Whether you’re in a crowded square or wandering through its narrow and hidden streets, Sibiu will always have a classy air when it greets you. Slim towers, worn stairs, mysterious passages, houses with eyes on the roof; they’re always here oozing history from each square. According to the data of the National Institute of Statistics, over 12,8 million tourists were recorded at tourist accommodation establishments, circa 750.000 more than in 2017. Among these, around 2,8 million were foreigners.
Sibiu ranks sixth, with 563.642 tourists having visited the county in 2018, 310 more than in 2017. Bucharest is first with over two million tourists, followed by Brașov (1,36 million) and Constanța (1,31 million). However, Sibiu is in a much better position regarding foreign tourists: last year we were visited by 158.452 tourists. Where are they going? What are we presenting them? What impressions they are leaving with and what we can learn from their stay here, we found it all out from the local and national tourism guides.
Ionuț Martin is a guide and a general manager for Sibiu Reisen. Besides the known sites, he noticed tourists were interested in the city’s last 30 years, “If we are talking about the city of Sibiu, I noticed that foreign tourists are increasingly interested in the city’s recent history, and by that I mean the Communist period, the 1989 Revolution and the period following 1990. It is the reason why we are offering a Communism and Revolution Tour, which starts from the Great Square, goes on to Lucian Blaga street (where Nicu Ceaușescu lived until 1989), then to the area near the Police station with the neighbouring apartment blocks, and ends somewhere near the Dumbrava department store. Equipped with a tablet, our tourist guides explain and show the tourists the changes that took place throughout this entire time. If we talk about the county of Sibiu, the possibilities are even more numerous, and I am thinking for instance about the tramway that the communality of Rășinari puts on for groups or individuals, the “cheese express” as we call it, which provides a different way of travelling from the ASTRA Museum to Rășinari, where we often have cheese tasting for our tourists, before we take them on a hike to Cisnădioara or up to Păltiniș. Another highly appreciated and recommended route is Hârtibaciu Valley. It developed a great deal during the last years through social and tourism projects in Hosman, Alțâna, Apoș or Alma Vii. We recommend going to Sighișoara through Hârtibaciu Valley, which is less travelled but more picturesque.
Daily Sightseeing Tour and Paragliding
Tourists can also choose a “Daily Sightseeing Tour”. It starts every morning at 10.00, in the Great Square, starting April 1st until November and will take place even if one single tourist participates. Here, Ionuț Martin has identified several types of tourists. “What we noticed last year and we continue to notice this year as well is the fact that most of the tourists participating in this tour, around 65% of them, are German speakers. They may be keener in discovering the city with a tourist guide, but they may also be more attracted by the fact that the tour is only in German and English for the time being. At the same time, we have many young people visiting, aged between 25 and 35, who are mainly interested in Bâlea Lac and Transfăgărășan, but also in adventure parks or even paragliding. Besides these, there is another typology of tourists, the people who travel with the companies in an incentive type of trip. We see this grow and to our surprise, there is an increasing number of foreign companies that request such services.
Gourmet Tour, Daytrips
Adela Dadu is a local guide with the Transylvania Guide. She works a lot on private and individual tourism (families, couples) and she combines culture with nature and tradition: “In Sibiu we have the normal tour, but I can also emphasize more on the Communist side or on gastronomy. I also do gourmet tours where I combine the cultural element with history and gastronomy. We even go to the Cibin Market and on the lesser known streets from the historic centre, especially the ones in the Lower City.
I travel a lot around Sibiu, because it is very well placed and that allows me to do daytrips to Brașov, Sighișoara, Alma Vii, Biertan, Valea Hârtibaciului, Alba Iulia. Transfăgărășan is also a requested destination, just like Mărginimea Sibiului or Sibiel. A city tour takes between half an hour and five hours – if it is a gourmet tour – and a daytrip can even take 8 hours, but during the last days they are 12 hours long, especially in July and August.”
US, Storks and Bells
Adela Dadu only has foreign tourists, most of them from the States, followed by Canadians, Australians, Spanish, French and Norwegians and she says they are impressed with everything, from culture to gastronomy. “Many come for attractions that are not very crowded. Today, for instance, they liked it in Alma Vii because there were not many tourists. It was calm; we watched the storks, went up the tower and enjoyed the bells. Things you can hardly find in other countries. We do not see them because we live with them on a daily basis, but to them they are extraordinary.
The people that travel to Sibiu generally go to Brașov, Cluj, Sighișoara, Timișoara as well and try to compare them. The mixture of elements is what they love most about Sibiu. It is not a very big, crowded, disturbing city. I had a tourist tell me once it had just “the perfect amount of tourists”. It is cosy, it makes people feel safe, and that is very important when we talk about families with children. They are surprised to see the events take place. I had Americans be delighted about the Romanian American Musical Days. This element of surprise. Americans paying thousands of dollars on tickets do not come for events. They come to see Transylvania. The fact that we offer them something extra determines over time an increase of the average stay. They prefer Sibiu because they can attend events at night. Once, there was an American working in the movie industry. When he saw that during the TIFF Festival they were playing the movie Yesterday, he took a selfie with the poster and sent it to the States, “check this out, this movie has not been released anywhere yet, not even in theatres, and I am watching it in the Great Square from Sibiu, for free.”
