Prince Charles in Transylvania by William Blacker Financial Times, August 2010
When in early 1990 I first went to Transylvania, leaving behind the bright lights of western Europe and adjusting my eyes to the more sober tones of its eastern reaches, I could hardly believe that such a place still existed. In deep winter I crossed the northern Carpathian Mountains and came down, through misty forests and snow-covered roads, into the Middle Ages – or something astonishingly like it. Horses or oxen pulling sleighs occupied the roads, and cows and geese wandered freely. The villagers were dressed in smocks, sheepskin coats and fur hats, and had rough leather strapped to their feet, with woollen cloth wrapped around their calves held in place by thongs; footwear truly from another age, as worn by peasants depicted in medieval illustrated manuscripts.
I was just a few hours east of Vienna, but crossing the border into Romania was a journey back in time. I settled there, and for more than 10 years I was fortunate enough to be able to live a rural life that previously I had known only through the pages of a Hardy or Tolstoy novel. I was astonished by the visual purity of the new environment in which I found myself. It was a country still commercially chaste, and innocent of the garish trappings of the capitalist world. There was no advertising, no neon lights, no plastic, no brash petrol stations (just a few simple pumps), very few cars – and all of the same make – that chugged and jolted over rough roads marked by the occasional rusting road sign. There were horses pulling carts, with foals trotting along beside them, outnumbering motor vehicles by 50 to one. In the villages, the houses were either of wood with carved and fretted verandas, or of brick or stone and lime-washed in soft blues, greens and ochres. All around there were huge and echoing forests, hay meadows so filled with flowers that they seemed to be part of some endless garden, and almost always, in the background, loomed the glittering Carpathian Mountains.
It was a land vividly described by Patrick Leigh Fermor in one of the great travel books of the 20th century, Between the Woods and the Water, and by Gregor Von Rezzori, whose beautiful autobiography The Snows of Yesteryear is set in Moldavia and Transylvania, and captures in dream-like prose this dream-like world. The landscape still has this ethereal quality; it stretches for miles in every direction, all unfenced just as in England in the 18th century before the land enclosures. There is nothing else like it left in Europe. On my early journeys through this antique land, travelling was not always straightforward. There were almost no restaurants, shops, hotels, or guest houses. When walking over the hills, often guided by the steeples of village churches, I had to rely upon the kindness of strangers. Sometimes I might share a room with snoozing lambs, and discover a hen and her chicks under my bed. At other times I slept in hay barns, and my supper was milked directly from the udder of a goat that had wandered into a smoky cottage kitchen. Now, however, life is a bit easier. There are comfortable hotels in the medieval town of Sighisoara, and excellent pensions in the beautiful Saxon villages of Viscri, Malancrav and Cund (at the end of a spectacular, winding road leading north from the town of Dumbraveni), or in the ethnically Hungarian Zabola, and Miclosoara. These villages provide locally-grown food, and sometimes, as at Cund and Zabola, of the highest quality.
English travellers might be surprised to discover that some of these guesthouses are owned by HRH the Prince of Wales. Prince Charles first visited Transylvania in 1998, saw the wild beauty of the country, and came under a similar spell to that which captivated Leigh Fermor and others before him. He realised that this pristine central European landscape of forests, hay meadows and historic villages, until then barely touched by the brute hand of the modern world, was of international importance, and must somehow be preserved. Since then he has done much to draw attention to the predicament of what the ecologist Dr Andrew Jones calls “the last truly medieval landscape in Europe”.
Through such charities as the Mihai Eminescu Trust, the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism (Intbau) and the Transylvania Trust, the prince has helped in saving hundreds of houses all over Romania, and in training multitudes of villagers in traditional building techniques. It is hoped that by preserving the villages and the countryside around them, and by encouraging traditional craftsmanship and small- scale farming, the economies of the villages can recover and thrive. As part of this approach Prince Charles has bought several endangered properties in Transylvania and turned them into comfortable guesthouses. The buildings are restored using traditional materials, with lime renders and locally-produced hand-made bricks and terracotta tiles. One of them, which the prince has owned for some years, is in the village of Viscri. The latest purchase is in the remote village of Zalánpatak in the ethnically Hungarian part of Transylvania, and opens to paying guests next month. I recently paid a visit. As I drove further and further from civilisation, the road became narrower, rougher and leafier, and I seriously began to wonder whether I was on the right track. But then, at last, a tiny village appeared, by the side of which ran a sparkling brook shaded by tall poplars. The Prince’s house, with its simple wooden verandah and outbuildings also of wood, or lime-washed in blue, is by no means grand, but the serenity of the view from the verandah on that still summer’s evening was about as perfect as one could hope to find. It was somewhere that one can describe, without wildly exaggerating, as a heavenly place. With his guesthouses the prince hopes to persuade discerning travellers to come to admire the old village architecture; to walk or ride from one village to another through the breathtaking but only half-tamed countryside of meadows, wooded hills, and trickling streams; to see evidence of wolves and bears, and all the other wildlife that survives here in abundance, but which in other parts of Europe is either extinct or on the edge of extinction; and to understand why Romania is such a special country. But, in spite of Prince Charles’s influence on conservation in Romania, most parts of the historic landscape of Transylvania are being devastated by a rash of uncontrolled modern development, which worsens by the year, and is now reaching a critical point. Many might have thought that Romania’s rural architecture had been “saved” when the communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, was executed on Christmas Day 1989, and that his deranged plan to bulldoze the villages and move their inhabitants into purpose-built blocks had been put to rest. But in reality it was only after Ceausescu’s death that the real destruction of the villages began.
Now, in the construction free-for-all of modern Romania, the country’s historic architecture is being rubbed out at a frightening pace, and the sad irony is that its destruction is being made greatly worse by European Union money pouring into the country in the form of agricultural subsidies. Those receiving these grants (often vast sums by local standards) are demolishing their old village houses and using the money to replace them with hideous and incongruous modern buildings, painted in garish orange, luminous yellow or vivid purple, often with windows of mirrored glass and stainless steel railings. It is a kitsch that is infecting the whole country. Even as I write, in a beautiful village that has until now escaped the ravages of the modern world, I can hear the demolition of a huge oak-beamed and terracotta-tiled barn in order to make way for someone’s dream villa. The 18th-century house next to it is apparently soon to follow. It is like living in southern Ireland in the 1960s, when rows of proud Georgian houses were demolished to make way for modern developments. It is almost beyond belief that the Romanian government can allow villages like those in the Saxon area of Transylvania, or in Oltenia near Campulung Muscetel, which are as picturesque as the hill towns of Tuscany or England’s Cotswold villages, to be destroyed in this way. The country’s tourist industry is bound to suffer as a result. The modern world and EU money are doing Ceausescu’s architectural destruction for him. And, because only richer farmers are eligible for EU grants, the subsidies are squeezing out the smaller, self-sufficient farmers whose harmless methods of caring for the land naturally preserve the biodiversity of the region, and its historic appearance. Botanists will tell you that once the unique medieval wildflower meadows are gone, which now exist only in Romania, they can never be recreated. So the message is this: Romania is a deeply fascinating country, but if you want to see and feel something of this fascination, go there soon. If the Romanian government and the EU do not speedily put their heads together to do something quickly and seriously to protect what remains of the country’s all too fragile beauty, within a few years there will be little left to see: the fascination will be gone, and the spell broken.
William Blacker’s book about his life in a rural Transylvanian village is ‘Along the Enchanted Way’ (John Murray)
Civil society steps in to preserve Romania's Past Stephen McGrath
In Romania, despite a lack of political will, civil society is racing to save dilapidated old structures and help ensure the survival of the region's unique identity. Yet, will their efforts be enough to save the thousands of heritage sites across the country? A dozen-strong group of volunteers gather at the stone base of a fortified Lutheran church in the small Saxon village of Filetelnic, Transylvania, as Eugen Vaida, head of the Ambulanta Pentru Monumente (Ambulance for Monuments), gives directions on how to save one of the church's three-metre-high fortified walls. The wall, part of which dates back to the 15th century, is crumbling from the top down as a result of water infiltration. This would eventually destroy the wall, as well as the ancient inscriptions on it, which date back to the 16th and 17th centuries.
Sadly, Filetelnic is not a unique case. Many heritage buildings throughout this region have fallen into various states of disrepair, from crumbling medieval fortified churches to abandoned Hungarian castles, from old war monuments to centuries-old Saxon homes. Poor state management, mass ethnic migration and a lack of funding (not to mention many decades of ruinous communism) have all taken their toll on Romania's architectural heritage. Vaida, a 36-year-old architect who runs Monumetum, an association charged with the preservation of heritage architecture, set up the Ambulance for Monuments as a pilot project in 2015 with an aim to highlight buildings in a critical state of disrepair. Ultimately, the aim is to intervene in order to prevent further damage before proper restorations can be undertaken. Often, as in Filetelnic, water damage is the culprit.
Volunteer intervention Monuments fit into two categories: those of national and universal value, and those of local and regional importance. Filetelnic is a Category A monument due to the unique cultural and architectural heritage of Saxon fortified churches. However, the list of monuments under threat in this region alone is estimated in the hundreds. Civil participation is what often makes the emergency interventions — which generally require less than a week — a success. In Filetelnic, for example, the old Saxon school was opened up to provide sleeping facilities for the dozen or so volunteers while a local restaurant provided lunches and dinners paid for by donations. Naturally, interventions are sociable events which attract young people in Romania. According to Vaida, "There is a new trend of young people who appreciate heritage."
Marius Grunca, a 36-year-old financial consultant who volunteered with Ambulance for Monuments on its first intervention, says: "The reason I volunteer is that Romania is still a materially poor country and it does not set a priority in pre-serving its past history and culture." Transylvania is a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures, and the myriad architectural styles reflect this. In some parts, Hungarian castles stand adjacent to both Lutheran and Orthodox churches. Transylvania was once a part of the Kingdom of Hungary, which from the 12th century onwards invited people from territories that today constitute France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany to protect the area from Tatar and Ottoman invaders and to help develop the economy. The settlers became known as the Transylvanian Saxons, ethnic Germans with their own culture, and a language similar to that of Luxembourg. Under the communist dictatorship of ethnicities of Nicolae Ceausescu, many Saxons were sold to Germany for hard cash and around 250,000 left following the fall of communism in 1989, in search of better opportunities. Today only around 12,000 Saxons — mostly elderly — remain. Many Lutheran churches, such as the one in Filetelnic, not to mention countless houses, have been largely abandoned.
Abandoned Hungarian castles are also in high numbers in Transylvania. Following the fall of communism, many ethnic Hungarians sought restitution cases to get back their rightful properties. Some are being restored, but they are often big projects that require huge amounts of money. Many need emergency interven-tions to prevent them from falling into a state which renders them beyond repair. Valentin Madanche, an architectural historian based in Bucharest, says: "Transylvania is a huge architectural reservation of rural medieval architecture; most of the Saxon area was left empty of its creators and it had a devastating impact on that unique heritage." Mandache also believes that the Romanian government har-bours a passive interest in the country's heritage and the political climate, which is led by the Social Democrat Party (PSD), seldom helps the situation. Mandache adds: "The PSD is preoccupied with freeing their colleagues from prison and robbing the economy and public money — architectural heritage is the last thing on their mind." He adds, "The state has money for new civic projects but they don't care too much about heritage and old buildings being destroyed." [t is a sentiment shared, in part, by Vaida. "The ministry of culture somehow has its hands bound, the laws themselves don't promote monument preservation and the punishment for the destruction of monuments is not effective and is complicated to follow through," he says.
In Bucharest, heritage buildings have been aggressively renovated or defaced, with traditional wooden window frames replaced by plastic ones or old structures knocked down to make way for modern buildings. Projects such as the Ambulance for Monuments, which is racing to save dilapidated old structures in southern Transylvania, can help to ensure the survival of the region's unique identity. "There should be a network of ambulances that are connected but not co-or-dinated by a higher up — essentially, it needs to be a project of civil society," says Vaida. The initiativek most important project to date has been the preservation of the 18th-century St. Nicolae Church in the village of Gherdeal, Sibiu County, which boasts impressive painted ceiling murals and a wooden alter, all of which was decaying due to water damage. Around 25 volunteers from across Romania gathered to save the church, which involved replacing the whole roof.
Funding for the projects come from various sources. The Gherdeal intervention received funding from the Anglo Romanian Trust for Traditional Architecture (ARTTA), the Global Heritage Fund and Romania's National Cultural Fund. William Blacker, a British author who has fought for the survival and protection of Romania's traditional architecture for many years, and is the chairman ofARTTA, believes that the value of Romania's heritage must not be understated. "There are few countries in Europe which have such a variety and richness of historic architecture," Blacker says. "But neglect and inappropriate modernisation are tearing it apart. It is sad to see it." Blacker goes on to highlight the negative impact that EU funding can have — or has in the past — on Romania's ancient buildings. "A lot of EU money resulted in the rubbing out of Romaniak history, through extreme neglect and over-restoration. I accept, of course, that this was nothe EU intention, nor the Romanian government's, but sadly it was the effect and many historic buildings of great value and importance have been irreversibly damaged."
