It is February, and snow blankets the countryside. Traffic on the icy tracks consists of horse-drawn carts laden with milk churns and hay. The scene is dominated by the magnificent medieval churches of the Saxon region. In the villages wood-smoke curls from chimneys while old women in long skirts and headscarves sweep the paths to their thresholds. It feels like stepping into a tableau by Pieter Brueghel.
Time indeed appears to have stood still in the Saxon villages of Transylvania – an area roughly the size of Belgium consisting of more than 200 villages and the seven towns of the Siebenbürgen. These lands of central Romania were first populated by Saxons in the 12th century, at the invitation of King Géza II of Hungary, and they thrived. But war and communism put paid to all that.
In 1945, many Saxons were deported to the Siberian gulags. When survivors returned in 1953, they found their homes occupied. It was the fall of communism, however, that saw the mass migration of some 95 per cent of Saxons to Germany. Many of the idyllic houses, with their pitched, fish-scale tiled roofs and stucco-decorated façades have since been left abandoned and in disrepair.
Caroline Fernolend is one of the few Saxons who stayed on in the village of Viscri, where she was born and where her ancestors lived for 800 years, pledging to fight to preserve the culture and traditions of her heritage.
“We had been trying to raise awareness of the plight of the Saxon villages and make Viscri Unesco-protected since 1991,” she says. “We finally succeeded in 1999.” Fernolend is Romanian director of the Mihai Eminescu Trust (MET), a charitable foundation that is active in 26 Saxon villages and five Saxon towns, garnering numerous awards for its work. This extends not only to restoring buildings, but also to community projects and to training local people in traditional skills before helping them set up businesses.
For Britons, it is perhaps the involvement of the Prince of Wales as patron of the MET that has brought these villages to wider attention.
Along with the revitalisation of the villages there has been a growing interest from foreigners with a commitment to preserving this unusual heritage.
Giovanna Bassetti, a wealthy Italian industrialist, has invested heavily in the little village of Copsa Mare and its infrastructure, purchasing over a dozen houses since 2005, of which one has been converted into a family home and four now serve as guesthouses. The remaining houses will be offered for sale to like-minded people “with an interest in preserving the integrity of the historic architecture and willingness to invest in the future of the village”, Bassetti says.
The typical Saxon farmhouse lies behind a high wall and large wooden gateway that leads into a cobbled courtyard. Along one side runs the main house with adjoining pens and stables for animals. At right angles to this there is generally a large wooden barn, and the fourth side of the rectangle is formed by neighbouring plots.
Property prices in Romania rocketed to unsustainable levels post-1990, reaching their peak in 2009 before plummeting by over 30 per cent. In the villages, however, there was little demand for houses, and property prices danced to their own tune.
Art historian Lucy Abel Smith, who leads group tours to Romania, first visited the Saxon villages under communism and fell for the charm of the village of Richis. “In 2000 I bought a wreck for $5,000,” she says, “then spent an additional $30,000 to restore it.”
In the same village today, a house consisting of around 10 rooms on some 2,000 sq m of land that includes a plum orchard and vineyards, is priced at €45,000 (negotiable). In Viscri, due to its World Heritage status, a smaller house that sold for €2,500 in 1996 would now fetch around €60,000, unrestored. Should you wish to live in thriving Malâncrav, where an unusually large 12 per cent of the 1,000-strong population is still Saxon, a large farmhouse is available for an optimistic €80,000.
The problems begin with finding such properties. The market is anything but transparent, especially in the villages, where the concept of professional estate agents is, in the words of one lawyer, “non-existent”. Properties are sold by word of mouth, particulars are vague.
“Prospective buyers should find a reliable local person to locate a property and to show them around,” advises Bogdan Burghelea, a property lawyer based in Sighisoara. “And then it is imperative to check legal title in the Land Registry.”
This is where the knowledge of the MET can prove invaluable. “In principle, we can inform interested parties about the availability of houses,” says Fernolend, “and also advise on skilled workmen, materials, and what we pay for each job ... Buyers should be aware that the purchase price represents only a fraction of the overall cost.”
Potential buyers should also factor in the time and expense of obtaining permits to do the necessary restoration (approximately €5,000), taxes (“depending on the circumstances of each case, as decided by the fiscal authorities,” according to a notary in Sighisoara), notaries’ fees, and, not least, running costs – including that of a housekeeper to deter squatters.
One final consideration is the vagaries of Romanian law. Currently, the law states that foreigners may purchase a freehold property but not the land on which it stands. “The solution is either to create a contract putting the land in the name of a Romanian – such as your housekeeper,” says Burghelea, “or become a ‘legal entity’ by registering a company in Romania.” Even here, however, matters are not that clear-cut. “Our law is open to interpretation,” he explains. “So we have a strange situation whereby the association of notaries in Sibiu county, for example, is now allowing foreigners to own their land; but in other counties, such as Mures, it is not”.
Buying property in the Saxon villages is not for the faint-hearted, and entails unspoken responsibilities. Persevere, however, and the reward is a slice of prelapsarian paradise.
Teresa Levonian Cole was a guest of the Mihai Eminescu Trust www.mihaieminescutrust.org
● Pristine countryside
● Low cost of historic buildings
● Sense of community
● Lack of transparency
● Evolving legislation cost and difficulty of managing restoration from abroad
What you can buy for ...
£100,000 A Saxon village house, fully restored and renovated
£1m An early 20th-century mansion of approx 500 sq m in the historic centre of one of the Sieberbürgen, such as Sibiu, Sighisoara or Brasov – if you can find one
● Mihai Eminescu Trustwww.mihaieminescutrust.org
● Giovanna Bassetti Email: Giovanna@bassetti.net
● Bogdan Burghelea Email: firstname.lastname@example.org