Transylvania gives visitors a rare view of ancient rural life where Hungarians, Romanians and Germans have lived peaceably side by side. Two hours outside the smoggy Romanian capital of Bucharest, the highway narrowed into a rough two-lane road and I was forced to slow and give way to men riding ancient bicycles stacked with firewood. Towns gave way to villages and,
to my delight and wonder, the cars that shared the road became horse-drawn wooden carts, piled high with clover.

GUTEN TAG!

Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by a herd of Jersey cows, ambling down the road with herdsman in tow. As they passed each house, a single cow would veer off, heading home.

The animals finally cleared the car to reveal a carefully constructed mediaeval period piece—except it was real. Carts rolled down the village of Mălâncrav’s muddied road as children with bare arms skittered by. It was a warm late October evening and the air was thick with the scent of freshly cut hay. I spied two women greeting one another in the road.

Guten Tag,” they said.

Count Dracula

Transylvania has its share of castles and haunted manors, for this 92,043-square-mile region in the centre of Romania is best known as the land of Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and a real-life 15th-century prince who ruthlessly did battle with the Ottoman Empire.

Yet as I peered out the car window, it was clear there was more to Transylvania than Dracula. In these villages, something rare persists that has been nearly obliterated elsewhere in Europe: a glimpse of ancient rural life, unchanged by the passage of time.

Transylvania sits squarely in the path of east-west trade routes and has long played host to German and Hungarian tradesmen, many of whom stayed. For centuries, the region was a part of the mighty Habsburg Empire and served as its eastern front against the Turks. This mountainous land officially joined Romania in 1920 with the Treaty of Trianon, but countrymen celebrate the union of Transylvania as having taken place on December 1, 1918, Romania’s National Day. 

I’d been told that in villages mere miles apart I’d find locals who spoke archaic dialects of German, Hungarian and Luxembourgish. Mălâncrav was just such a village. Hearing German spoken was surprising at first, but the Saxons—as Germanic tribes were known—have actually inhabited Transylvania since the 12th century, when Hungarian King Géza coaxed them to come and defend the region’s eastern border. The offer of rich land proved enticing and the industrious Saxons built up some 250 villages in the region.

Mediaeval Past and Present

This village’s wide mediaeval road was lined with nearly identical dwellings, each with a brightly painted house with a timber-frame barn and farm plot at the back, and a central courtyard enclosing a hen coop and other animals. Each property was concealed behind a large wooden gate. I knocked on one and a serious-faced woman with cropped jet-black hair answered and waved me in.

“It’s the same life as it was before,” explained Katarina Krusch, a 55-year-old Saxon, gesturing at the chickens scurrying about. “Everyone has their own garden and animals. Nothing has changed—except that lots of Germans left for Germany.”

Though she mentioned it casually, the exodus of Saxons that occurred in the 1990s nearly decimated these communities. After enduring 24 years of brutal poverty under the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu, nearly all of the region’s Saxons fled to Germany the moment his reign ended. Today, only 140 of Mălâncrav’s 900 inhabitants are German—the rest are either Romanian or Roma.

 

Being a Tourist in Transylvania

Though the village receives occasional tourists—I stayed in a restored Saxon farmhouse cared for by a Romanian woman named Mihaela Neagu—I got the sense I was a novelty. Mihaela happily showed me her family’s buffalo, then led me into the cellar of her parents’ house, packed to the gills with potatoes, preserves and barrels of home-made wine.

The next morning I headed north. I was only 30 minutes out of Mălâncrav when the battered wooden road signs suddenly changed from Romanian and German to Romanian and Hungarian. This was Székely land.

Like the Saxons, the Székler Hungarians have long enjoyed considerable autonomy—for several hundred years as part of the Kingdom of Hungary and then under Habsburg rule. The region briefly became autonomous in the 1950s, only to lose this freedom under Ceauşescu.