Visiting Saxon Families in their Homes
Cătălin Mureșan is a local guide and organizes circuits of culture for Siebenbürgen Reisen. The tourists come almost exclusively from the German-speaking countries (Austria, Germany and part of Switzerland). Their tours are focused on facilitating gatherings between the tourists and the German-speaking population from the area of Sibiu. “We focus on visits and gatherings, with the editorial staff of the Hermannstaetder Zeitung, with the German Forum staff or with teachers from the schools where they teach German, or even visits in Saxon Families’ homes. With certain groups we go and have dinner at a family from Cisnădioara. We focus more on alternative activities than on the main tourist attractions. We go visit Ștefan Vaida from Hârtibaciu Valley, see his collection of objects, the so-called Hârtibaciu Valley Interethnic Museum. We try to take things into the mainstream, social side.
Siebenbürgen Reisen has a partnership with the Fortified Churches Foundation Stiftung Kirchenburgen of the Evangelical Church, through which they offer tourists the possibility to donate a certain amount of money for the Foundation when they book the trip. “With the groups that choose to make a donation (many times the entire groups chooses to do so), we make a visit to the Fortified Churches Foundation where they make a presentation about the current situation of the churches, projects unfolding, with the whole social and economic background during the exodus of the Saxons, when the Saxon villages were left empty and implicitly the Lutheran Church communities dissolved.
We are an incoming tourism operator, with direct relations with multipliers, which means the people that come with us have their programme prepared almost a year in advance, they book directly a package that includes these visits. We never have unexpected encounters with clients who decide to join us here in Sibiu. They regularly are closed groups, Rotary Club, church communities, choirs, groups of friends, organizations of non-formal education for adults, various groups that travel once a year, once every two years, or at various time intervals. This year they go to Lithuania, another year they go to Poland and another year they come to Siebenburgen because they hear Transylvania is a beautiful place. That’s how they come to us, through recommendations from people having already been here, from other groups or from other organizations.
We also have groups that arrive by train or by coach, but they are few in number now, because the voyage is too long. We are focused on Sibiu, on the rural area around Sibiu, but also on the counties of Brașov, Mureș, with some groups we even go as far as Bistrița-Năsăud and Cluj, but mostly in Southern Transylvania. Such a circuit through Transylvania takes between seven and ten days. The longest take two weeks, but those usually include another region of the country. We go to Oltenia, Banat, Bukovina, even the Delta where we have partners that help us. To a certain extent we organize tours in Bucharest as well, where we focus on the city’s architecture, but our main focus is on Transylvania.
One aspect that impresses visitors a lot is our beautiful nature and that not everything is anthropized, that is, controlled by people. There are meadows full of flowers and insects, from May through to September. They are also impressed by the multiethnicity and multiculturality we have here. Then there’s also the contrast between what they find here and what they learn from the media in their country. Probably more negative aspects are presented so they expect Romania to be a country of extreme poverty. Going to the rural area they also see the reality as it is, they see the existing decay, the strong social changes and get to create on their own a somehow complex image. And it’s also what we want to show them, we’re not interested in showing them a beautified image, in avoiding certain places because of how they look. We don’t want it to be like… one of Ceaușescu’s visits.
Sibiu – City of the Premieres
Luminița Drăgoiu is a national guide from Sibiu, and her greatest satisfaction is when in her group of tourists there are inhabitants of Sibiu who say they found out new things when walking by a building. She describes Sibiu as a perfect destination. “The main attraction from the county of Sibiu is obviously Mărginimea Sibiului, with Sibiel, Cristian, Gura Râului, Păltiniș, Rășinari, Cisnădie and Cisnădioara with the famous fortified church, Cisnădie with the famous carpet factory, and back in the days there was the reapers’ guild, one of the famous Saxon guilds. The history of Sibiu is a marvel! The first hospital in Romania – 1292, the first pharmacy from Transylvania – 1464, the first cast iron bridge in the country is the Liar’s Bridge of 1859. The buildings, the Brukenthal Palace, Astra, the library where was held the first theatre in Romanian, which is the most important cultural establishment for the Romanians from Transylvania; important houses, Altenberg House, Blue House, all the houses from the Great Square, the Small Square, bearing the names of the famous house owners, Haller House, Goldsmiths’ House, Butchers’ House – the oldest house in the Small Square, where the Arts’ House is currently located. The oldest building in the city is the Stairs’ Tower which is right by Huet Square overlooking the Lower City.
