Vancouver Sun

Picturesqu­e Romanian region has historical bite

The village of Viscri hearkens back to a simpler way of life


Let’s get one thing straight: When it comes to Transylvan­ia, it’s not all about vampires and the Prince of Darkness.

Sure, it’s home to spooky-looking, precipitou­s castles that are Gothic enough to curdle the blood of myriad Bram Stoker fans and rammed with nods to Vlad the Impaler, the 15th- century real- life Dracula inspiratio­n. ( And, of course, an abundance of fangs-for-the-memory touristy offerings: coffin- shaped jewelry boxes, anyone?)

But rather than exploring this clichéd, somewhat fantastica­l part of one of Romania’s six provinces, however, we’re about to experience a region of this former Communist country that has just as much historical bite.

Leaving the capital Bucharest four hours earlier on the smooth E60 highway ( roads are much improved since Romania joined the European Union in 2007), we’re now bumping along a 10- kilometre rutted track to Viscri, a 12th- century Transylvan­ian citadel boasting notable restoratio­n that’s close to the heart of the U. K.’ s Prince Charles.

Instead of seeing bears in the meadows dotted with sheep and swaths of wild mint and dandelions, our first encounter is with a group of overfriend­ly Roma children. Rushing out from their shacks, they gesture for cigarettes and food ( shouting names such as “Cadbury’s”), before waving us off.

A few minutes later, the first sight of Viscri could not have been more in contrast with the Romas’ lopsided homes. Horse and carts overflowin­g with hay may still outnumber the number of cars in this village, too, but flanking the wide, earthy lanes are smart vernacular houses in pretty, delicate hues: cornflower, sky blue, pale green topped with traditiona­lly curvy clay tiles.

A beacon of conservati­on, wooden shutters often decorate the windows along with intricate, personal touches on the buildings — painted love hearts and flower motifs married with little crosses, as well as the names of the original owners or builders and the dates the homes were built. You’ll also spy decorative houseplate­s evocative of Paris among the 400- odd buildings.

A haven for ethnic Germans ( known as Saxons) since they were invited to guard the Transylvan­ian passes in the 1100s against the invading Ottoman Empire, Viscri and its German namesake, Weissekhir­che ( meaning white church), is an impressive fortified UNESCO World Heritage site. Its medieval Lutheran church towers look over the village, commanding a glorious Amityville- esque position high on the hill.

In recent times, however, the village has been troubled not by descending hordes, but by people fleeing. Before the execution of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, there were nearly 300 Saxons in the village. Within months of the revolution, Saxons, who had been virtually forced to stay in Romania, were now free to leave and many headed for Germany, trimming the Viscri population to 68. Countrywid­e, the Saxons plummeted from 110,000 in 1989 to less than 17,000 in recent years.

The remaining inhabitant­s struggled to maintain everyday life, let alone preserve the rich Saxon culture and history. Out went the butcher, the mechanic, the teachers — as well as the Communist- sponsored co- operative farming on which they depended.

Fast forward some 25 years, and Romanians have added to the Saxon numbers at Viscri. Through their enthusiasm and efforts, the villagers have also attracted the help of many organizati­ons, most notably the Mihai Eminescu Trust ( MET) — named after Romania’s national poet — Pro Patrimonio ( the National Trust of Romania) and the British- based Landmark Trust. ( There’s now a Saxon museum in one of the church towers and inside the church itself, Saxon motifs feature alongside local painter J Paukratz’s altar centrepiec­e, “The blessing of the children,” among other images dating some 400 years.)

While many of the villagers don’t speak English, don’t be surprised if they perhaps encourage you to help pick up hay with the farmers — or even join a traditiona­l dance. It’s all part of a revived way of life here, explains one Saxon behind much of the conservati­on. “Before the revolution, I really wished to go to Germany,” says Caroline Fernolend, a MET director and Viscri resident. “I wanted to be free and live in a democracy. But when it happened I found it impossible to leave. This has been my culture for 900 years; I needed to keep it.”

Fortunatel­y for Viscri and for us, the economist helped restore such buildings as the kindergart­en, the priest’s home and the fire engine house, along with other homes brought back to life by Prince Charles, too. ( He was reportedly attracted to the area after reading a 1996 MET booklet, The Plight of the Saxons in Transylvan­ia.)

It turns out we’re the only family visiting this summer weekend, lapping up vistas uninterrup­ted for 360 degrees ( the very thing that attracted the late film mogul Anthony Minghella to shoot the blockbuste­r Cold Mountain in nearby Rasnov). With such a simple way of life, staying in Viscri is never going to be fivestar. Guest house rooms are sparse, with no television­s or phones. What you’ll be mesmerized by, however, is the ancient, restored Saxon furniture, which more than makes up for lack of a mini- bar. Its cursory nod to the 21st century is an inside bathroom.

Villagers entice us with locally made traditiona­l dishes — creamy bean soup, sourdough bread and walnut cake — often washed down with a schnapps or two. While they encourage tourists, they are, however, discerning about who visits. “We don’t want to become a zoo,” Fernolend remarks. “We want people who are interested in our culture to stay a few days and enjoy the peace and respect the way of life — not the others who turn up on tour buses, take a few pictures and go off again.”

This “soft tourism,” however, doesn’t always include city- dwelling Romanians. According to Fernolend, this is because “most of them come from places like this in the first place.” She adds, “Since the revolution they like to have modern things and for so many years we were not allowed to travel to other countries and now we can. Maybe it will be the next generation who likes to visit places such as Viscri.”

It’s easy to spot the village’s industriou­s spirit. Although bizarre at first, wherever we head, a mix of old and young women come out of their houses armed with knitting needles. Even as we picnic in a deserted field secluded by beech trees, a smiling group pitches up in silence and feverishly carries on knitting.

It turns out to be a “sock venture” called Viscri incepe ( Viscri starts) to bring money to the community. Establishe­d more than a decade ago, it sells about 11,000 creations yearly, both locally — hence the villagers’ unsubtle marketing — and across Europe ( mainly Germany, the U. K., Austria, Italy and Switzerlan­d).

Viscri is an extraordin­ary village that undoubtedl­y embodies the national spirit of survival — a spirit beautifull­y epitomized as we head back on the E60. Overtaking a painstakin­gly slow, smoke- puffing Dacia ( Romania’s national car), a farmer is driving from the countrysid­e to the capital’s produce markets — his face barely visible among thousands of fresh walnuts he’s clearly banking on selling.

It’s all part of a stake in Romania’s lifestyle that’s worth experienci­ng.

 ?? PHOTOS: LUCY HYSLOP ?? Weissekhir­che ( white church) is an impressive fortified UNESCO World Heritage site in Viscri, high on a hill. Its medieval Lutheran church towers look over the village.
PHOTOS: LUCY HYSLOP Weissekhir­che ( white church) is an impressive fortified UNESCO World Heritage site in Viscri, high on a hill. Its medieval Lutheran church towers look over the village.
 ??  ?? Dandelions and wild mint dot a meadow near Viscri, Transylvan­ia.
Dandelions and wild mint dot a meadow near Viscri, Transylvan­ia.

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