or mounted on easels. People are constantly coming in and out, saying prayers and crossing themselves before icons – a particular favorite being the very large one of St Nicholas, encased behind a sheet of glass which worshippers will press with their hands or kiss. But the oldest icon here dates back to 1564 and shows the Virgin and Child.  Before you get to the main nave of the church, you pass through a vestibule painted with modern frescos that commemorate two occasions when Transylvania was united into a larger, Romanian-dominated political unit. On the left, Wallachian voievod Mihai Viteazul, who united his principality with Transylvania and Moldavia, is seen entering Brasov on his horse, greeted by local Romanians as he lays claim to this region. On the right wall, a crowd celebrates King Ferdinand and Queen Maria, who presided over the three regions’ more permanent union after World War I.  In the church grounds, Nicolae Titulescu (1882-1941) is buried. A former League of Nations president and Romanian foreign minister, he was born in southern Romania but wished to be buried in Transylvania – a wish that was not fulfilled until 1990.

A building by the church was the home to the first Romanian secondary school in Transylvania, functioning from 1495 to 1941. Now it contains a museum of icons, documents and liturgical objects – illustrating the vivid cultural activity of Brasov’s Romanians during the medieval period.  The whole neighborhood of Schei is delightful to explore – some of the houses are centuries old and have their original wood gates. The neighborhood revolves around the street named Strada Prundului, which changes its name to Strada Poarta Schei closer to the town center. While many of Schei’s streets are narrow, none are more so than one that heads off between houses 17 and 19 on Strada Poarta Schei. Named Strada Sforii (literally rope street), it is 80 metres in length but barely a metre in width. Originally it was created to g ive firefighters a quicker route downtown. At number 14 on Strada Poarta Schei is a pretty green building from 1875 that is now a kindergarten but was once an orphanage – as indicated by the German-language engraving above the door that says “Tartlerisches Waisenhaus.” At number 27 stands Brasov’s biggest synagogue, built from red brick in 1901 and designed in a Moorish meets neo-Classical style by an Austrian architect, Leopold Baumhorn. Brasov’s Jewish population now barely exceeds 200, though it peaked in 1940 at 4,000.

If you want to eat something in Schei, try the Romanian specialties and hunting lodge atmosphere of Casa Romaneasca, a spacious and cheery place whose trimmings include wood furniture, bearskins and deers’ heads. Close by is a fairly good place to stay, the four-star Curtea Brasoveana, with a pretty courtyard.

Brasov is a historic city blessed with well-preserved medieval fortifications that can be explored in their entirety. Formerly surrounded by a quadrilateral shaped wall, the historic center of this Transylvanian city is now bracketed by the surviving two sides of wall, on the east and west. The shorter northern and southern walls were destroyed as the city grew from the eighteen-hundreds onward.

The construction of the fortifications started in 1395 on the decision of Sigismund, the king of the country to which Transylvania belonged at the time – medieval Hungary. What crystallized his decision was a summit between himself and Mircea cel Batran, ruler of the neighboring Wallachia, during which they agreed on an alliance to stand against the Ottoman Turks. Brasov had suffered numerous invasions and raids, and these continued for decades, including a particularly crippling one by Turks in the year 1421. That meant there was constantly a reason to continue working on the walls. Nevertheless, they were not finished to their fullest degree until 1641. At their peak, the walls boasted eight bastions and 28 towers. A few of those bastions still stand, most of them named after the guilds of craftsmen who constructed and guarded them.

A tour of the eastern wall starts with a visit to the formidable Weavers’ Bastion, still standing in its 16th century form. In fact, the weavers had two stabs at building it, creating the lower floor and two upper galleries from 1421 to 1436 and adding more galleries between 1570 and 1573. This bastion can be reached from downtown Brasov by following the street called Strada George Cosbuc – a bit of old wall runs along the side of the street.

The bastion’s floor plan is pentagonal, with three of its corners having square-shaped towers. Its walls are 4.5 meters thick with narrow slits for directing weapons while the upper floor has holes pointing downward, through which hot pitch or oil could be poured onto attackers.

Inside the bastion there is a little museum whose prize exhibit is a scale model showing the city fortifications, as a 17th century visitor would find them. The model itself is a piece of history, having been made in 1896. The museum also contains period tools and weapons. At the center of the bastion is a courtyard where concerts are sometimes held.
From this bastion, follow a road that runs northeast along the remnants of wall, which include the Ropers’ and the Drapers’ bastions. Close to the Ropers’ Bastion – which was first erected in 1416 – there is a station where you can board a cable car which will take you up to the summit of Tampa hill. At 375 meters above the town center, this peak provides a terrific view. A citadel used to stand on this hill, but the townsfolk demolished it to obtain material for the early stretches of the Brasov walls.

To explore the western wall, follow a pathway called “Dupa Ziduri” (beyond the walls) that winds along the bank of Graft stream. This takes you past extensive stretches of white stone with red tiles. Built into the wall are the 16th century Blacksmiths’ Bastion and Graft Bastion. The latter contains a café and a little history museum displaying armor and weaponry from the 17th to 18th centuries.

