When in early 1990 I first went to Transylvania, leaving behind the bright lights of western Europe and adjusting my eyes to the more sober tones of its eastern reaches, I could hardly believe that such a place still existed. In deep winter I crossed the northern Carpathian Mountains and came down, through misty forests and snow-covered roads, into the Middle Ages – or something astonishingly like it. Horses or oxen pulling sleighs occupied the roads, and cows and geese wandered freely. The villagers were dressed in smocks, sheepskin coats and fur hats, and had rough leather strapped to their feet, with woollen cloth wrapped around their calves held in place by thongs; footwear truly from another age, as worn by peasants depicted in medieval illustrated manuscripts.
I was just a few hours east of Vienna, but crossing the border into Romania was a journey back in time. I settled there, and for more than 10 years I was fortunate enough to be able to live a rural life that previously I had known only through the pages of a Hardy or Tolstoy novel.
I was astonished by the visual purity of the new environment in which I found myself. It was a country still commercially chaste, and innocent of the garish trappings of the capitalist world. There was no advertising, no neon lights, no plastic, no brash petrol stations (just a few simple pumps), very few cars – and all of the same make – that chugged and jolted over rough roads marked by the occasional rusting road sign. There were horses pulling carts, with foals trotting along beside them, outnumbering motor vehicles by 50 to one. In the villages, the houses were either of wood with carved and fretted verandas, or of brick or stone and lime-washed in soft blues, greens and ochres. All around there were huge and echoing forests, hay meadows so filled with flowers that they seemed to be part of some endless garden, and almost always, in the background, loomed the glittering Carpathian Mountains.
It was a land vividly described by Patrick Leigh Fermor in one of the great travel books of the 20th century, Between the Woods and the Water, and by Gregor Von Rezzori, whose beautiful autobiography The Snows of Yesteryear is set in Moldavia and Transylvania, and captures in dream-like prose this dream-like world. The landscape still has this ethereal quality; it stretches for miles in every direction, all unfenced just as in England in the 18th century before the land enclosures. There is nothing else like it left in Europe.
On my early journeys through this antique land, travelling was not always straightforward. There were almost no restaurants, shops, hotels, or guest houses. When walking over the hills, often guided by the steeples of village churches, I had to rely upon the kindness of strangers. Sometimes I might share a room with snoozing lambs, and discover a hen and her chicks under my bed. At other times I slept in hay barns, and my supper was milked directly from the udder of a goat that had wandered into a smoky cottage kitchen.
Now, however, life is a bit easier. There are comfortable hotels in the medieval town of Sighisoara, and excellent pensions in the beautiful Saxon villages of Viscri, Malancrav and Cund (at the end of a spectacular, winding road leading north from the town of Dumbraveni), or in the ethnically Hungarian Zabola, and Miclosoara. These villages provide locally-grown food, and sometimes, as at Cund and Zabola, of the highest quality.
English travellers might be surprised to discover that some of these guesthouses are owned by HRH the Prince of Wales. Prince Charles first visited Transylvania in 1998, saw the wild beauty of the country, and came under a similar spell to that which captivated Leigh Fermor and others before him. He realised that this pristine central European landscape of forests, hay meadows and historic villages, until then barely touched by the brute hand of the modern world, was of international importance, and must somehow be preserved. Since then he has done much to draw attention to the predicament of what the ecologist Dr Andrew Jones calls “the last truly medieval landscape in Europe”.
Through such charities as the Mihai Eminescu Trust, the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism (Intbau) and the Transylvania Trust, the prince has helped in saving hundreds of houses all over Romania, and in training multitudes of villagers in traditional building techniques. It is hoped that by preserving the villages and the countryside around them, and by encouraging traditional craftsmanship and small-scale farming, the economies of the villages can recover and thrive.
