After 800 years, the German communities that made their homes in Transylvania are leaving, writes Jason Goodwin
Ten years ago, shortly before Ceausescu fell, a western photographer appeared in the German village of Viscri, or Weiskirchendorf, in Transylvania. Caroline, the current mayoress, remembers him well. It was still the custom then for the villagers to turn out for church in their traditional costume - embroidered smocks, bonnets and waistcoats - and while the photographer was unable to stay till Sunday, he asked them to wear their costume for a day nonetheless, for the sake of his photographs.

The villagers obliged. In good spirit they processed, as if it were Sunday, up to the church. There was no service, no sermon, no dancing afterwards on the green, of course, but the visitor got his pictures and the villagers his grateful thanks. The photographer left, Sunday came, and as the bells rang the entire congregation went to church in ordinary dress. Caroline shrugs, a little ruefully: the fragile bubble of belief had burst.

A year later, in 1990, Romania opened its borders to the west. People whose families had been in the village for 800 years slaughtered their pigs, ate up their chickens, locked up and left for Germany.

For centuries, Transylvania was a frontier state, a high and hilly plateau in the crook of the Carpathians, from where a varied population of Hungarians, Germans, Szecklers and Romanians battled and traded with the Ottomans beyond the great mountain range. As a semi-independent state, Transylvania supplied both Poland and Hungary with kings, and exercised religious tolerance long before such a notion became fashionable in the west. Transylvania was Hungary, when Hungary was lost to the Turks, and it was here that the first Romanian books were printed.

Wealth and alarums have shaped the country. An abundance of splendid medieval architecture, unrivalled anywhere in eastern Europe, testifies to the province's frontier role. Magnificent churches are hung with priceless collections of antique turkish carpets, presented by returning merchants in thanksgiving. A walled city on a knoll, from some Wagnerian dream, encloses cobbled streets and teeming window boxes. Avenues of trees mark dusty tracks to villages in the hills. But the decline of the Turkish menace meant the decline of the Turkish trade, and by the 18th century, Habsburg Transylvania was on the road to nowhere. Development ceased. With the publication of Bram Stoker's Dracula, real Transylvania was overtaken by a fiction. Ceded by Hungary to Romania in 1920, but neglected and forgotten, Transylvania is still the jewel of eastern Europe.

Three hours out of Otopeni airport we crossed the Carpathians and entered Transylvania. Dusk was falling as we left the asphalt road for a rocky, potholed track that wound through the hills into the Burzenland. Horse- drawn wagons lumbered by. Peasants with scythes trudged home along the verge. Through a gap in the hill ahead, a great medieval watchtower loomed up, with the bastioned walls of a Gothic church, before we clattered into a low, broad village street, scattering chickens and small children. A stream, bordered by grass, ran down the middle of the street. A woman was working the village pump, and horses drank at the trough. A herd of cattle ambled slowly down the road, turning off one by one as they reached their home-yard after a day in pasture. If this is poverty, by 20th-century standards - by the standards of the last century - it is more than decent. It is a finely spun, well-honed culture of life. The houses are lit by electricity, and several even have satellite TV.

We finally arrived in Viscri, or Weisskirchendorf, in the dark, while the dogs barked and the children chattered invisibly beneath the pear trees. Caroline, the nominal mayoress, disposed us in empty houses round the village, before producing a welcome supper of schnapps, sausages, mash, and pink wine, all home-made. In German and English we talked of gypsies, cookery, schools and poverty. And the following day we unlocked the door to the 14th-century church.

Until Ceausescu's fall, all this area was essentially German. Ever since the Hungarian kings invited German colonists to settle their borders in the 12th century, to work and defend a land prey to Tartar raids and Ottoman incursions, the Transylvanian "Saxons" had formed a bulwark of western Christendom against the Turks. They built towns and villages, tilled the land, embellished their surroundings, their dialects and their art. The cross-currents of their lives met in the church. They adopted Lutheranism eagerly, distinguishing themselves from local Hungarian Catholics as much as from Orthodox Romanians. Their churches grew into expressions of community solidarity: there was not an event, or a festival, that was not celebrated in or around the church. The ever-present danger of Turkish raids enforced a military discipline. The spires were rebuilt as watchtowers; the churchyards were walled, moated, turreted and machicolated, protecting enormous granaries and larders where all the village produce was stored against the possibility of a siege.

For eight centuries, the Transylvania Germans went their own way, unimaginably remote from their land of origin a thousand miles to the north-west; the legend spread that they descended from the children of Hamelin, stolen by the Pied Piper. But for 40 years after the war they, like many other Romanians, began dreaming of escape from the terror state. In 1990 they seized their chance, moving away to Germany in a gathering stampede. Pushed by insecurity, pulled by the prospect of high pay or pensions, an astonishingly self-contained, near-medieval culture disintegrated in the face of modernity.

