Get your teeth into Transylvania

"Would you consider putting that mad lamp with the naked man in the corner?" David Mlinaric, the doyen of interior decorators, has come to Transylvania. Jessica Douglas-Home, champion of Romanian culture, shuffles a 19th-century ambassador's uniform to the appointed position.


Bran Castle, Romania, built 1378 We are in the village of Malancrav, for the grand opening its manor house after restoration by the Mihai Eminescu Trust. To many, the first word that comes into mind when you say "Transylvania" is Dracula, but not here. One of Jessica's triumphs is to have defeated proposals for a Dracula theme park. Her passion is for another Romania: the peasant land of vast mountain landscapes and self-sufficient villages. Prince Charles loves it; he has come twice.

It was Ceausescu's megalomaniac scheme to destroy Romania's villages that stirred Jessica's interest in the countryside. His execution in 1989 generated another threat to the Saxon enclave in the hills that roll up to the Carpathian mountains. The German-speaking population -- about 70% of the whole -- locked their churches and left. The Saxons had been invited to shore up what was a border of Hungary in the 12th century.

There are over 200 of these villages, and almost as many Saxon dialects, which they kept after Transylvania (long part of Hungary) became assimilated into the new country of Romania in the 20th century. After the second world war, Stalin sent ethnic Germans to the gulags. When the Iron Curtain fell, most of the remaining population emigrated to the fatherland.

Legend has it that the Transylvania Saxons are descended from the children the Pied Piper danced out of Hamelin. Now a new music of washing machines and factory jobs lured them back. Some villages lost all their Saxons, leaving nobody to ring the church bells or wind the clock. But the fabric of the Saxon culture survives.

I took the sleeper from Vienna to Sighisoara. Through the train window unfolds a landscape of wooded hills, vegetable gardens and meadows. Geese and turkeys roam over the banks of the village stream. The blues and ochres of the house fronts are mixed up from the bath of slaked lime kept in every cellar. The trust believes in discriminating tourism. Visitors will create a new village economy, providing a market for home-brewed schnapps, hand-woven rugs and lace.

Caroline Fernolend is councillor for the upland village of Viscri. Under communism, she worked at the state farm. When most of the other Saxons in Viscri left, she and her husband, Walter, stayed. The trust's Romanian director, she has made it her responsibility to save Viscri's Saxon culture from the 21st century. The trust helps villagers restore their houses and rents them out to visitors. Everything in Viscri is made at home: sheep's-milk cheese, tomato and aubergine relish, blackberry jam, bread.

Hives provide honey. Lambs are slaughtered in the courtyard, as they always have been. Look on a road map and you may not find Viscri. It may have been left off by the map-makers. "They're jealous," sighs Jessica. "The Romanians don't want the world to know about these Saxon places."

That hints at the region's complexity, with its four communities: Saxon, Romanian, gypsy and Hungarian. Unlike the Saxons and the Jews, Romania's Hungarians did not leave: they had no homeland to welcome them. We meet two of them in Saromberke, wizened, toothless people who turn out to be no more than 60. The authorities are making them change their Hungarian names to Romanian ones.

When we stop to buy beans from a roadside stall, the 88-year-old shoeless woman at first smiles, then bursts into tears. Her pension is a few pence a month.

Back in Malancrav, a little of the Austro-Hungarian empire, circa 1880, has returned. Looking out from the Hungarian terrace, you see the Saxon village below. Beyond are the mountains. Slide too abruptly down a slope and you may find yourself next to bears gorging on wild cherries. There is harmony with nature here, and between people. For the moment. Go quickly to see this magic world, while it lasts.

***


The Mihai Eminescu Trust (www.mihaieminescutrust.org) has guesthouses in several Transylvanian villages. Clive Aslet flew to Vienna with British Airways (prices from £120 return; www.ba.com) and took the sleeper; prices from £330 first-class (www.raileurope.com)



Source: written by Clive Aslet

 

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From the Library

As the 20th century evolved, rational man turned to science to explain mythology that had pervaded for thousands of years. How could a man be mistaken for a vampire? How could someone appear to have been the victim of a vampire attack? Science, in time, came back with answers that may surprise you.Anemia
A million fancies strike you when you hear the name: Nosferatu!N O S F E R A T Udoes not die!What do you expect of the first showing of this great work?Aren't you afraid? - Men must die. But legend has it that a vampire, Nosferatu, 'der Untote' (the Undead), lives on men's blood! You want to see a symphony of horror? You may expect more. Be careful. Nosferatu is not just fun, not something to be taken lightly. Once more: beware.- Publicity for Nosferatu in the German magazine Buhne und Film, 1922  

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