Lost corner of Europe where water still comes from the well

Head into deepest Transylvania and you can still find a land of wildflower meadows and perfectly preserved medieval villages. Mark Rowe reports
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The Independent Travel

You will search in vain for landladies who proffer a crucifix to ward off expected evils. Men in capes with exceptionally large canine teeth are notable by their absence. There are, though, Gothic castles to raise the hairs on the back of your neck, and the vast landscape is every bit as beautiful as the Count Dracula of Bram Stoker's novel promised his English guest. Here Transylvania is green, hilly and sparsely populated. There are also the Saxon villages, some 230 of them, in the folded hills of the southern part of the region that push up against the southern bend of the Carpathian mountain range. These are dominated by magnificent fortified churches and are set in some of the last medieval landscapes in Europe.

You will search in vain for landladies who proffer a crucifix to ward off expected evils. Men in capes with exceptionally large canine teeth are notable by their absence. There are, though, Gothic castles to raise the hairs on the back of your neck, and the vast landscape is every bit as beautiful as the Count Dracula of Bram Stoker's novel promised his English guest. Here Transylvania is green, hilly and sparsely populated. There are also the Saxon villages, some 230 of them, in the folded hills of the southern part of the region that push up against the southern bend of the Carpathian mountain range. These are dominated by magnificent fortified churches and are set in some of the last medieval landscapes in Europe.

I headed for one such village, Viscri. It took five hours to drive the 150 miles from Bucharest, north along the Istanbul-Paris highway. As I turned off at the signpost for the village, I wondered whether I should also turn my watch back 700 years. The asphalt road disappeared, and a track of crushed stone meandered past increasingly remote farms and over the sort of wooden bridges you hope will still be there when you make the return journey. Four miles down this road lay Viscri.

The village comprises a long street, which climbs uphill. Through the middle runs a small stream, lined by young pear trees, and by which stands a trough. Distinctive Saxon houses, some beautifully restored, others almost derelict, line each side of the road. Many retain the style and character the first Saxons brought to Transylvania in the 12th century. Each building has a huge main door, flanked by stone dwellings with hipped roofs. A gate leads into a cobbled courtyard, with vegetable gardens. At the rear stands a large timber-framed barn. Beyond that, an orchard, then meadows.

House martins and barn swallows flit through the village from dawn to dusk. Mother geese nudge their goslings around, while horses amble back and forth. Storks nest on chimney tops. On the pastures, flowers bloom everywhere. The world heritage status Viscri was given by the United Nations a few years back is richly deserved.

As an outsider you attract interest, but little more, perhaps, than a goat or bullock that might wander in unexpectedly. You are left with the sensation of walking through an open-air folk museum. The sounds are German but this could not be Germany for such villages have long since disappeared there. The Deutsch spoken here retains many archaic words.

I hired a horse and cart for a ride to the neighbouring village of Mesendorf, across hills and through beech woods inhabited by bears. Every now and then the Gypsy lad would softly tap the horse with his whip and say "Ge-neh" (gee-up, I presumed). The six-mile journey took three hours, as long as it takes to fly from London to Bucharest. In some parts of Transylvania, skeletons of co-operative farms, or the decaying wastes of Ceausescu's factories mark the land. Not here. But for birdsong and the clip-clop of hooves, there was silence.

This is an ancient calm, though derived from a time when peace was not assured. In 1143, the Saxons were invited by the Hungarians to guard strategic areas of Transylvania. They did their job and stayed on. Distanced from the motherland, they continued in almost perfect isolation until the Second World War. After the war, most of the adult Saxon population was sent to labour camps in the Soviet Union. Those who eventually returned found the Communists had appropriated their houses and land. While the 1989 revolution did not exactly wipe away Romania's Communist hierarchy, it did mean that the future was brighter than for at least three generations. The Saxons, though, had simply had enough. Most packed their bags for Germany. The number of Saxons in Viscri dropped from 300 to 60 in 1990. Outsiders mourned the death of the Saxon communities, assuming the villages and churches would simply fall into dereliction.