Indeed, there have been various cases where EU has paved the way to ruinous effect: multiple Romanian historic cases of traditional materials, such as old weathered roof tiles and natural sandstones, being replaced with industrially-made alternatives like bright red tiles and concrete. In 2015, the Daily Telegraph reported on a case in Maria Radna, west Romania, in which it described the "brutal revamp" of a Franciscan monastery and other monuments which, through the ELI's Regional Development programme, allegedly cost EU taxpayers more than 100 million euros. Ihe Telegraph described it as "a costly makeover that should have restored the church to full Baroque splendour, but instead it looks like a Disney castle built on a bomb site." Blacker noted that there have been some positive signs from the National and Regional Commissions for Historic Monuments in the Saxon parts ofTransylvania, but added: "One only has to hope that EU funds will be spent in a sensitive way in the future and that the historic fabric of the buildings and archaeological evidence will now be properly protected." However, while Vaida agrees that EU funds have in the past been a "disaster" that led to "the destruction of monuments", he also says he has "not seen many politicians fighting to preserve or protect monuments'.
Politics and funding aside, one of the biggest problems that heritage architecture faces, according to Vaida, is a lack of specialised construction companies and craftsman capable of undertaking such projects. They do exist, but they are few, The Romanian construction firm Temad has provided assistance on various Am-bulance for Monuments projects, by donating materials, tools and cash. However, more is needed to rescue the long list of at-risk monuments. In the Saxon village ofApold, in Mures County, Ambulance for Monuments and its many volunteers are working hard to save the roof of an old railway station — another victim of water damage. In the sunlit yard of the old station, two chained up dogs are barking and plumes of morning smoke bellow from the chimneys the Roma family, who now occupy the building, attempt to stay warm. Vaida and his volunteers are measuring and cutting new lats for the roof in preparation for the handcrafted tiles to be put in place. The silence of the village is interrupted by a passing horse and cart, steered by two young children at the helm.
The new tiles were handcrafted using the traditional technique at a kiln in Apos, Sibiu County, which Vaida opened in 2015 with the support of ARTTA and Britain's Prince Charles, who owns period properties in Transylvania and has a well-documented enthusiasm for the region and its heritage. "Handmade tiles are one of the few products that can compete with industrial product prices," says Vaida. "They age well and the quality is clearly superior to industrial tiles." The short delivery distance of the tiles plays a big part in keeping down the final costs of using them. The kiln has been fired up ten times since it opened and has produced 160,000 tiles in over three seasons, but Vaida hopes to increase its production and make the old-style tiles more widely available. In a letter to Monumentum for the organisation's second anniversary, Prince Charles said: "The roof tops in the old Saxon villages of Transylvania are an integral part of the landscape and a constant source of delight and inspiration to myself and countless others." The availability of traditional materials could be a decisive factor in preserving the region's identity, as could local legislation that promotes preservation and restoration. Blacker says that making grants available for owners of traditional properties would also be a positive step forward.
Michael Tate, a British teacher who lives in Romania, bought a Saxon home in the village of Saschiz five years ago and has been carefully restoring his property. "The problem is that people who do [genuine restorations] have either got used to doing work for extraordinarily rich clients or for foundations," he says. "They often charge top-drawer prices, which are well out of reach for the average village person, who just wants to maintain their authentic historic house." Tate also laments some local foundations and trusts who, he says, "restore some facades and put up a plaque and get some newspaper coverage," but who ultimately are "not tackling the real issue, which is convincing regular people to choose authentic methods over modern, destructive ones." The availability of traditional materials could be a decisive factor in preserving the region's identity. "The identity of historic villages are collapsing because the majority of homes are owned by regular village folks who have no real motive to do an authentic restoration — this is what is leading to the gradual decay of the traditional aesthetic of the villages," he adds. Bridging the gap between big restoration projects and restorations ofcommon homes is an important task that does not appear easy to resolve.
In the medieval Saxon village of Viscri, in Brasov County, the beautifully restored Lutheran church towers over its community as a large bus pulls up packed with curious visitors. Viscri is one of Transylvania's most popular tourist spots, with up to 4,000 visitors a day during high season. In recent years house prices have risen exponentially. It is now a desirable location for savvy Bucharest families who have relocated from the capital. Even the long potholed road leading to Viscri cannot avert visitors.
Behind the fortification wall back in Filetelnic the sun casts a long shadowover the old Saxon cemetery. Through neglect, many of the headstones have sunken into the earth over time, dwindled like the community that created some of the region's most distinctive architecture. Volunteers are precariously perched on the wall overlooking the tombstones, digging out old lime mortar in order to get an even surface on which to rebuild. The wall is just one of thousands of monuments that needs saving across the region, and as the night draws in, despite the upbeat mood, the overall size of the task ahead is daunting. All they can do is concentrate on one monument at a time.