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.

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