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Saxon sensibility

Charlotte Metcalf follows the Pied Piper to Transylvania

14 December 2009

12:00 AM

14 December 2009

12:00 AM

‘Take garlic and a silver bullet,’ said a friend, hearing I was going to Transylvania. Ridiculously best known for being home to Dracula, this remote Romanian region is an area of unspoilt natural beauty and home to one of Europe’s most fascinating and fragile cultural heritages.

There is a myth that Siebenbürgen in Transylvania (the region incorporates seven towns, as the name suggests) was originally populated by the children who skipped after the Pied Piper out of Hamelin. What is for certain is that the Saxons settled in Siebenbürgen in the 12th century. In lush steep-sided valleys full of beech woods, the Saxons built villages of brightly painted houses extending from their massive fortified church walls along streams flanked by weeping willows and grazing buffalo. They spoke High German, embraced Lutheran doctrine, dressed modestly in intricately embroidered clothes and created a fiercely guarded rural paradise that flourished for centuries.

Then, under the Communist regime, huge numbers of Transylvanian Saxons were ruthlessly dispatched to Siberia. After the Ceaucescu regime fell their exodus continued inexorably. Lured home to the Fatherland by Hans-Dietrich Genscher after the Berlin Wall fell, most of them simply abandoned their villages and left for Germany. In their place came gypsies and new Romanians, caring nothing for the rich architectural heritage they found there. An entire way of life crumbled.

I first went to Transylvania in 1998 to make a film about the Saxon migration and the work of the Mihai Eminescu Trust, chaired by an exceptionally determined British woman, Jessica Douglas-Home. The Trust, with Prince Charles as royal patron, is devoted to restoring the Saxon villages and no job is too small. Every rotting roof, sagging lintel or flaking façade is eligible for repair. Eleven years later and on the eve of the 20th anniversary of Ceausescu’s execution, I return to Romania with Jessica to see for myself.

I find the village of Viscri extraordinarily unchanged except that most buildings are now freshly painted and robust. There is an air of quiet activity rather than of desolation. In 1988 I stayed here with Caroline Fernolend (herself a Saxon), a councillor and an energetic mainstay of the Trust. I filmed her meeting Prince Charles and afterwards, flushed and trilling with excitement, she talked of her ambitious plans to regenerate her village over homemade plum schnapps. Under her leadership, Viscri has attracted international attention and won a prestigious EU conservation award for being a beautifully renovated village that also functions economically — and Prince Charles now owns a house here.

Just outside Viscri is a wood-fired brick kiln, built with the Trust’s help and expertise. I watch George Lascu take three minutes to make a tile. Rather than fixing up their houses quickly and cheaply with garish modern bricks and tiles, local people like Lascu are relearning traditional skills. It’s a win-win situation — villagers earn an income selling their wares but are also contributing towards the restoration of their villages without compromising their authentic character.

With help from the Trust, some villages now have guesthouses. These traditional houses are built around grassy courtyards with barns at the back that lead out on to pasture and then away into the hills. Every house is furnished with genuine Saxon artefacts. The effect is Shaker-style, comfortable simplicity, all carved wooden beds, dressers and locally woven rugs and linens. At just £25 per person a night, they offer affordable holidays, and last year Viscri alone attracted 10,000 visitors.

Later we take a horse-drawn cart up into the hills above the village of Archita. The mare’s foal canters along beside us as we roll through glorious open countryside spotted with clusters of autumn wild flowers. In the distance a church spire glints in the sun. You can walk or ride from village to village with a local guide if you need one.

Pink-cheeked and tired after an afternoon of fresh air, we sit by a huge ceramic stove crackling with logs as we wait for dinner. I am staying at Apafi Manor, an old manor house and the most recent Trust property to be made available to rent. When the Trust bought the house it was a desolate wreck. Now it is a gracious home that sleeps nine. It sits above the village of Malancrav next to a church, surrounded by apple orchards and classical gardens. Jessica persuaded the interior designer David Milnaric to advise on the decor and the manor is elegant, spacious, with light-filled rooms sparsely but exquisitely furnished.

On my last visit to Romania, I was fascinated by the Trust’s work, but the lack of creature comforts, like lavatories, made the trip an assignment rather than a holiday. Now I am fantasising about a white Christmas in one of the cosy guesthouses. Though it’s much more accessible by air than a decade ago, Siebenbürgen still feels largely untouched by industrialisation, akin to Thomas Hardy’s Wessex — but with bathrooms and heating. This is restoration at its best and Siebenbürgen is the perfect retreat for burnt-out urbanites. Go quickly before too many people catch on.

Fact file
Mihai Eminescu Trust

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