The unexpected rebirth of a Saxon village in Romania

It could have been the end of the centuries-old village of Viscri in the hills of Transylvania when almost all its inhabitants, Saxons of German origin, left in 1989 at the collapse of communism.

After all, how could such a small village survive in the poor and remote Romanian countryside?

But Romanians - Roma Gypsies as well as non Roma - have breathed new life into the picturesque village.

They moved into the abandoned houses and worked with the remaining Saxons to forge a new future based on cultural tourism, sustainable agriculture and a revival of ancient craftsmanship.

Last year more than 11,000 tourists from around the world came to see Viscri's pastel-coloured houses and its fortified church, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Even Britain's Prince Charles has bought a house there.

"We are proud of the rebirth because after the departure of the Saxons, their traditional farm houses lay derelict," said Caroline Fernolend, one of the few members of the German minority who stayed behind.

"Then some Romanian Roma families who had been living outside the village in wooden houses moved in," Fernolend told AFP.

The Saxons had settled in Transylvania, the centre of today's Romania, in the 12th century at the request of a local king.

In January 1990 there were 300 living in Viscri. In December of the same year there were only 68.

Today the population is back up to 420, a large number of whom are Roma although many prefer not to be referred to as such because of the negative stereotypes associated with this community in Europe.

With the help of the Mihai Eminescu Trust set up with British support, the new inhabitants, "Romanian Roma and non Roma, learned how to restore and preserve this rich heritage," said Fernolend, vice president of the Trust.

They revived ancient crafts, such as making tiles, and rebuilt old Saxon buildings, restoring villages in work that will be on show in an exhibition opening at the Romanian embassy in Washington on Thursday (October 14).

Gheorghe Lascu, 47, never thought he would do the same work as his grandfather. But for three years now he has been making traditional bricks and tiles to renovate Saxon buildings.

"I am very proud of what we do," he said, watching over a fire warming the kiln in which his latest bricks and tiles were being "cooked".

Gheorghe and his wife Dorina mould every tile and brick themselves. They use clay from the neighbourhood, which English experts had tested and identified as the most suitable raw material.

"The idea was to help maintain traditional skills while providing a living for a family," said Colin Richards, head of a conservation and archeology unit in the Shropshire council in Britain and also a Trust expert who visits once a year to help the Lascu family.

Viscri's inhabitants were also encouraged to open bed-and-breakfasts to accommodate visitors drawn by its ancient way of life restored. Today there are 11 pensions run by local families.

"At the beginning, we started to rent only one room. Now we have three," said Maria Panait, who with her husband renovated a house in the centre of the village.

"We have a lot of tourists from abroad. They usually like traditional food and organic cheese from our sheep," she said.

The Panaits set up another project in which village women knit woollen socks, a venture that took a knock during the global economic crisis with orders, mostly from Germany, plummeting from 12,000 pairs to only 2,000 last year.

The Gabor brothers, Matei, 32, and Istvan, 28, also took up their grandfather's craft.

"He was a very skilled blacksmith who was called by the Saxons to work in Viscri. We learned a lot from him," Istvan said.

He and his brother make traditional locks, intricate hinges, horseshoes and even chandeliers.

"We here, we are proud to know that our iron works are used in the fortified Saxon church of Viscri," Istvan said.

He and his brother are among the very few inhabitants of Viscri who call themselves Roma.

"I am first and foremost a human being, like we all are here, but I am also proud to be a Roma," Istvan said.

Romania's Roma community is the biggest in Europe: the official census puts the number at 530,000 but pressure groups say it is as high as 2.5 million, with most Roma not declaring themselves as such fearing discrimination.

A French crackdown on Roma, which the French government has linked to crime, has highlighted problems afflicting the community including prejudice, poverty, housing segregation and education and labour market barriers.

The topic was the focus of a European Union conference in the Romanian capital this week that called for member states to do more to improve the situation of the Roma people.

For Istvan, the peaceful village of Viscri has shielded him from many of these worries.

"Here it does not matter if you are Romanian Roma, Hungarian, German or something else. We consider ourselves human beings first," he told AFP.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
people
Life and Style
President Obama, one of the more enthusiastic users of the fist bump
science
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
tv
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders were pictured embracing in 2012
people
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried