Documents dating back to the 1640s make reference to a fortified castle in the quaint village of Bonțida, Romania – just a short drive from one of the nation’s largest cities, Cluj-Napoca.
Over time, Bánffy Castle was expanded, deconstructed, and otherwise altered amid periods of siege and peace in this region, the storied Transylvania.
Today, while much of the original complex remains standing, significant portions are in serious disrepair – with collapsed walls and missing architectural and artistic elements, as well as a host of concerns related to the structural integrity of some of the buildings.
The team at the Transylvania Trust, a nongovernmental organization founded in 1996, adopted Bánffy Castle in 2001. It’s been working diligently ever since to help secure the funding and support to restore the historical icon – which figures in both Romanian and Hungarian culture – to its former splendor.
At the heart of these efforts is project director Tímea Berki, who holds a doctorate. Her studies included subjects well suited for this endeavor – the Romanian and Hungarian languages, their literature, and connections between these two cultures.
“I visited Bonțida in 2005 when [the castle] was in very bad shape, and I was fascinated by the place,” Dr. Berki says. “It is a place with history [and] with a very important background.”
Berki joined the NGO not long after that visit to Bánffy Castle, and she’s since focused her energies on the site.
Following the 1989 revolution in Romania that overthrew Communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu, explains Berki, a number of specialists – architects, art historians, and engineers, among others – decided to launch the Transylvania Trust. Their hope: to preserve, conserve, and enhance the value of the Eastern European country’s heritage. They got under way in the context of a society with few resources afforded to such efforts and scarce legal protections for historical sites, Berki says.
Bánffy Castle was an ideal starting point for the team, as the complex has long been considered among the most endangered structures in the region.
“They thought that if they could save this building, they could be an example with practice,” Berki says.
A three-pronged approach
The trust took a three-pronged approach to the castle: restoring the physical structures, offering courses to help preserve the crafts associated with this work, and engaging the broader community in cultural events to increase appreciation for the castle’s historical value. Berki is now largely responsible for securing restoration funding, organizing the courses, and offering cultural and heritage days.
The first aspect of the trust’s work – restoration – often underlines the financial limitations of historical preservation in Romania. “If we had the money, we could finish all this work very quickly,” Berki says. “In Romania, the Ministry of Culture has no budget, or very small [funding allocations], for this type of restoration.”
Berki also attributes some of this challenge to the communist era, during which many historical sites fell into disrepair with no occupation and no care.
Zsuzsanna Eke, an art historian and one of the trust’s seven staff members, also comments on the neglect of such sites in Romania.
“There are many other castles and old buildings, and sometimes they are looted,” Ms. Eke says. “It takes a lot of money to restore them.” Some buildings, she says, were abandoned altogether, while others were used as schools, sanitariums, or other institutional buildings.
The state of many parts of the Bánffy Castle complex today – the collapsed walls and missing design elements, as well as emergency support beams to prevent other collapses – can be traced to this period of neglect.
Some signs of progress are already visible on the grounds – notably, the restoration of one building that now houses a small cafe, and another that can accommodate guests and the training courses.
Beyond the restoration of the castle, the trust aims to help perpetuate the trades related to historical preservation.
“The number of active craftsmen is decreasing,” says Berki, noting that the challenge is not just in Romania, but across Eastern Europe. “We have a lot of architects who haven’t seen a historic building in their life, and they are working on [such a building] without this experience in restoration.”
So each year, the trust facilitates training courses for some 30 or more people. Last summer, participants hailed from 26 countries and stayed at the castle for as long as two weeks while learning about the principles of restoration and preservation. They also tried their hand at projects on the grounds using traditional methods, materials, and tools.
Györgyi Németh, an interior designer in Hungary, participated in one of the courses last summer. A lover of castles, Ms. Németh wanted to learn about how such historical gems can be restored.
“The work of the organization has impressed me,” she says in an email interview. “[I]f you spend [time] there, then you can see how much work [it took] to rebuild the missing parts of the castle. The builder team is very well qualified, [and] they can resolve every problem, even if it looks impossible.”
Németh also praises Berki’s dedication.
“Tímea is very kind and helpful, [and] she’s an excellent art historian,” she says. “As I experienced, she takes part in every work, from the [beginning] to the implementation. She is not only [doing] her job; she really cares about everybody and everything.”
Németh’s week spent at Bánffy Castle encouraged her to focus more on renovating historical buildings, and she plans to enroll in additional professional training this year.
The trust’s efforts in Bonțida are supported by an annual budget that typically ranges from €100,000 to €200,000 ($107,000 to $215,000), Berki says, and relies heavily on support from foundations and the European Union. In fact, the trust is one of the leading organizations in Romania receiving EU support, she says.
When it comes to Berki’s responsibilities of organizing cultural events and community engagement initiatives, she is especially passionate about teaching youths about the castle and its history.
“This is very important, because the young people are the next generation and maybe they can change something in the mentality,” she says. “We are doing our best to attract the young families.”
There’s the potential for broader cultural connections, too, given that the castle holds significance for both Romanians and Hungarians. “We live in parallel,” Berki says, “and I think this castle could be a contact point between the cultures.”
Németh applauds the Transylvania Trust team’s efforts to bring visitors to the castle. She cites the Electric Castle music festival hosted at Bánffy and some other cultural events as examples of the team’s creative thinking.
Both concern and hope
Sitting at a small table in the new cafe, Berki reflects candidly on the state of preservation in her home country.
“Here in Romania, the historic buildings are in very bad shape, and I don’t know if I will live when they will be restored,” she says. “Maybe our children will see if they are restored or kept.”
She also mentions the recent theft of some historical decorative elements from another castle not far from the complex: “It is very sad,” she says.
But Berki is still hopeful that the efforts of organizations like the Transylvania Trust can begin to turn things around, and to change the mind-set in Romanian society related to investing in preservation.
“I hope that the locals who are living next to these buildings will want to do something for the buildings,” she says, “[and] not just live there next to them.”
She also shares her hope that Romanians will consider being tourists in their own country. “Maybe before they traveled abroad and they discovered [a new] place,” she says. “I think now they are discovering their country.”
How to take action
UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups that support culture or the preservation of resources:
Seraj Library Project develops and maintains libraries in rural Palestinian villages. Take action: Donate money for the work of a library coordinator.
World Food Program USA builds support and resources for the United Nations World Food Program, the globe’s largest hunger relief organization. Take action: Help fund this group’s art project for at-risk urban youths in El Salvador.