Fortress of Fogaras, Transylvania

The Fagaras Fortress: Discovering Old Secrets of History in Transylvania

As we pulled into the parking lot of the fortress of Fagaras, I was surprised to see a beautiful entrance surrounded by a moat filled with water, and swans swimming in it. No visitors, no crowds. We seemed to be the only people there.

Swans in the moat around the fortress of Fagaras
Swans in the moat of the fortress of Fagaras

In the center of the town of Fagaras, the fortress stands as a reminder of the times past, but no one seems to care. Even though, reconstructed, it houses a new museum. Maybe we just got lucky to be there at a quiet time. Either way, I enjoyed being surrounded only by the ancient stones, without the noise of thousands of visitors.

Though I grew up relatively close to this town, not only I never visited this castle, but didn’t even know it existed. Well, I suppose I must have read about it in a few books in my bookworm stage, when I devoured everything written that I could get my hands on, but never thought of Fagaras as a place for such a grand fortress-castle.

View of the Castle from across the moat
View of the Castle from across the moat

Yet, here it is, thousands of years after it was first built, awaiting visitors to share its history – well, at least its officially known history…

The Fortress – and Life – in the Communist Era

As I walked through the first tower, I understood why we never knew about this castle during my childhood. I grew up in the communist era, the Ceausescu-years of Romania. I just learned now, during this visit, that the Communist party used this fortress-castle as a political prison. No wonder we didn’t know anything about it.

As far as we knew – or supposed to know – political prisons didn’t exist in Romania during the Communist years. Officially we had freedom of speech – as long as we said only great things about our fearless leader and the Communist party. Those who dared say a word against it, quietly disappeared.

Being just a kid during those years, I didn’t understand what was really going on; we only read stories of the older regime prosecuting the Communists, never the other way around. Communists were the heroes, depicted as just and fair to everyone once they were in charge. Did I believe this? I suppose I must have, at least for a while. I was a kid, I was clueless.

Although I learned from a very early age that we couldn’t say certain things in public, as a very young kid, I accepted it. I didn’t think I had anything to complain about, anyway.

Dealing with the authorities was simply part of life, I never questioned or wondered why or what would happen if we spoke our mind, if someone would hear us say a bad word against our president or the Communist party.

Visiting the Prison Tower in the Fortress of Fagaras

Now, walking through the Prison Tower of the Fagaras fortress, I understood. Maybe the atrocities that went on in this tower happened shortly before my time, but it gave me a clue about our own lives. I understood why my parents kept us so sheltered, why we had to avoid talking about all things relating to politics.

Those who spoke up or tried to do anything against the regime disappeared. No one knew for sure what happened to them, though we heard rumors. Now I learned that some of them ended up in prisons like the one we were visiting, inside the ancient castle’s walls. We noticed objects of torture there, too, but I couldn’t look at them. This was just a bit too much history for me, too close to my own life, my own time.

In the Prison Tower
The top room in the Prison Tower

To be fair, the Communists used the Fortress of Fagaras as a political prison between 1948 and 1960, before I was born. They tortured their prisoners here and 165 of them died. At least that’s the known number. Yes, this was just before my time, during my parents’ childhood. But they didn’t stop taking political prisoners in later years, as you would hope to believe. Except most of the time they took them to work camps instead, making them work for free, “building the Communism” (I still remember that slogan).

The Fortress continued to be a Communist stronghold all the way to the fall of the regime in 1989. After that, they opened it up as a museum. But since I left the country, I haven’t had an opportunity to visit until now.

The Fortress of Fagaras – in Medieval Times

The Fortress of Fogaras stood tall in the center of the town long before Communists existed. Built as a wooden fortress in its original form, sometime in the 1200s, it was the political center for the region of Fagaras of Transylvania. That lasted until the Tatars burned it down during one of their raids, in 1241. But its place didn’t stay empty for long.

Fagaras region replaced the old wooden structure with a fortress built of stone in 1310, and surrounded it by a deep moat that could be filled with water when needed. Since that day, the fortress had never been conquered. Not by force, at least, withstanding at least 15 sieges between 14th and the 19th centuries.

Though never conquered, the Fortress was changing hands often

Still, it changed hands so often, even historians have trouble keeping track. Or, it depends whose history you read. For the next century the history of the Fortress is not clear. I read a few different versions of it, and what they all agree upon is that it was used mainly as residence for various princes. Given its location, on the border between Transylvania and Wallachia (old Romania), the princes living in the castle were either Romanian from Wallachia or Hungarian from Transylvania.

The Fortress Became Royal Property

By the early 1600s the Fortress became royal property for the rulers of Transylvania. During the rule of Hungarian Prince Bethlen Gábor (1613-1629) the city of Fagaras became a strong economic power. Bethlen, influenced by the Italian Renaissance, rebuilt the castle, bringing architects and glass-makers from Italy to complete it.

