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A picturesque train ride into the fairy-tale Saxon towns of Transylvania

A picturesque train ride into the fairy-tale Saxon towns of Transylvania
Baroque palaces, plazas for strolling, jazz and theater festivals, and the scenic Liar's Bridge draw visitors toSibiu in Transylvania. (Anne-Marie O'Connor)

It's telling that a major daily event in this medieval Transylvanian town is the moment when the clock tower noisily grinds into motion and people rush to watch the carved figures of angels, gods and goddesses announce the hours.

Local lore has long held that the Germanic people who settled this area were children who followed the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

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The true story of the Saxon migration is a bit less romantic — they were invited by a 12th century Hungarian king to defend his frontier from marauders — but it's easy to see why travelers sometimes use "fairy tale" to describe the Saxon towns in Transylvania.

If you're in the mood for a train trip, these towns are an excellent destination. We began ours at the Gara de Nord in Bucharest, where we bought inexpensive first-class tickets for a comfortable five-hour ride, with views of the farmland and forests as our train climbed into the mountains to the highlands of Transylvania.

Our first stop, the 12th century university town of Sibiu, was a lovely burg of baroque palaces and coats of arms, sleepy pea-green houses with eye-shaped dormer windows and a romantic overlook called the Liar's Bridge.

The next day, we boarded a train that offered spectacular views of the snow-capped peaks of the Fagaras Mountains, and got off three hours later at Sighisoara, known for its picturesque citadel and nearby Saxon villages.

Our first night there we stayed at the well-appointed Casa Wagner, a building that dates to 1477 on a cobblestoned square. Nearby is a house believed to be the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, the Transylvanian nobleman who inspired the Bram Stoker classic "Dracula."

For our second night in Sighisoara, we stayed at Casa Lia, where we learned why many travelers to Romania prefer bed-and-breakfasts. It was a warm center of informal conviviality. A fellow guest, Romanian singer-songwriter Mike Altrin, performed for us after dinner.

Our host, Marius Adam, was an excellent guide, recommending restaurants and arranging a private driver to an ancient forest and a trip to the Saxon village of Biertan. Along the way, we watched storks care for their chicks in nests atop chimneys and rooftops.

Biertan is a restored village where great houses are painted in Tuscan hues, a cavernous fortified church is a medieval wonder, and an excellent shop sells English-language books on Romania.

The gentrified elegance of Biertan offered a glimpse of the potential for upscale vacationing in a Romania that, for now, is still mostly unscathed by tourism run amok.

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