Some of those outsiders formed the Mihai Eminescu Trust (MET) in 1987, which sought, and continues, to conserve the built and natural heritage in Romania. In early 1989, the MET was prominent in alerting the West to Ceausescu's crazed plan to destroy Romania's villages and forcibly relocate village communities to urban blocks of flats. One of the fundamental principles of the trust is to approach architectural restoration and conservation from the point of view of the community that inhabits it. In 1999 the trust turned its attention to the Saxon villages and began to implement the Whole Village Project, aiming to combine architectural and cultural conservation with economic development. The MET has had a huge impact, and there is now cause for cautious optimism in the villages where it works. The Prince of Wales is its patron and the villagers proudly talk of his occasional visits.

The MET works closely with Britain's Landmark Trust and has restored several guesthouses for visitors in several villages. I stayed in three guesthouses, in Viscri, Crit and Malancrav. All were charming and spick and span, and had running hot water. The stone buildings, which are painted a pretty shade of blue, have original features such as traditional "fridges", comprising a hole in the wall covered with a part-coloured panel. The floors have locally woven rugs. The authentic furniture includes wicker chairs and painted benches. The bunks were distinctive, too: five feet high and six feet long, they resembled a huge chest of drawers, except that, when you pulled on the handles, it was a snug bed, not clothing, that emerged, attached to the frame. There are gorgeous tiled woodburning stoves, modelled on the originals. The houses are light and airy and have pleasant courtyards. It's the rural idyll experience for which you would pay a small fortune in France, only a lot more authentic.

That road of crushed stone was no accident: the villagers chose it, fearing that asphalt would allow coach parties to swamp their daily routine. This was explained by Caroline Fernolend, Viscri's local councillor, and one of the driving forces behind the restorations. "I hope the Saxons will come back," she said. "It was so hard to live here during Communist times. I wanted to leave then, too. It was difficult to lose everybody because this was a perfect community. But I'm just so happy with what has happened recently. Now we have done away with Communism we are free, but we still have to fight a lot."

Caroline showed me around the fortified Weisskirch, or White Church, after which Viscri is named. From the outside it resembles a citadel, with wooden watchtowers rising above the sturdy walls. Inside, it boasts a stark beauty, with painted floral patterns on the wall panels and pews. In the courtyard stand 150-year-old walnut trees.

The churches were built to protect the community from Turks and Tatars. Vlad Dracul, better known as Vlad the Impaler, also hovered on the horizon during the 15th century, and the prospect of being on the receiving end of one of Vlad's strategically placed spikes would be enough to make anyone turn their church into a fortress.

Of all the Saxon churches, the most remarkable is to be found in Malancrav, one of the largest of the villages, which lies eight miles down a beautifully secluded valley, where buzzards stand on neglected wooden posts. The church frescoes date to the 14th century; church experts believe these are the finest surviving paintings from an Evangelical church in Europe. I climbed up the bell tower, via a series of rickety age-old wooden stepladders. If this exquisite church were in Pisa, or Florence, you would have to buy a timed ticket to visit it.

In each village, and every day, I was woken at 6am by the tinkling of cows' bells. Looking out of the window, I would see the street packed with 100 or more cows being herded out to pasture. Sheepdogs growled and nipped their ankles; the shepherds' whips cracked the air. At 8pm, the herd would return, individual cattle turning off at their owner's house. They wait patiently. If the door isn't opened, they knock on it with their horns.

It was a photographer's dream but I felt unusually reluctant to start snapping. That old adage came to mind, about how the observer can change the habits of the observed. The farmers have brought these cows home every evening, more or less, for centuries. Viscri, Crit and the rest could easily become grotesque pastiches, whereby tourists line the main street to photograph the spectacle; the farmers, rich from the extra money these visitors bring, would no longer depend on the milk the cows produce - they would simply herd the cows in the same way that the Masai dance for tourists. The MET, with people like Caroline Fernolend, are seeking to avoid this, and to strike a balance. One hopes they succeed.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Mark Rowe travelled to the Saxon villages with Transylvania Uncovered (0845-3000 247; www.beyondtheforest.com). It offers a seven-day package, with self-catering accommodation in MET-restored properties, from £410 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights from Heathrow and car hire.

Further information

For information on the MET's Whole Village Project, and the trust's work in general, visit www.mihaieminescutrust.org.

Romanian National Tourist Office (020-7224 3692; www.visitromania.com).

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