The next ruler, Rákóczi György, took rebuilding the castle a step further, doubling the fortifications and enlarging the moat. During his time they covered the bastions, paved the moat with stones, and built a guardhouse, among other things.

The Fortress of Fagaras, with view of four out of its five towers
By the end of the 17th century the Fortress of Fagaras, fortified and strengthened, looked much like it does today.

During the reign of these two rulers the castle of Fagaras became grand and luxurious, fit for kings.

But then the Castle turned into a garrison for a few different armies

But in the next century, the Castle of Fagaras was stripped of all its beauty when it became a military garrison. First, after 1696, it housed the Austrian Army of the Hapsburg Empire. Next, after 1867, it was home to the Hungarian army, and later, after 1918 of the Romanian army.

Then it changed into a Communist Political Prison

Then, as I mentioned earlier, the communists used it as a political prison.

Finally, it turned into the museum we were visiting

But now, it is a museum, showcasing artifacts from different historical times. The exhibits through the fortress tell the stories of history, art and ethnography of Fagaras County.

Visiting the Fortress of Fagaras

The Fortress comprises an outer wall, five towers, an inner courtyard, and the actual rooms built around this courtyard. Some of these are set up as a museum showcasing artifacts in glass cases. Others are furbished as they would have been in the time the Fortress was inhabited.

The Prison Tower

We probably all know places where as soon as we enter we know, we feel that bad things happened there. The heavy silence that envelopes everything as soon as you enter, the chill you feel as you barely dare to look around….

Using the Prison Tower as the first stop after entering the Fortress might not have been the best idea. If we wanted to walk through it all experiencing history in chronological order, we should’ve left it for last. Still, I was glad we got through it first, though none of us could spend too much time in it.

We walked through the prison keeper’s house, which only featured a rickety bed, then we moved on to he torture chamber. I rushed through it without much of a glimpse; not wanting to think or try to imagine how the instruments were used.

Walking up the spiral staircase I tried to move through the tower using strictly my intellectual mind. I was trying to feel like a journalist; thinking I would record everything, read about it all, understand it. That was the mindset I entered to top room, set us as a memorial to the prisoners held here in the early days of Communism in Romania.

I tried to stop and read about the people who were held there and their families. I tried to look at it all as simple historical facts. But this is history too close to my own life. I didn’t have the energy to actually do it. As I was looking at photos and reading about people so deeply affected by the regime I grew up in, my mind went blank. I found myself rushing out of there without learning all I set out to.

Inner Courtyard

We walked inside the outer building, through the Inner Courtyard, then headed towards the museum and library.

The Inner Courtyard of the Fortress of Fagaras
The inner courtyard.

In the Museum

The rooms on the first floor, set up as a museum, start in chronological order, with the archaeological room, followed by the medieval and guild rooms.

Along with land cultivation and animal husbandry, the larger area of Fagaras that eventually came to include about 50 villages, developed specialized crafts and commerce. By the 1500s, the craftsmen got organized into guilds. Tools and artifacts belonging to a few different guilds, most of them to the tanner’s guild, which grew the most and eventually became the largest in the area.

Next, we moved on to a room showcasing more modern history, from the 1900s, which brought back memories of family stories. Here, the exhibit showcased a period of time in the region’s history when work was scarce and a large number of people sailed across the Atlantic to America for work. The idea was to return after making enough money, but many of these guest workers never returned.

In the museum of the Fagaras Castle
Documents and photos of immigrants leaving Transylvania between 1900-1914

Looking at the exhibits in this room, my brother reminded me of our great-grandfather, who was a builder, left for America at some point, and returned with enough money to buy his family a piece of land and build a house on it. One of my great-grandma’s brothers also left around the same time frame but he didn’t return.

We walked through other rooms showcasing traditional clothing, a room of a peasant house, religious and decorative art, and traditional pottery.

Rooms of the Castle

On the second floor of the inner building we walked through the rooms of the castle, showcasing their original furniture. We spent time in the large throne room and the dining room, walked through the room of the infantry soldiers, the office and bedroom of the princes who used to live here.

Dining rooms in the Castle of Fagaras
Dining rooms in the Castle of Fagaras

Between the Castle and the Fortified Outer Wall. The Towers

Leaving the indoors, we walked through the balcony-corridors, then walked out into the inner courtyard again. Barren, surrounded by walls, the inner courtyard offered little for our senses. So we walked out the gate to explore the area between the castle and the outer, fortified, walls.

The Fortress of Fagaras - between the inner and outer walls
Two of the towers of the Fagaras Castle. View from the top of the outer wall.

This walk answered my question about why the fortress of Fagaras was never conquered. A wide and deep moat surrounds it on all sides, running along the perimeter, with only one bridge crossing it, leading to the main entrance. Strong outer walls, sometimes doubled, with holes looking out towards the moat, large enough for even cannons (though I have no idea if they ever used any). The wall is doubled in places, but even if the enemy could cross both these obstacles, five towers sit inside the outer walls, defending the inner building.

Fagaras Castle, Fortress or Citadel?

