Something to get your teeth into!

“Forget Bram Stoker, forget Hollywood vampires and dark deeds of the night. Transylvania is one of the loveliest, light-filled, flower-bedecked places on earth. What is truly extraordinary about this corner of Romania, cradled in the horseshoe curve of the Carpathians, is that the steppe-meadow landscape, the layout of the Saxon houses and villages, and the smallholder lifestyle of its people, have remained virtually unchanged for centuries. It is, essentially, an outpost of medieval Europe.”

— Says writer Philippa Davenport

From the 12th century until the fall of Ceausescu, south-eastern Transylvania was home to Saxons from north-west Germany. Brave, resourceful and industrious pioneers, they came (following the call of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, according to legend) to defend the eastern marches of the kingdom of Hungary from invaders from the steppes. They built fortified towns and villages with monumental churches, established prosperous peasant families, and stayed to guard against attacks from marauding Tartars and Turks that continued for centuries. But after the Romanian revolution, encouraged by German offers of free passage and “repatriation”, the Saxons left in droves, decimating the local population. Now the EU beckons – and threatens – the fragile rural economy that remains.

Of course Transylvania cannot be preserved in aspic, like some sort of medieval theme park. But sensitive and sustainable management is urgently needed to respect and protect the uniquely rich biodiversity of the area, and to find viable ways to retain and revive local farming culture, foods, customs and crafts. Traditional extensive farming is in danger of becoming intensive. Thoughtless and greedy commercial enterprise, whether local or Brussels-inspired, could undo in just a few years what centuries have created and nurtured.

At the prompting of ADEPT, a charitable foundation concerned to promote greater awareness and to do something about the situation, I went to see the Saxon villages of Transylvania for myself. I felt I had stepped into another world. Wild flowers, grasses and herbs grow in profusion as glorious as those in the medieval tapestry of ‘The Lady and The Unicorn’. The countryside flows in an open sweep as far as the eye can see, uninterrupted by hedges, fences or gates. The tough, laborious smallholder existence of the people is deeply impressive. Self-sufficiency and barter are the norm. Grow it or make it is the rule. The milk of a villager’s cow may be his only cash crop. There are no supermarkets for miles, of course.

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