As part of this approach Prince Charles has bought several endangered properties in Transylvania and turned them into comfortable guesthouses. The buildings are restored using traditional materials, with lime renders and locally-produced hand-made bricks and terracotta tiles. One of them, which the prince has owned for some years, is in the village of Viscri. The latest purchase is in the remote village of Zalánpatak in the ethnically Hungarian part of Transylvania, and opens to paying guests next month. I recently paid a visit.
As I drove further and further from civilisation, the road became narrower, rougher and leafier, and I seriously began to wonder whether I was on the right track. But then, at last, a tiny village appeared, by the side of which ran a sparkling brook shaded by tall poplars. The Prince’s house, with its simple wooden verandah and outbuildings also of wood, or lime-washed in blue, is by no means grand, but the serenity of the view from the verandah on that still summer’s evening was about as perfect as one could hope to find. It was somewhere that one can describe, without wildly exaggerating, as a heavenly place.
With his guesthouses the prince hopes to persuade discerning travellers to come to admire the old village architecture; to walk or ride from one village to another through the breathtaking but only half-tamed countryside of meadows, wooded hills, and trickling streams; to see evidence of wolves and bears, and all the other wildlife that survives here in abundance, but which in other parts of Europe is either extinct or on the edge of extinction; and to understand why Romania is such a special country.
But, in spite of Prince Charles’s influence on conservation in Romania, most parts of the historic landscape of Transylvania are being devastated by a rash of uncontrolled modern development, which worsens by the year, and is now reaching a critical point.
Many might have thought that Romania’s rural architecture had been “saved” when the communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, was executed on Christmas Day 1989, and that his deranged plan to bulldoze the villages and move their inhabitants into purpose-built blocks had been put to rest. But in reality it was only after Ceausescu’s death that the real destruction of the villages began.
Now, in the construction free-for-all of modern Romania, the country’s historic architecture is being rubbed out at a frightening pace, and the sad irony is that its destruction is being made greatly worse by European Union money pouring into the country in the form of agricultural subsidies. Those receiving these grants (often vast sums by local standards) are demolishing their old village houses and using the money to replace them with hideous and incongruous modern buildings, painted in garish orange, luminous yellow or vivid purple, often with windows of mirrored glass and stainless steel railings. It is a kitsch that is infecting the whole country. Even as I write, in a beautiful village that has until now escaped the ravages of the modern world, I can hear the demolition of a huge oak-beamed and terracotta-tiled barn in order to make way for someone’s dream villa. The 18th-century house next to it is apparently soon to follow. It is like living in southern Ireland in the 1960s, when rows of proud Georgian houses were demolished to make way for modern developments. It is almost beyond belief that the Romanian government can allow villages like those in the Saxon area of Transylvania, or in Oltenia near Campulung Muscetel, which are as picturesque as the hill towns of Tuscany or England’s Cotswold villages, to be destroyed in this way. The country’s tourist industry is bound to suffer as a result.
The modern world and EU money are doing Ceausescu’s architectural destruction for him. And, because only richer farmers are eligible for EU grants, the subsidies are squeezing out the smaller, self-sufficient farmers whose harmless methods of caring for the land naturally preserve the biodiversity of the region, and its historic appearance. Botanists will tell you that once the unique medieval wildflower meadows are gone, which now exist only in Romania, they can never be recreated.
So the message is this: Romania is a deeply fascinating country, but if you want to see and feel something of this fascination, go there soon. If the Romanian government and the EU do not speedily put their heads together to do something quickly and seriously to protect what remains of the country’s all too fragile beauty, within a few years there will be little left to see: the fascination will be gone, and the spell broken.
William Blacker’s book about his life in a rural Transylvanian village is ‘Along the Enchanted Way’ (John Murray)
Prince Charles’s guesthouse at Zalánpatak opens next month, with five double rooms costing £86 including breakfast. His other guesthouse, at Viscri, has already accepted occasional guests, but opens fully from spring 2011, with three doubles available at the same price. All profits go to building conservation work in the area. For details of both see www.transylvaniancastle.com. The closest airport in Romania is Cluj-Napoca, which has direct flights from the UK, France, Italy, Spain and Germany