Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Perishing or Jovially Surviving in Transylvania

Sorin-Alexandru Cristescu of the Romanian writes about a melancholic journey through the crumbling castles of Transylvania, central Romania. Cristescu’s two gloomy days north of Braşov are cheered up by the jovial Saxon community residing there. And, notably, this is a Dracula-free trip.

This part of Romania housed a large ethnic German community, known as the Transylvanian Saxons, since the twelth century. Though their population dwindled significantly since the fall of the communist regime and many of them immigrated to Germany in the 1990s, the community has left an important mark on the region.

The Saxons

A Civilization Refusing to Vanish

Text by Sorin-Alexandru Cristescu | Photographs by Razvan Banica

The weather is moody that end of April, but this doesn’t change our minds about heading to the lost castles of Transylvania.

The road, used so many times and yet new each time, takes us to Braşov and further, deep in the heart of the Transylvanian plateau. We stop at Hoghiz, a small village with two castles. The streets are deserted, the main road meanders past green hills and the few villagers we meet guide us to the castles.

The first one is in a strange, deplorable industrial area. Now in ruins, the castle is a faint reminder of the Transylvanian Renaissance. A few poor families live in the building’s wings and say they heard that the castle would be either restored or demolished soon.

Inside the castle we see dust, concrete walls that are about to crumble, a child playing with a pig and a ceiling covered with reed.

A tour around reveals the beginnings of some restoration - a small chapel stands attached to a castle wing.

The second castle at Hoghiz seems to fare better. It was restored and transformed into a school. The outer yard is picturesque, full of crops that climb towards the castle.

The blue sky gets covered with clouds and a heavy rain starts, with lightning at the horizon. We hurry away from the village and head to Bunesti, called Bodendorf by the ethnic German population, from where an unpaved road heads to Viscri, known as Weisskirch in German.

The dusty road goes up and down past the smooth hills of the Transylvanian plateau and it seems to lead us back in time, to a land of legends. And suddenly, perched on a hilltop, appears the invincible peasant citadel at Viscri – an emblematic village for the Transylvanian Saxons.

The place couldn't be more picturesque. Beautiful Saxon houses, vividly painted and well maintained, line up the main street, which climbs to the citadel. The atmosphere is fairy-tale-like: trees with pink and white flowers flank the unpaved road, a stream plays with the sunbeams rapidly flowing along the road and the villagers, regarding us with curiosity, chat on the wooden benches in front of their houses.

We take the path that climbs to the citadel and find ourselves in the old Saxon cemetery, through which we pass and climb a defence wall in order to enter the precincts.

The citadel is massive, with strong, slender towers, thick walls of river stone and the church is one of the oldest in the country. Mrs. Sara Dootz, the elderly Saxon lady who is a guide and a custodian here, is very talkative.

In her colourful accent, she introduces us to the history of this place. With an immense joy in her voice, she tells us about her daughter, Caroline, who had gone to Germany and married a man from Munich, but she was so homesick that she came back to the village.

Truly, the village has something that inspires happiness, inner peace and fulfilment. From the church spire we see the beautiful panorama of the village and the hillocks and we realize that, unlike the majority of the Transylvanian plateau villages, Viscri is surrounded by thickly forested hills which contribute to the picturesque atmosphere of this settlement.

Down in the village we hang about the narrow streets and some villagers invite us to buy their knitted socks, a seemingly thriving business in the area. The evening falls and we find accommodation in a house on the main road.

The next day, we leave Viscri and its beautiful citadel behind and get on the paved road to Sighişoara via Bunesti. We follow yet another unpaved, secondary road and reach Cloasterf, where we stop to visit the old fortified church. The sixteenth century church is a spireless hall, somehow unusual for the area. The powerful defence wall has a tall, slender tower, which from the distance could be taken for the church spire.

We continue the trip to Crit, where another unpaved road leads us to Mesendorf, known as Meschendorf in German. The village’s Saxon origins are so well-established that its name remained practically unchanged. Here too, we are struck by a scenic village: the mud and stone road, the big, vividly painted houses lined up to the main street, the trees with their pink and white flowers, the playful children of a Dutchman who has been living here for over ten years.

We are guided to the old Saxon man who can open the gates of the citadel. We arrive to a house where a venerable gentleman greets us, mightily shaking our hands and introducing himself: "Werner, German, but Romanian citizen". He seems to emphasise the last words and I have the feeling his eyes sparkle with pride when he says that. We find out he's 97 years old, but he doesn't want to show his age, he is full of life.

He tells us about the Saxon exodus and how he stayed here, where he belongs, even though he could have left many times. He takes us through the history of the place, shows us the double-function citadel walls that were used as defence and as shelter for supplies. Many citadel towers across Transylvania are now called Speckturm (Ham Tower), because the villagers used them to store ham.

Mr. Werner enters the church with dignity, takes off his cap and you have the feeling that he's been here forever, that he was one of the builders of the citadel. He knows everything about its architecture and he explains how he managed to use only traditional materials for the restoration. We climb the spire; the panorama is wonderful all around. It gives the feeling of getting back in time, of isolation in a unique enclave. There isn't even mobile phone network coverage here.

When we get down we find Mr. Werner cleaning up the yard, he seems unable to stand still even for a bit. He tells us about the strange box found in the spire during the restoration following an earthquake. In the church he shows us a curios object: an old clepsidra which measures an hour using four recipients with sand; an epitome of German order and organisation. The colourful Saxon furniture in the church has been recently restored.

It's hard to leave this place and Mr. Werner, who is proudly walking back, using his cane, tells us that he has stayed here all his life and has never left his birthplace. And as he says that, it seems a tear shines in a corner of an eye.

We head to the last place of our itinerary, the village of Racos. To get there, we get off the main street and take yet another unpaved road. It was once paved, but this very fact makes it almost unusable now. Ten kilometres and more than half an hour later we finally arrive at Racos and head directly to the castle. From the outside, the castle looks surprisingly good, with its small round corner towers made out of river stone and a slender tower in the middle of the defence wall, which was recently restored. An old Hungarian lady opens the gate to the inner court, but here the view is awful: overgrown weeds, the iron skeleton of an old van, and the crumbled castle walls.

In Braşov we enjoy the relaxed atmosphere in the old centre, where all the inhabitants seem to be hanging around.

During our trip to the forgotten monuments, we discovered in fact another kind of monuments: the proud people of this Saxon community which have stubbornly refused to vanish.

It isn't a daily routine to meet old Saxons who feel more Romanian than many Romanians; those Saxons stayed here, even though in the West they could have had the comfort for which many people leave Romania.

There is a lesson to learn here. Surviving the war and the abject communist regime that confiscated their properties and exiled them to Siberia, they knew how to come back where their ancestors lived: in the heart of Transylvania, their home, their land of happiness.

This article is courtesy of the Romanian website and is published by with some abbreviations.




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