While on this route, you’ll notice two sets of steps that lead to towers on a hill named Warthe. These provided additional city defense. The more northern of these is the rounded White Tower, while the southern one is the square-shaped Black Tower. They are both white now, but the “black” one gained its nickname after it was blackened in a fire sparked by a lightning strike in 1559. It contains a weaponry exhibition. Both these towers were erected during the latter half of the 15th century. Their steps provide great views over the city.

While the southern side of the wall has disappeared, you can still see a gate that used to form part of it. The massive, squat Ecaterina Gate was constructed in 1559. On the outer facade is a Renaissance rendition of Brasov’s traditional emblem: a crown from which tree roots emerge downward. The gate is topped by pointed towers, with the four small ones on the corners intended to inform visitors that Brasov enjoyed “jus gladii” – the legal right to sentence people to death.

Slightly to the east is the neo-classical Schei Gate, which did not belong to the old fortifications but was built in 1827. It formed – and still forms – a gateway between the outlying district of Schei and the town center. Although there is nothing left of the northern wall, the shape of the city streets still gives you a clue about its location, as they open out into a much broader dimension. A street named Bulevardul Eroilor traces the line the wall once followed, and now forms the southern border of a long park named Parcul Titulescu. The park contains a statue of a celebrated diplomat, Nicolae Titulescu, and a monument commemorating those who died during the anti-communist uprising in 1989.

Running along the park’s northern perimeter is a street called Strada Nicolae Iorga, where you’ll see big villas in a typically Romanian style called Brancoveanu, with chunky pillars, galleries and colonnades – worlds apart from the German burghers’ houses a block further south.

This more spacious part of town is home to some large hotels, including Brasov’s finest, the five-star Aro Palace. Renovated in 2005, it has more than 300 rooms, a casino, and a top-floor bar with stunning views across the old city center.  While in this neighborhood, you might want to take a walk or bus trip north along Strada Lunga to visit Bartolomeu or “Old Brasov.” That’s right – before the area within the city walls was the town center, this entirely different neighborhood, inhabited since the twelve-hundreds, was dominant. It still contains some original houses, along with Brasov’s oldest house of worship, St Bartholomew’s Church, a Gothic construction sheltering within its own fortified walls. The church would be even older if it had not been destroyed by Tatar invaders in 1241, but it was rebuilt soon after that, with subsequent waves of renovation in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

Brasov with a population of 284,000, holds some outstanding sights, of which perhaps the most famous is The Black Church. The church is a stone’s throw from the open southeast corner of Piata Sfatului, the square at the heart of the historic center of this beautiful Transylvanian city. The proud church dominates: a looming bulk, 89 meters in length and 38 meters in width, its massive roof hunched up against the pretty clock tower at the end furthest from the square. The church is open every day from 10am to 3.30pm. Built between 1385 and 1477, The Black Church is a great example of late Gothic architecture – check out the ornate decorations in the five portals around its outside. It is used by German-speaking Lutherans, and has been ever since that version of Christianity reached Brasov in 1542. Before that, it was used by German-speaking Catholics.  Officially the church of the Virgin Mary, the church gained its nickname after a fire in 1689 left only a black shell. It was nearly a century later that the building was restored, with its current interior vaulting. But it was not until a late 20th century round of restoration, which lasted three decades, that the soot was removed from the exterior, leaving the church pale brown.

The inside of the church is more delicate and airy than the hulking exterior would suggest, and contains wooden pews painted with signs representing the workers’ guilds that sat there. You can even see some parishioners’ names, with symbols of those people’s trades: locksmiths’ pistols and padlocks, weavers’ bobbins, and carpenters’ dividers.

More than 100 prayer rugs hang inside the church, adding a red warmth to the inviting atmosphere. Brasov merchants would bring these back from trips to the East, donating them to the church to thank God for bringing them back safely. Sometimes, too, rugs were seized, as a strange sort of tax, from foreign traders who passed through the city.
One of the oldest things in the church is the font, made from bronze by a local caster in 1450. In the middle of the church, you will find a gorgeous, stone-carved pulpit, dating from 1696. Its carvings include a figure of Moses holding his Ten Commandments, and a tree of life. On a pillar directly opposite the pulpit is a painted relief of the Brasov city emblem – the crown with the tree roots. There is also a picture of Martin Luther hanging on the pillar.

Talking of Lutheranism, in the right side-nave you can see a painting celebrating the Transylvanian reformation, which was spearheaded by Johannes Honterus. The painting shows Honterus and city councilmen, who are swearing an oath to adopt Reformation teachings, something that they did in 1543.

Honterus is further honored with the imposing bronze figure standing outside the Black Church. The statue was erected 400 years after his birth, in 1898. Honterus was actually born in Brasov, and he used the city as his base when he spread Lutheranism throughout Transylvania’s German speakers, having discovered it himself during studies in western Europe. He was influential for another reason, as well, as the creator of the first published map of Transylvania.

Read more: With thanks to David Hill for an excellent account of Brasov.