Caroline is one of the few who stayed. Now in her mid-thirties, she teaches in Romanian at the handsome Habsburg village school. She dispenses medicine, nurses the sick, stands guardian for various German houses which have been empty since the exodus, and with her husband, Walther, keeps her little family self-sufficient in meat, eggs, wool and vegetables. Standing in the empty church, she recalls exactly where the congregation used to sit, the newly confirmed girls, the little children, the elderly women beneath the figure of the angel of death. Beyond an ancient door she shows us the tanzplatz, about 30ft round, enclosed by benches, and the big oak where the band used to play waltzes on Sunday afternoons. This is where she danced with Walther, and was betrothed. This is the world of, say, Jane Austen, or Laurie Lee, parochial but intense, tiny stages on which the gamut of human emotions were played out and where the great movements of history were echoed on an intimate scale, the message refingered to fit local realities, the tune that was played - Schlager waltzes, for the most part, as Caroline recalls - reacting to a whiff of gypsy violins, and the shuffle of Romanian dances, up the street.

The waltz is over now; but village life goes on, embedded here and there with unexpected fragments of the Saxon past. Despite the Saxon exodus, each village still maintains a steana on the surrounding hills, where shepherds live out the summer, making soft cheeses which are carted down to the village every day. Transport is the long wagon, one of the most tractable vehicles in the world. The rubber-tyred cart can surmount any rut or puddle, with the horses sometimes belly-deep in water; and a stockman gave me an impromptu driving lesson which was also a lesson in harmonies - between men and horses, and between the ethnic groups of Transylvania. His tasselled whip never actually left its socket at his side. He had only to twirl the red thong at its tip, or blow a kiss, and the horse broke into a trot. He had only to tug at the reins, and shout "Zuruck! Zuruck!", and the horse backed like a Lippizaner.

With Caroline's help we were able to explore some of the ancient villages of the Burzenland on foot. Some, like Biertan, with one of the most monumental Saxon churches, have been restored, and for a few pounds you can stay in the church-house funded by Unesco money, but most of the village churches are already slipping into decay. From Biertan we launched ourselves over the hills to Mosna. Horse-drawn carts jounced over the grass tracks, and young men walked to their fields through a scatter of wild flowers; how England must have been before the car.

The sheer scale and beauty of the church at Mosna, where again we stayed in empty Saxon village houses, was breathtaking. The 13th-century nave was supported on three pairs of pillars, smooth, fluted and spiralled respectively; the soaring Gothic windows were protected by overhead ravelins, from which boiling pitch could have been tipped down on a Turkish war party; and as for the watchtower, I soon gave up trying to climb the creaking oak ladders that zigzagged without much visible support to the gallery way overhead.

In villages reached only by paths and cart tracks we met old Saxons who had stayed on. One elderly man showed me a weathered stone in the vestry, which boys had to carry to the top of the nearby hill and down again before they could marry. A handful of Saxons were left, he said, from a congregation which recently numbered hundreds; but why should he leave? This was where he was born, and the very cats and dogs of the village knew him. He had never been to the pearl of Saxon Transylvania, Sighisoara, 30 miles away. Romanians

and gypsies had moved in alongside, but apart from a mild imprecation of gypsy farming (these crops, he said, were too low and late), he preferred to stay on.

After the crises of the last 10 years - the emigrating Saxons, the new gypsy families who drink, the collapse of agriculture in a country where, for reasons which still defeat me, local sunflower oil is more expensive than a German import - the defensive, hierarchical, enveloping architecture of villages like Mosna and Viscri is under threat. A few of these churches have been singled out for preservation; but dozens survive through the efforts of their decimated congregations, and will not, I think, last all that long. The new Romanian and gypsy settlers in the Saxon villages are disconnected from the architecture of Protestantism, buildings which were conceived on a grand scale in times of medieval wealth, then cared for by tenacious communities over centuries. Theft is unavoidable - altarpieces by such masters as Weit Stoss, who also worked on the church in Cracow, have already begun to disappear. Perhaps more significant is the tilt of a 16th century door that has lost its hinge, the broken glass that admits the birds, the slipping tile, the rotting step, and the threatening sight of courtyards growing wild.

After clambering up a rustic staircase at Viscri, I found, in a low, oak-beamed room, a long side of bacon hanging from the rafters. It had dissolved from the inside; outwardly it still looked good enough to eat. A bunch of burdock on the string preserved it from the mice. Knowledge of burdock: knowledge of ham: conformity to the medieval dictate that every family should keep its store in the protective walls of the church; only whoever hung it there was gone.



Jason Goodwin flew to Romania with British Airways (tel: 0345 222111). Return flights cost pounds 249. Village accommodation costs about pounds 8 per person per night. Contact the Mihai Eminescu Trust (tel: 01285 750296).


The Romanian Tourist Board, 83a, Marylebone High Street, London W1M 3DE (tel: 0171-224 3692).