 

An Autonomous Country

It was dark by the time I arrived in Corund, renowned in the area for its intricately painted pottery. I pulled up to the Arcso Pension, and found its large restaurant was so packed with boisterous Hungarian locals laughing over mugs of beer that I had to sip my own in the hallway.

“It was a big happening today,” explained Pal Zoltan. A Székler geography professor and director of local Corund guiding company Slow Tours Transylvania, Pal pointed out that earlier in the day, 120,000 Székler citizens had formed a human chain along 35 miles of highway to demonstrate their desire for autonomy within the country. 

“Sending our taxes to Bucharest is a black hole,” said Pal with conviction. Then he softened, “The cultural part of things is actually OK.” School is taught in Hungarian, the primary language of the region. Many locals don’t even understand Romanian.

Pal Zoltan echoed what I’d heard everywhere I’d been: neighbour-to-neighbour, Transylvanians of different ancestry get along and diversity is ubiquitous.

donkey in Transylvania

 

Searching for Tradition

The next morning I set off early to explore one of the more untouched settlements in the region. Suddenly the trees parted to reveal acres of immaculately tended farmland dotted with wooden barns and tidy houses, smoke spiraling from petite chimneys.

Rosalia Szasz, a smiling 53-year-old Székler farmer, greeted me outside her home. The land here sits atop a remote volcanic plain that Ceauşescu’s collectivisation never reached.

Rosalia led me inside her modest abode, where a spectacular breakfast spread was waiting, which included fresh and smoked cheese, salted pork fat, veal schnitzel and blueberry-plum brandy. Everything, she informed me, was home-made—either grown in the garden or the product of the animals wandering outside.

“Every day I prepare the daily portion of milk to make cheese,” explained Rosalia. “Some we’ll eat or barter with neighbours, and the rest will be sold.”

 

The New Generation

In the nearby town of Viscri, where I would spend the following day and night, visitors are far more common, thanks to one high-profile visitor—Prince Charles. Since 2002 he’sbeen retreating here regularly and lending his support to local restoration projects. Unlike in Mălâncrav, the post-Ceauşescu exodus from Viscri to Germany was almost complete: only 15 Saxons remain.

“It’s a new community here in Viscri,” said Caroline Fernolend as she led me into her kitchen. Instead of jumping ship when the borders opened, the 54-year-old stayed and became the director of the Mihai Eminescu Trust, working to preserve Saxon heritage in rural Transylvania.

She pulled some home-grown mint off a dried bunch and made me a cup of tea. As in most Saxon homes, the kitchen’s centrepiece was a white tile stove some six feet high, decorated by intricate glaze-work. 

“When the Saxons left for Germany, the Roma moved in,” explained Caroline. They were offered abandoned Saxon houses if they agreed to restore them and to pay taxes. The Trust, she explained, trains locals in skills like plastering, masonry and carpentry.

 

A Royal Bed

One of the Trust’s initiatives has been the conversion of traditional Saxon homes into guest houses, and I was informed upon arrival that I would be sleeping in the same bed in which Prince Charles had slumbered. The bed was a Saxon antique, a high wooden single with a second mattress that pulled out below like a giant drawer. I climbed in. 

I awoke well rested the following morning and ambled up a wide cobbled road. Suddenly, I spotted Viscri’s spectacular 800-year-old fortified church. Towering and enclosed on all sides by massive walls, the church served as a place of both worship and as a refuge where the entire populace could retreat when under attack.

I climbed the tower and surveyed the village, pondering all I had experienced. Entire civilisations have passed through these lands and then departed, replaced by others. That which remains today is a true rarity: a vision of ancient rural life not long for this world.

I descended the tower and hopped in my car. The potholed road out of town was blocked with “traffic”—a dawdling horse-drawn cart. Suddenly, I experienced something I hadn’t in days: a sense of urgency. I sped past the obstruction and the pastoral scene receded in the rear-view mirror. I was bound for Bucharest, and it was getting late. 

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