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A Modern-Day Christmas Market, Transylvania-Style

In the cobbled old town of Sibiu, an ancient Transylvanian city in the heart of Romania, a small Christmas market is in full swing, with the sweet scent of mulled wine filling the air and a tall spruce, a tiny ice rink and children’s attractions spreading the holiday spirit.

While Germany’s Christmas markets — and its spinoffs across Europe — are favorite destinations among travelers, a newer, less well-known market has helped shine a light on this Romanian city, where a small German-speaking community has made its mark since the Middle Ages.

With its brightly painted houses, the medieval old town in Sibiu was reborn after decades of neglect when the city shared the title of European Capital of Culture with Luxembourg in 2007.

After winning the culture capital designation, Sibiu invested heavily in renovating the facades of dozens of buildings and redesigning the old town to make it more walkable. Cultural programs held throughout 2007 helped raise Sibiu’s international profile. The first Christmas market, in an old town long known for its Germanic architecture, was part of that rich offering.

The number of visitors to Sibiu increased to more than 406,000 in 2018 from about 180,000 in 2007, the year the city became a capital of culture, according to Sibiu’s town hall. The city only developed as a winter destination in recent years, said Andrei Dragan Radulet, the Christmas market’s organizer, adding that outdoor dining and exploring charming nearby villages are a big draw in warm weather.

As a pocket of German-speaking culture in Transylvania, Sibiu has for centuries followed fashions and traditions from what is now Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium. Settlers from those regions first came to Transylvania in the 12th century, answering a call from what was then the medieval kingdom of Hungary to guard the country’s eastern borders and work the sparsely populated land. These Transylvanian Saxons, as they came to be known, built towns and villages that still dominate the landscape today.

The old town of Sibiu, known to Saxons as “Hermannstadt,” has the look and feel of a German town. Visitors may be surprised to encounter fluent German-speakers in shops, restaurants and museums. Saxons are prominent in the city’s leadership, including one notable example, Klaus Iohannis, who was the city’s mayor for 14 years before his election as Romania’s president.

Still, very few of the native Saxons actually remain. Since the end of World War II, their numbers have fallen dramatically in several waves of mass emigration, most recently after the fall of Romania’s Communist regime in 1989, which swung the borders open toward the rest of Europe.

They may make up just one percent of the city’s population of 170,000, but their strong affinity with German culture and economic ties with German-speaking countries in Western Europe remain, helped by daily flights from the city’s airport. (The Christmas market itself was inspired by the one held in Vienna since the early 18th century.)

Among the Christmas Market’s wooden cottages, 110 this year, visitors will find all the traditional ingredients of a German Christmas market with local additions. Merchants from around Romania offer wooden toys and decorations. There are cakes, similar to the gingerbread sold in Germany but also kurtoskalacs, or chimney cakes, a spiral of sweet dough baked on a wooden cylinder and topped with sugar, walnuts or coconut. Local merchants sell cheese from nearby farms and traditional charcuterie.

Mr. Radulet said the organizers were careful to provide a high quality experience, changing a third of the merchants each year and imposing high standards for products like mulled wine, a central feature at markets around the world. This year, they have also introduced frequent lab tests on the wine to ensure it preserves a certain degree of alcohol despite simmering for hours.

The best views of the market are from the medieval Council Tower, at the northern corner of Great Square and the tower of the Lutheran Cathedral nearby, Mr. Radulet said. Climbing the steep stairs in both towers is an effort, paid off by beautiful sights. Beyond the market’s glistening lights and the city’s red tile roofs, the outline of the nearby Fagaras Mountains, with snow-capped peaks, rises as a painterly backdrop to the landscape.

The country’s former Communist leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, ordered the demolition of historic neighborhoods around the country to make way for modern buildings. He left Sibiu’s old town mostly intact with parts of it in disrepair. That changed when people began buying houses and renovating them, often to rent them out to visitors.

