Letter from Romania: A 12th-century village endures

Why We Wrote This

With the help of an NGO, a rural community in Transylvania has found that preserving its history brings profit – and pride. 

David Karas
The medieval fortified church in Viscri, Romania, is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Transylvanian village has seen a revival in recent years, in part thanks to tourism-boosting efforts.

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Caroline Fernolend traces her family’s roots in Viscri, Romania, back to 1142. The historic Saxon village in Transylvania veered toward collapse after the 1989 fall of communism. “We gained freedom,” she says. “But we lost the community.”

As director of Mihai Eminescu Trust, a British nongovernmental organization operating in Romania, Ms. Fernolend has helped lead Viscri’s revitalization by engaging the Saxons, Roma, and Romanians who remain. Over the past two decades, the trust has worked to preserve the region’s ethnic and cultural heritage with more than 1,240 projects, including conservation efforts, youth education, job training for locals, and the planting of more than 2.5 million trees. 

Marlies Markel recalls the village in the 1990s when her family relocated from Germany: no sewage system, abandoned houses, and few cars. “It seemed that the modern times didn’t want to touch the villages at the heart of Transylvania,” Ms. Markel says in an email interview.

She credits the trust for raising the living standards of the village, which now attracts some 50,000 visitors annually. In warmer months, tourists invade Viscri’s medieval fortified church, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Ms. Markel says, “Viscri transformed into a village where it’s worth living.”

On a chilly January afternoon, a dog trails Cristian Radu as he walks the unpaved roads of Viscri, Romania. The small Saxon village of whitewashed walls and red-tiled roofs sits below a medieval fortified church, a UNESCO World Heritage site that tourists invade in warmer weather. Mr. Radu remembers how, three decades ago, his remote Transylvanian community was on the verge of collapse.

“The village started to decay,” he says. “It was traumatic.”

The 1989 fall of communism in Romania cued an exodus of Transylvanian Saxons – ethnic Germans who settled in the region starting in the 12th century. Roma people began to take up residence in many of the abandoned homes. Mr. Radu and partners have been working to lure visitors back to Viscri by highlighting its Saxon history. 

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Only a handful of Saxons remain in Viscri. The village of an estimated few hundred residents – mostly Roma and Romanians – now thrives on tourism with some 50,000 annual visitors, according to Mr. Radu, the manager of Experience Transylvania.

The business operates a network of refurbished Saxon guest houses with wooden furnishings, where local families cook traditional Romanian cuisine for visitors. Local trades include blacksmithing and knitting, with techniques inherited from the village elders. Passing horses as he walks, Mr. Radu points out small, blue plaques on the front of many houses. It’s the logo of a British nongovernmental organization operating in Romania that he and other locals credit as a driver of Viscri’s revitalization. 

Named after a famous Romanian poet, the Mihai Eminescu Trust (MET) was established in London in 1987 to keep Romanian intellectuals in touch with the West amid oppression by the communist regime. The NGO began its advocacy efforts in Romania in 1989, calling out communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s plans to demolish thousands of historical villages.  

Today, Experience Transylvania manages several traditional guesthouses owned by the trust. Over the past two decades, the trust has worked to preserve the region’s ethnic and cultural heritage with more than 1,240 projects costing over €10 million.

Funded by various NGOs and government grants, including $500,000 from the U.S. Embassy, the projects involve façade improvements, large-scale conservation projects, youth education efforts, job training for locals, and the planting of more than 2.5 million trees throughout Transylvania. Francesc Pla, program manager at the Council of Europe’s Culture and Cultural Heritage Division, describes the trust as “potential inspiration for other rural regions of Europe.”

Courtesy of Mihai Eminescu Trust
Mihai Eminescu Trust director Caroline Fernolend speaks at the launch of Transilvania Live, a series of regional cultural events, in Sighișoara, Romania, in March 2019. Her family traces its ancestry in Viscri back to 1142.

MET director Caroline Fernolend, an ethnic German who grew up in Viscri, traces her family’s ancestry here back to 1142. After the fall of communism, she left her accounting career to pursue her dream as a teacher, and spent nine years encouraging Roma to send their children to school. The experience compelled her to do more for her village, where “we gained freedom, but we lost the community.” 

In 2000, her family was one of five to operate guest houses in Viscri. Today, her NGO has spread to 115 communities, working hand in hand with both Roma and Romanians on conservation, education, and training projects. “We can see that the quality of life improves, that the families can send their children to school, that their living conditions are better, and that they do not have to live abroad to work; they can stay with their families,” she says at the MET office in the city of Sighișoara.

Marlies Markel recalls Viscri in the 1990s when her family moved there from Germany: no sewage system, abandoned houses, and few cars. “It seemed that the modern times didn’t want to touch the villages at the heart of Transylvania,” Ms. Markel says in an email interview. She credits MET for raising the living standards. “Viscri transformed into a village where it’s worth living.” 

Mr. Radu points out various MET projects on his walk, including public toilets and a parking lot designed to lessen the impact of vehicular traffic. The trust also established the first ecological wastewater system in Romania.

“We started to develop a pride of living in the village,” he says. “You can preserve heritage, and it is profitable.”

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