A fragment of the first stone fortification belt of the city is where you go down the Stairs’ Passage, on the right side, 200 metres from the Weinkeller; Sibiu is practically an open air museum, every building is a historic monument.
The city of Sibiu is an ecumenical city. If you walk on Mitropoliei street and see churches belonging different religions, the Evangelical Church, the Catholic Church, the Calvinist Reformed Church which is shared with the Unitarian Church, then the Orthodox Cathedral, and a few steps there is the Catholic Church again. Sibiu is a cultural city, an ecumenical city, a medieval city. Not to mention the Theatre Festival, which was a catalyst for the European Capital of Culture.
My greatest satisfaction is when I have a group made up of people from Sibiu too, and when they walk in front of certain buildings they say, “Wow, I didn’t know that.” There are tourists who do their homework, who read everything, ask questions and are delighted to discover more than what they could read in books, because the reality is better than their imagination and they are fascinated. I work mainly with French and Spanish tourists and they have their own idea about Romania when they arrive, especially about what they see on TV. A week into the tour, their perception in totally changed.
From everything that was narrated above and the impression it makes on foreign tourists, Sibiu seems to be the perfect destination. And the events organized throughout the year, the strategic geographical position, the history remained in the walls of the medieval citadel, all these make Sibiu a town worth visiting. But could these elements all suffice for long term tourism?
Where a mountain valley lies
Beautiful as Paradise,
Came three shepherds with their sheep.
No parking place for the Jeep.
Both local and national guides have identified several problems which, if remedied, could increase the number of tourists and provide higher quality to their stay.
”We talk about issues the inhabitants of the city or of the tourist areas are confronted with as well. But mainly lack of infrastructure, cars parked irregularly and beggars are causing us trouble every now and then”, says Ionuț Martin.
Adela Dadu feels the same. “Our services are mediocre, from infrastructure to the service in restaurants and hotels. Nobody has unreal expectations. Some of the tourists are nervous, they either don’t know what to expect, or they have a negative image, but once they arrive here, all that changes for good. If we want to encourage tourism and especially sustainable tourism, we still got some working to do. During the summer months we have traffic jams even on Transfăgărăşan. Tourists leave behind a large amount of litter, there are not enough toilets, people wait up to 60 minutes before receiving their order in a restaurant. This puts us in a delicate situation because we have an itinerary to cover. As guides, we have to hide all the wrongs and it’s not easy. We are the interface, and the success of the holiday depends on us to a great extent too. We have to work together and improve the situation.”
Cătălin Mureșan adds, “There are certain punctual issues that need changes, for instance the situation regarding the parking of coaches is scarce, the only parking for coaches being the ones from Thalia Hall, which is full most of the time. Maybe another parking lot should be made, with surveillance so as to help coach owners feel safe. Toilets are needed in the area of the coach parking lot and that is a pretty acute problem. There are two automatic public toilets at the Thalia Hall, which are a small step ahead, but fully-built toilets are necessary there.
From my point of view, at the level of the county, things move towards where they should, because the County Tourism Association Sibiu is doing a good job, taking into account that tourism generates a pretty high income to the local GDP. But there are not enough people to manage a destination the size of Sibiu, they should be double in number if not triple. A greater support for this association is necessary from the city hall and the county council. This is something for which I would invest energy in the future.
Having a greater structure you can initiate more projects, you can help the people in the rural environment open small businesses that serve tourists. Local gourmet points, which are a novelty, and people in the rural environment need to be supported. We mustn’t have a tourism polarized only around Sibiu, we must penetrate more towards the remote villages, where a small revenue from tourism would mean a lot. Tourism projects can help develop small communities that strengthen the village and reduce a bit the distance in development between villages and cities.
Tourism is slightly neglected, we are still in the phase where we start understanding it is much more significant. Another aspect is the organization of the festivals, maybe we have moved from one extreme to the other; if 15 years ago there was nothing going on in the city, now we have too many things happening. Maybe we should have them in other neighbourhoods. If you get to the Great Square with your tourist and you want to show them the building, you cannot do it because of all the oversize scenes, tents and terraces. They change the character of a square. This year they are somehow more discrete, but last year there were enormous structures. The tourist comes and fails to see those ground floor spaces that are specific to the 16 century, you want to explain that but you cannot do it, because of all the shed-like wooden terraces.”
Year after year, Sibiu keeps its status of “tourist city” where many foreign visitors explore the narrow and stylish streets, the medieval buildings and surroundings, especially during summer, when the relaxed holiday atmosphere can be felt first in the preserved area of Romanian village from the Astra Museum, then in the lush park Sub Arini, then in the central area where terraces stretch along Bălcescu boulevard through to the Great Square, the Small Square and Huet Square. Transylvanian calmness and German discretion, inherited from the old days, reign over this holiday atmosphere. What do you recommend your friends to visit? Is there anything else left unexplored?