Marius Grunca, who grew up in Sibiu, has worked in finance in Switzerland, but now spends most of his time in the old town. “I am fascinated by the heritage of this city and I try to present elements of its history in my apartments,” he said over coffee in Arhiva de Cafea si Ceai, a small coffeehouse off Great Square that offers a selection of homemade pastries.

In 2004 he bought his first property, a dilapidated apartment in a medieval building on Strada Faurului, standing in a row of houses with faded pastel colors. He spent years renovating the space and today he rents it out on Airbnb. The apartment has contemporary furnishings but its original wooden ceiling and chunky beams are exposed.

“I tried to change as little as I could,” he said of the renovation.

Today, the old town is brimming with activity all year round. In the fall, the day before holiday fairy lights were installed, workers were dismantling a large tent that housed a documentary film festival. Great Square and the Neighboring Small Square, in the Council Tower’s shadow, are lined with restaurants serving hearty Romanian and Central European dishes.

Delis, on Small Square, has a dependable menu of Romanian classics, including sarmale, or cabbage rolls filled with meat; mici, barbecued meatballs; and papanasi, fried cottage cheese doughnuts with a generous serving of sour cream and jam.

A short walk from there, below the old fortified city walls is Pasaj, its menu offering a modern European take on traditional dishes. The chef uses local ingredients like Transylvanian trout and pairs them reliably with Romanian wines. (Both are popular with locals and visitors alike and require bookings in the evenings to secure a table.)

Snow has been coming to Sibiu later every year. But the city is not far from a true winter wonderland in the Fagaras Mountains. A half-hour drive away from the city is Avrig, and the 18th-century Baroque summer residence of Samuel von Brukenthal, who was once governor of Transylvania. The brightly lit orangery, where citrus trees were once grown in cold weather, houses a restaurant and comfortable rooms, and is next to a parkland with ancient trees. The property organizes excursions to Balea Lake, among the highest points of the Fagaras Mountains, which tower over the Sibiu region and constitute Transylvania’s southern border.

Christmas is a time for Saxons to celebrate traditions that reach further back into their history than the city’s modern-day market. Music, both religious and secular has been a crucial part of local culture and cultural exchange with Germany and the rest of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

A Swiss-Norwegian couple, Jürg Leutert and Brita Falch-Leutert, who came to Sibiu in 2015, has been in charge of music in the city’s Lutheran parish. Mr. Leutert also leads the city’s 88-year-old Bach Choir.

The choir is active throughout the festive season, with events on the four Sundays preceding Christmas, including a concert of Handel’s “Messiah” and open singing for everyone. Rehearsals are in German, even though many members don’t speak it, Mr. Leutert said. “They know the scores so music brings them all together,” he added.

A walk down Strada Mitropoliei is a journey through the city’s different religious groups, Ms. Falch-Leutert said. The Lutheran Cathedral is followed by the Hungarian community’s Reformed church and the Romanian Orthodox cathedral, each with their traditional Christmas music. (The multilingual Catholic church is on Great Square.)

Transylvanian Saxons, who left Catholicism during the Reformation, had their own language and Lutheran identity, said Gerhild Rudolf, director of Teutsch-Haus, a cultural center of the Lutheran church that houses an exhibition on the history of Saxons.

“And this worked well for centuries, the fact that different peoples lived next to one another as good neighbors,” Ms. Rudolf said, referring to Hungarians, Romanians and Saxons, historically the three main communities in the city.

Sibiu has secured a place among the most popular places to go in Romania, and the Christmas market has been a notable factor, according to town hall officials. The market reported an attendance of about 100,000 in 2018.

Organizers of Sibiu’s market say they are not trying to replicate their counterparts in Germany, which rely on centuries-old tradition. Visitors here are offered something different: “When you visit Sibiu’s Christmas market,” said its manager, Mr. Radulet, ”you find a glimpse of craftsmanship from all over the country.”

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