A hint of the Teu­tonic Knights in Tran­syl­va­nia...

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - FRONT PAGE -

Fred­die Hop­kin­son,

This week’s win­ner, dis­cov­ers ghosts of the Saxon set­tlers in ru­ral Ro­ma­nia

There are dogs and bears in the woods,” our taxi driver warns, throw­ing a con­cerned look down past the worn-out seats of his age­ing Da­cia as we un­load our back­packs from the boot. My older brother, Leo, and I are a 45-minute drive into the Ro­ma­nian coun­try­side from the me­dieval fortress town of Sighisoara – and clouds are gath­er­ing. Hav­ing reached the road’s end, there is no choice but to be­gin our as­cent to the vil­lage of Malan­crav on foot. Leo car­ries stones in his pock­ets in case of dogs and bears.

As we ar­rive, the rain has set in. It’s 5pm on a Sun­day and ev­ery­thing is shut up. Ar­ranged ei­ther side of a stream, the fa­cades of 18th-cen­tury farm­houses gaze down at us – two tourists floun­der­ing in the drenched street, look­ing for some­one who can point out a place to stay the night. When we find some­one, our ques­tions, care­fully pre­pared in Ro­ma­nian, are an­swered in Ger­man.

There have been Saxon set­tlers in Tran­syl­va­nia since the days of the Teu­tonic Knights. Much de­pleted by the hor­rors of the 20th cen­tury, the re­gion was once home to sig­nif­i­cant pop­u­la­tions of Ger­mans, Jews, Hun­gar­i­ans

and Roma, as well as its present-day ma­jor­ity Ro­ma­nian pop­u­la­tion.

Famed for their for­ti­fied churches, these set­tle­ments first ap­peared in the 12th cen­tury. Linked to a string of fortress towns that in­cluded Castrum Sex (Sighisoara) and Her­mannstadt (Sibiu), these iso­lated Ger­man-speak­ing com­mu­ni­ties are what re­mains of a once much wider net­work of Saxon cul­ture in me­dieval Europe.

Malan­crav’s walled church pre-dates the vil­lage be­low. As we ap­proach, the old woman who has been

Leo car­ries stones in his pock­ets in case of dogs and bears

guard­ing it all af­ter­noon strides over from the ram­parts. Her face slowly un­creases – we are not vandals, but sight­seers out un­der the bright beams of sun­light that be­gin to break through the clouds. An­i­mated in a hand­shake, her thin limbs ges­ture at the crum­bling walls around her.

The orig­i­nal struc­ture was for­ti­fied in the 15th cen­tury to pro­tect against raiders – mer­ce­nar­ies hired by the Ot­toman Em­pire who lived in peace­time by plun­der­ing Chris­tian vil­lages. Quiet and un­heated, it is filled with painted peas­ant faces look­ing out at you from Bible scenes on the walls.

Our host tells us about her peo­ple. Where have all the Saxon names in the grave­yard gone? What fu­ture re­mains for this, the last Ger­man-speak­ing con­gre­ga­tion in the area? Her first in­stinct is that we are Ger­mans – de­scen­dants of the Sax­ons who left af­ter the col­lapse of Ro­ma­nian com­mu­nism in 1989. Un­able to un­der­stand her fully, our shrugs dis­ap­point and she stares again out into the damp court­yard.

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