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Dusk in the main street of Viscri, one of several hundred ancient villages scattered through the remote foothills of the Transylvanian Alps, features a peculiar daily routine. A procession of cows, goats and geese saunters un-shepherded, down from the hills to pass the night in outbuildings attached to the village’s farmhouses. It is a bucolic picture in a land that time forgot, where hay is still harvested by scythes and remote valleys are scattered with wild flowers and rare birds.
The image of rustic life has stirred several visitors, among them the Prince of Wales. Drawn by the area’s traditional farming practices — the horse and cart is still in fashion — and its preservation of an ancient form of life, Prince Charles has become a leading player in local conservation efforts.
These villages were originally settled by ethnic German Saxons and Szeklers (a border-living warrior tribe of Hungarian origin) more than 800 years ago when the king of what was then Hungary invited them to guard his borders against the Ottoman Turks in return for fertile land and a degree of self-government. There the villages stood, most of them shaped around a central fortified church, more or less uninterrupted until the late 1980s. Many then came within months of being bulldozed by “systemisation”, the brutal rural demolition programme of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, before the regime was overthrown in 1989.
In the early 1990s, in accordance with its policy of repatriating its ethnic populations from abroad, the German government invited the Romanian Saxons to migrate to Germany where they were given housing and stipends. The ensuing exodus left thousands of houses abandoned and vacant. Romanian and Roma families reoccupied some, while others remained empty.
Romania’s subsequent rising affluence — helped by EU membership in 2007 and a steady recovery from the financial crisis since early 2013 — has proved a mixed blessing for traditional homes. “The problem is that many locals associate the traditional houses with poverty,” says Count Tibor Kalnoky, a native of the region and active conservationist. They prefer to build their own larger homes, aping the architecture in France and Spain where many Romanians find seasonal work, says Brian Curran, of the Global Heritage Fund, which runs a number of conservation projects in the villages. Alternatively, they will often renovate the houses with little regard for the traditional design, adopting new materials such as plastic windows and modern roof tiles. In some cases they knock houses down and start again.
Spurred by the interest of the prince — who started visiting the area in 1998 — a nationwide publicity campaign has recently taken shape. One national television network has just finished a year-long series of programmes lauding the benefits of sensitive restoration and shaming the odd hideous carbuncle.
In November, BCR, Romania’s largest commercial bank, started offering preferential borrowing rates for owners restoring houses in traditional villages. In June, having been patron of one local charity for a decade, the prince launched his own Foundation Romania, focusing on education, heritage preservation and sustainable development.
The fashion for eco-tourism has provided another lifeline. A quiet boom in adventurous travellers, curious to discover the peace and beauty of old rural villages, has seen many return for a holiday home. Paul Hemmerth, himself a Saxon who left for Germany in 1980 and returned in 1997, now owns several B&B properties in the popular village of Richis, which has fewer than 800 residents. He reckons that half of his guests — “Dutch, Italians, English, Americans, Israelis” — make inquiries about buying at the end of their stay.
Look at the prices and you can see why. Entry-level farmhouses cost less than what many Londoners would pay for a new kitchen. Hemmerth, who also acts as a local agent, says it is possible to find a dilapidated two-bedroom house, built around the traditional courtyard design for less than €5,000. In Richis, there are more than 34 houses for sale at present, priced between €27,500 and €60,000. Eight have been sold in the past month, mainly to European buyers. Nearby, the village of Beia has a number of well-preserved homes and a fortified church; it is an hour’s drive from Brasov, where construction of a new airport is almost finished.
For a more ambitious holiday home, locals say that Bran Castle is still on the market. Previous owners of the 12th-century Transylvanian pile include — in fiction, at least — Count Dracula. Bran’s owners are tight-lipped about the price — or even whether they would sell — but one local claims €12m could be enough.
Local residents and the Romanian state have priority on land sales, which must be advertised for 30 days before foreign buyers can bid. Only citizens from countries in the European Economic Area are entitled to buy land in Romania. One popular option for foreign buyers is to set up a limited company in Romania through which to purchase the home, although this will incur higher taxes.
In general, says Paul Michael Beza, founder of the British Romanian Chamber of Commerce, the buying process will be familiar to those who have bought in continental Europe, with fees a little cheaper. Hardly a slave’s labour, he says, “to acquire a slice of prelapsarian paradise.”
● The Saxon villages of the Transylvanian Alps, or Southern Carpathian Mountains, are in the south-central region of Romania
● All citizens from the European Economic Area are free to buy houses in Romania; in many cases, those outside may face restrictions on owning land
● The villages of Richis and Viscri are popular with foreign buyers. Viscri is 63 miles from Targu Mures international airport, which has five flights each week from London
What you can buy for . . .
€7,500 A small, rundown two-bedroom house in need of complete renovation on 100 sq metres of land
€30,000 A medium-sized, three-bedroom house on 1,800 sq metres, in need of some renovation
€60,000 A five-bedroom house with a large courtyard on a plot measuring 3,000 sq metres in a well-appointed street
For more properties, please visit ftpropertylistings.com
Photographs: Global Heritage Fund/Williajm Blacker; Massimiliano Natale/Getty Images