I kept calling Fagaras a fortress, though I also called it a castle. So which one is it, you might wonder, and what is the difference?

Let’s start with castle. Its definition by the Webster dictionary is “a large fortified building or set of buildings”. Fagaras qualifies, so if I called it a castle, I was right.

Still, when you look it up, it comes up most of the time as a fortress. According to the same dictionary, a fortress is “a fortified place: stronghold”. Basically the same.

So, the two terms are interchangeable. What about citadel? I admit, I wanted to use the term, too, just to use more synonyms, but somehow it didn’t seem to fit. I was correct. A citadel, though it is basically the same, usually sits on a hill, above the village. So the Fagaras Castle/Fortress doesn’t qualify, since it sits in the center of the town, not above it.

Digging deeper, I found out that the main difference between a castle and a fortress is about how it was used, who lived in it. Castles were inhabited by royalty, princes, dukes, kings. On the other hand, fortresses were home for army personnel, be it medieval knights or modern military.

So there you have it: this old building in Fagaras is both a fortress and a castle. Take your pick. I’m tempted to call it a castle when I talk about its history from before 1696, and a fortress after that date. If you remember, that’s when it first turned into a military base.

View of the fortress/castle of Fagaras from across the moat.
View of the fortress/castle of Fagaras from across the moat.

Enjoying a Walk Around the Castle/Fortress of Fagaras

Even after spending so much time in and around the castle, I was reluctant to leave. It was a beautiful day, and all was quiet around us. My daughter stopped to play with a stray kitten at the gate, then we walked around the outer perimeter of the fortress. Swans were swimming in the moat, like they used to in the days when princes lived there.

We stopped at a dock for boats (none at this time), but I can imagine it would be nice to add a boat ride to the visit, and spent some quiet time in the shadow of old weeping willows on the side of the water.

Other Fortresses, Castles, and Citadels in the Vicinity

Fagaras is one of many fortresses and citadels in Transylvania; There were especially many built in the same general area, in the vicinity of the city of Brasov. As opposed to the citadels of Rasnov, or Rupea, both built on a mountaintop, overlooking the valleys they were protecting, Fagaras was built in the center of a town, in a flat area. This was the reason for the surrounding moat. Other medieval fortresses included walled cities, like Brasov and Sighisoara. Smaller castles added to the defense system of Transylvania, like Bran Castle and Feldioara Citadel.

They were all built during the same general era, when Transylvania was at the crossroads of East and West, and needed protection, especially at its southern borders.

FAQ – Useful info if you go…

  1. Where is the Fortress of Fagaras?

    The Fortress of Fagaras, or Castle of Fagaras is in the center of the town of Fagaras, in Brasov county, Transylvania, Romania. The closest towns are Brasov (66 km), and Sibiu (76km from).

  2. When was the Fortress of Fagaras built?

    The original fortress of Fagaras, a wooden structure, was built in the early 1200s, and it was the political center for the region of Fagaras of Transylvania.

    The structure that stands today dates from 1310, built to replace the old one after it burned down during a siege.

  3. Fortress or Castle of Fagaras?

    The fortress of Fagaras is also a castle. Though the two terms are not fully interchangeable, in this case the historical site is both.
    Both castles and citadels are fortified buildings, or strongholds. The main difference between the two is in the way they were used: Castles were inhabited by royalty, princes, dukes, kings, while fortresses were home for army personnel, be it medieval knights or modern military.
    In the case of Fagaras, over the centuries, it was both, used as a castle by royalty before 1696, then home to several different armies.

Travel Planning Resources to Get To Transylvania (Romania)

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Read more about your destination, and use guidebooks when you go:

Carrying a physical book with you might be old-fashioned, but in a world where cell service is spotty or nonexistent, it pays to do so. The Lonely Planet guide books are my go-to travel books. They have published a guide book to Romania and Bulgaria that you can use as a reference. And, to help with common phrases both in Romanian and Hungarian, two languages often spoken there, try their Eastern Europe phrasebook and Dictionary.
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Book your flight:

When flying anywhere, check several different sites to find the best deals. Unless you know what airline you are using use (and have a credit card with points from that airline), you could checkCheapOairandWayAwayfor deals. Though you can find several closer airports (Brasov, Sibiu, Cluj), flying from the US you will usually find the best deals to Bucharest.

Book your rental car:

To compare prices of different car rental companies,Discover Carsis a great place to start. Or,

Book your accommodations:

You can useTrivagoto compare deals on hotels and alternative accommodations. Or, book a place, my go-to booking place for hotels or rental places in Romania. I found not only great deals for hotels, but also for apartment rentals by owner through it.

        About the Author

        Emese grew up in Transylvania, near the now-world-renowned Sighisoara, and spent several years living in Brasov. Though she now lives in the US, she still revisits the places of her childhood often, with her American family. This gives her several perspectives when writing about places in her former homeland. She can understand them from a local perspective, while also appreciating and noticing things that make these places unique for first-time visitors.

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