A buried impression of lazy late August days in Italy’s Garfagnana region suddenly resurfaced in the humdrum busy-ness of a London autumn. The settlement of that part of Tuscany, like so many other hilly and mountainous regions of Europe, consists in its oldest continuous form of a few small towns and scores of villages. There are no large towns or cities in the Garfagnana, though there are some small industrial centres along the valley of the Serchio as it winds between the Apuan Alps and the Apennines.
The villages, for tourists at least, are a large part of the Garfagnana’s attraction. Built of local stone, they perch on saddles of the mountains, good defensive positions where there is also just enough flat or flattish ground to grow vegetables and vines. They look as if they had grown organically out of the rock or, like mythical creatures, had come to rest and been petrified in the time of legends, before history began.
One thing these towns and villages are not is identical to one another. Part of the attraction of leisurely visiting is noticing the different character of each town and village, expressed not just in architectural peculiarities but in ambiance, the way the people seem to be.
Motrone, the village above little, humble, friendly San Romano, where we were staying, has an entirely different feel; more haughty, more isolated. Across the valley from San Romano is Cardoso, whose more open feel could be explained by the fact that this village has more easily cultivable land.
When English writer Gerald Brenan went to live in an obscure village in the Alpujarra, south of Granada, in the 1920s, he made a strange decision. He was, apparently, cutting himself off from the mainstream of cultural life. He rarely went to Granada (let alone Madrid), where he might have developed personal and cultural links with luminaries such as Lorca and Falla. But the reward was the deep understanding he gained of the organic, largely self-contained world of a Spanish pueblo, little changed for hundreds of years, where people regarded the inhabitants of the next village, let alone the nearest big town, as foreigners.
I was thinking both of Brenan’s Alpujarra and of the Garfagnana last week when I went to Romania to visit the Saxon villages of Transylvania. I travelled with a team from the Mihai Eminescu Trust (Met), which is working not just to restore the fabric of these remarkable architectural ensembles but also to try to rebuild community and sustainable skills.
The villages sit in a deeply pastoral landscape of valleys flanked by richly wooded hills still roamed by bear and wolf. They are home to medieval churches and immense barns, and are both hauntingly sad and inspiringly beautiful. The sadness comes from the fact that the Saxons whose ancestors built and lived in them for 850 years nearly all emigrated when German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher offered citizenship to the German diaspora in 1990. Decay quickly followed when the villages were used for social housing and occupied by people of very different outlook and traditions.
Met, together with other organisations including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), has achieved great things in saving some of the most important and typical buildings, especially the magnificent churches with their double rings of fortification, where the Saxons retreated in times of trouble. They are architectural marvels – some of them exuberantly decorated, some with their original renaissance painted altarpieces intact. Met has also restored many village houses, with loving attention to the details of masonry and joinery.
It is relatively easy to restore a house or a church, one of several impressive young Romanians working for Met commented to me: you put on a new roof and rebuild the walls. A far greater challenge is to restore the life of a village that has suffered a catastrophic trauma such as the emigration of 90 per cent of its inhabitants.
I am not sure it is possible but Caroline Fernolend, Met’s energetic director in Romania, a Saxon who (with her husband, her parents and sister) refused to leave her home village of Viscri, is passionately committed to making it happen. She is fired by something beyond a fogeyish interest in preserving architectural heritage; or rather she is driven not by nostalgia but by a vision for her country’s future. Working as an accountant in the benighted Ceausescu years, she was not exactly encouraged to develop her forensic skills. Now she sees it as her great opportunity and mission to encourage her compatriots (not just Saxons) “to think for themselves, to develop their own initiatives”.
I left Romania feeling vaguely optimistic. Fernolend is confronted by an array of obstacles – corrupt local and national politicians, crazy one-size-fits-all European Union regulations – which make the labours of Hercules look like household chores. But she and her splendid team of young Romanians seem to see a way forward for their country that is neither that of communism nor of smugly corporate, environmentally profligate big business. Who knows, a Europe of villages might one day flourish again.
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres